White pastor in an irrelevant church

March 3, 2010

This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.

I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.

At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.

Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.

I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.

It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.

Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.


5 Responses to “White pastor in an irrelevant church”

  1. Tom Smith Says:

    Thanks for this Cobus … I hope we can live into a different reality

  2. Mark Long Says:

    Cobus, a well written, thoughtful and honest response to your situation. Structures need to find reality in relationship. It remains difficult on a congregational level, even when – as is my situation – you have a very representative group in the pew on a Sunday. Finding ways and creating events that build relationship accross cultural barriers that create friendship and awareness of different perspectives on life is a deeply important aspect of the Church’s mission to itself and to the wider society in which we live. Blessings, Mark

  3. Steve Says:


    I’ve been reading your story with interest, but haven’t commented much, because in many ways your story is so different from mine, and played out in a different environment. Occasionally they touch, as something your father said on his blog reminded me of an old man who belonged to the Afrikaans Baptist Church and lived in Utrecht, and said “If you want to evangelise the white heathen in this town, we must pray for the dominee, because they all go to his church.”

  4. […] White pastor in an irrelevant church […]

  5. […] Jansen se kritiek op die NG Kerk het my al baie gehelp. Ja hy werk met geykte stereotipes soos die “NG dominee met die swart pak”, iets wat ek […]

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