Report on USA visit (July 2019)

H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies

at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

Report on the Meeter Family Fellowship (May 20 – June 29, 2019)

The Hekman Library (with the Meeter Center on its 4th floor) @ Calvin University

I am deeply grateful to the board of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, for granting me the Meeter Family Fellowship (6 weeks of research). In addition, the generous contributions of some Japanese supporters, as well as a special donation from Mission Japan, helped to make it possible to utilize this unique opportunity as a family. We praise the Lord for his wondrous provision through each and every one of you.

Research focus and output

I came to the Meeter Center enter with the interest of a practical theologian, busy with full-time formation of seminary students at Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary (KRTS). Furthermore, also as a co-operating missionary and ordained pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, currently active as pastor in the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ) in multiple church ministries. My current research focus is on pastoral theology and care from a Reformed perspective – as requested by the RCJ – within Japan as an extremely tough mission field. I am seeking to gain new insights whilst teaching pastoral theology and care within a literally 99% non-Christian context, where little is known about the value or relevance of this essential subfield of theological study and practice.

With this background in mind, the time at the Center was a rare opportunity – after 10 years of serving in Japan – to enhance my curriculum development for teaching at KRTS. The specific topic of my research – in the six-week period – was: Commitment to pastoral care and passion for mission: what Martin Bucer and John Calvin can teach today’s pastors.I investigated the issue of Reformed pastoral theology and care from a historical perspective, mainly focusing on the following question: Can leading Reformers’ committed approach to pastoral care and mission still be deemed relevant and meaningful, whilst considering fresh issues in our contemporary pastoral ministry contexts?

I found it to be very meaningful and inspiring to re-discover and re-appreciate Bucer and Calvin’s pastoral ethos and mission-minded passion. It was a means to take part in the ongoing history of the Reformation, always reforming by critically retrieving our heritage, and shaping our future identity from the roots up. I hope this might not only be relevant for the theological education of pastors in the RCJ, but also in other contexts where the Reformed heritage is valued.

The Meeter Center offered wonderful possibilities to explore and investigate the above-mentioned topic. The abundant resources available here is really a rich treasure, and the efficient way in which it is centralized, made it easily accessible. These resources, along with the expert qualities and serving attitudes of the staff, offered a great opportunity which I believe will not be easily matched elsewhere. The Center’s curator, Mr. Paul Fields and its director, Dr. Karin Maag were ever ready and eager to help with research-related questions. Dr. Maag’s keen sense of listening and her ability to meaningfully connect people and ideas, deserves special mention.Finally, I intend to develop this research, beyond the research presentation which I delivered at the center (June 25th), into a peer-reviewed journal article. 

Other significant interactions

Throughout our time in the US, I was keenly aware of the fact that this was much more than a clinical, academic research opportunity. The beautiful Calvin university campus and the seminary, with its dynamic people was a pleasure to experience. We sensed God’s guidance as we met many inspiring people in that specific time and place. New and meaningful relationships were formed, far exceeding our expectations.

There was a specific familiarity in the Grand Rapids and Holland area, where there is an unmistakable Dutch Reformed heritage visible in many ways. Although we are from Dutch descent, and recognize many similarities to the Dutch influence in South Africa, there is obviously a distinct American flavour to the culture. When I introduced myself with a typical Afrikaans accent, I usually got a frown and a “please say again”, or “can you spell your surname”? But that is not much different from how it goes with self-introductions in Japan, so I felt quite at home as an ‘outsider’.

There are too many interactions to mention, but for interest’ sake I list a few highlights:

Staying at the CRCNA missionary house during the first week and exploring Grand Rapids (Rev. Paul Yu and other’s hospitality was very encouraging); also visiting the offices of CRCNA Resonate Global Mission, enjoying conversations with its director Zach King.

Sunday worship services at CRC Woodlawn congregation, getting to know several new friends there.

Visiting Calvin Seminary and meeting its president, Rev. Jul Medenblik (Church Planting and Leadership) and other faculty members: Prof. Lyle Bierma (History of Christianity); Prof. Danjuma Gibson (Pastoral Care) and Prof. John Bolt (Bavinck Institute).

Correspondence with lecturers from other theological institutions: Prof. Craig Barnes (President of Princeton Theological Seminary); Prof. Edwin van Driel (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary); Prof. Andrew Purves (Emeritus Professor of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary); Prof. Elsie McKee (Princeton Theological Seminary)

Experiencing a little bit of the CRCNA General Synod and meeting there with Rev. Hirotsugu Mochida from Japan (RCJ Synod stated clerk) and Dr. Gustav Claassen from South Africa (DRC in SA General Secretary). 

On several occasions enjoying the fellowship of Rev. Rich Sytsma (retired CRC missionary to Japan) and family; Rev. Mike Abma (CRC Woodlawn) and family; Ray Hommes (retired CRC missionary to Japan). 

Doing a podcast interview with Dr. Karin Maag from the Meeter Center. 

Meaningful research-related conversations with other visiting scholars at the Meeter Center, from Holland, China, Brazil, Korea, Oxford and other parts of the US.

Meeting with Dr. Joel Carpenter, director of Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

Unique opportunity as a family

We stayed in an on-campus apartment, together with local students. This gave us a glimpse of the local student life (although with less students because summer holidays). The flexibility of homeschooling made it possible to continue our children’s education with the added bonus of doing so in a magnificent environment. Learning opportunities abounded, as Carina and the children enjoyed the privilege of excellent libraries, museums, parks and numerous other public institutions  (including two days in Chicago). Most of the time we used the public bus service to get around, which also gave us an good idea of life ‘on the street’, and kept us fit, as it also included many kilometres by foot.

All in all, we appreciated this unique opportunity to experience US culture for the first time. We returned to Kobe with a renewed commitment and vision to serve the RCJ by the training of church leaders, focusing on local church ministry and serving and supporting our brothers and sisters in Japan. 

With heartfelt appreciation and gratitude.

Stéphan Van der Watt and family.