Monday, May 13, 2024

At the Country Church


4. At the Country Church

Henk Nienstra, a hard-working farmer, had frequently extended an invitation to us for a visit. With the assistance of his four children, two sons and two daughters, he had managed to accumulate enough savings to purchase a little farm. He was told by knowledgeable people that the land was good. In addition, Henk had secured a milk contract with a local dairy.

After much deliberation with Katrien, a woman who prefers to be at home, we decided to accept the Nienstra’s invitation and visit them on a Saturday afternoon. Our eldest boys squabbled over the privilege of driving us there, their interest piqued not so much by the prospect of the journey itself, but by the allure of Henk Nienstra’s daughters, who were blessed with considerable beauty. Unable to reach an agreement, we ended up departing with two chauffeurs.

Our visit to the Nienstra’s was thoroughly enjoyable, and even Katrien expressed no regrets about our decision to go. We had planned to stay until Sunday afternoon. Although their house is not particularly large, everyone found a place to sleep for the night.

On Sunday morning, we witnessed a flurry of activity at the Nienstra’s household. In addition to the usual Sunday rush of donning one’s best attire and ironing clean shirts, the women were busily preparing sandwiches and filling large thermoses with coffee and chocolate milk. All these provisions were packed into a massive cardboard box, giving the impression that the family was preparing for a two-day picnic. However, these preparations were necessary for the midday meal, as the members of this small Canadian rural congregation do not return home between the two church services, but share a communal meal. After all, the afternoon service begins at 1:30 and the distances are considerable.

Around ten o’clock, we set off for church in two cars, covering a distance of fifteen kilometres, ten of which were on a rough and dusty gravel road, with the remainder on a broad asphalt highway. We arrived at the meeting place punctually. It wasn’t a cathedral, but an old United Church, rented on Sundays for a minimal amount.

Members of the congregation began to arrive from all directions. Some arrived by bicycle, others in cars and trucks of varying models and conditions. With a thunderous rumble, an old tractor pulled up, towing a trailer that carried a pleasantly plump mother, her husband, and their six children. They all clung tightly to the vehicle. Once these worshippers had disembarked, it was time to enter the church. 

The meeting room was unimpressive: large, hollow, and dark. The lights had to be switched on, despite the sunny Sunday morning outside.

On a large podium, a small table held a little orange crate that served as a lectern for the preacher. In the left corner of the podium, a young man was earnestly coaxing hymns from a dilapidated piano. At the back of the hall, the resonant voices of men announced the presence of the consistory; the brothers did not have a separate room. At one point, they erupted into laughter, and the nearby congregants joined in. Evidently the pastor had told a joke.

In total, there were about ninety parishioners, including babies and toddlers, as babysitting is not offered in this part of Israel.

This Sunday, the small, vacant congregation had the honour of hearing one of the young pastors of the classis—it was a “classis turn.”

At eleven o’clock, the preacher ascended the creaking stairs of the stage and placed his Bible and sermon on the orange crate. He cast a stern gaze at the men who were still standing at the back of the room, having not yet finished their conversation, and at the many mothers who were still preparing their babies for an hour of devotion. The pastor clapped his hands and announced loudly and solemnly, “We are going to begin!”

Seven toddlers did not participate in the silent prayer, instead loudly expressing their admiration or disapproval of a rubber doll that one of their peers was waving above her head.

The singing of the Psalms, heralded by a few deafening strikes on the old piano, was robust and earnest. It was evident that this hard-working farming community was joyful because it was Sunday again, and they were allowed to meet the Lord in a hall whose ugliness they no longer noticed, for the communion of saints was so beautiful. At the end of the Psalm, a little boy continued to sing loudly. A nudge from his father silenced him, and he hid his embarrassed, red face in his mother’s lap.

The first part of the service proceeded without any notable incidents. That is to say, there were plenty of incidents, but no one paid them any mind.

The pastor’s sermon was insightful and well-researched. He preached from the book of Revelation on the number 666, a challenging text that he likely chose due to his youth and inexperience.

I was beginning to immerse myself in the sermon, momentarily forgetting the peculiar surroundings. The sermon was captivating. But suddenly, I lost the thread again; I was distracted by one of the brothers, who left the room rather noisily, not in protest against the sermon, but because his little son had to pee.

Toward the end of the second point of the sermon, the little girl sitting in front of us began to lose interest in the spiritual food and whined for a cookie, which her mother rustled out of a package. Meanwhile, another toddler began enthusiastically to imitate the minister’s gesticulations, much to the delight of a few mischievous boys sitting behind him.

The preacher, consciously averting his eyes from all the vain movements of his audience, was concluding his sermon with a powerful and vivid depiction of the coming Day of Judgment, on which the books will be opened. In the midst of these poignant final words there was a loud thud that startled everyone. Brother Nienstra’s youngest child had fallen from his chair, overcome by sleep, and responded with a loud wail. Henk, unfazed, picked up his son and held him on his lap. Comforted, the little boy quickly stopped crying.

“Amen,” said the pastor.  

After the blessing had been pronounced and a doxology was sung, as is customary in some places, the preacher descended from the platform and mingled with the congregation.

“That was a good sermon,” Henk declared delightedly.

“Yes, it was,” I replied albeit with some hesitation.

In the afternoon we drove home, and, in the evening, I sat again in our church, the large, neat, and well-ordered city church. There were no crying babies; no one fell off his chair; everything proceeded very orderly, to the glory of God.

And yet, it seemed to me that our church was a little colder than that dark church hall this morning in that little village. There was a little less spiritual warmth with us, I would say. The mercury of the spiritual barometer seemed to be lower here.

Why would that be? Perhaps because we in the city, though immigrants, are not really pioneers. Ploughing often brings contentment with the small things and a growing sense of childlike dependence on the heavenly Father.

According to his promise, the Lord was present today in our stately city church and also in that humble village hall.

But where did his glory shine more brightly?


“De Kleine Kerkdienst,” pp 18-22, Arie en Katrien in Canada, Guardian: Hamilton, Ontario, 1958; Originally published in Calvinist Contact (; tr. George van Popta, 2024.