The Reformed Churches are in several respects rather unique within the family of Christendom.
Though the years they have stressed the urgency of a committed and an informed membership as well as a trained leadership. For that reason much attention has always been given to instruction in the Christian faith. Without a knowledge of God and his promises as revealed in the Scriptures man cannot exercise a true and lively faith. All believers, therefore. arc to be urged in season and out of season to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).
Likewise, the Reformed churches—firmly committed to the Biblical teaching that the God of salvation has established and perpetuates his covenant from generation to generation with believers and their children—has always stressed the importance of the Christian family. This is reflected in many of the patterns of Reformed ecclesiastical life. On the basis of God’s covenant promises the church baptizes the children of believers. These children, reckoned as belonging to the family of God, are taken to church at an early age. Not only are they to be instructed in good Christian schools; they are also to be nurtured directly by the church in its catechesal program. And the chief focus of the church’s pastoral ministry is to the family set aside by the Lord for his service and praise.
Today, however, Christian families are increasingly under attack, sometimes subtly and at other times openly. Thus the church does well to ask whether it in Christ’s name and for his sake is doing all that it can to contribute to the spiritual stability and development of covenant homes. In the light of this situation we do well to reassess what can be done in this direction by means of the church library.
Tn reflecting on the question of church-libraries and their usefulness, two questions seem to stand out. The first one is, “Should the church minister to the family and its specific needs through a library?” The answer to this must be, in our estimation, an unequivocal yes. We are convinced that the church must minister to its members by means of literature. Although it is true that “every Scripture inspired of God is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16), it is also true, as Christianity Today put it, that “the use of the Book may never exclude the use of books.” Literature is a God-given means which must and can be used to his glory, to the building up of his church, and to the edification of his people.
The second question, equally relevant, is this: “Do our churches as a matter of fact minister to the needs of the family through their libraries?” To this question we are inclined to give a negative answer, although it must be readily admitted that some churches maintain libraries of a rather high caliber.
The next few paragraphs arc an attempt to show how churches can use their libraries to minister to their members. The references made to the various types of materials and even the specific mentioning of some titles are, of course, in no way meant to be exhaustive; they are merely indicative of the direction in which we perhaps should go.
From the Bible it is clear that the church has been given the mandate to teach and to instruct its members. The most obvious means for this are, of course, preaching and catechism. This, however, is not to be exclusive. To augment his knowledge each member is called upon to engage in individual and group Bible-study. To do so properly he needs secondary study aids such as reliable commentaries, a Bible-dictionary, a Bible-encyclopedia, etc. These aids are indispensable for satisfactory society-meetings and the success of these meetings may well depend on the availability of such materials. Since not every member can purchase them, the church should make them available through its libraries.
Also, for the sake of the societies, a church-library should include some basic works of Reformed theology, at least one or two books dealing with the history of our denomination and some volumes the entire history of the Christian church. To enable the members of the church to study the teachings of theil’ church in the light of divergent views, some works on these views should be available (e.g. something on other Reformed and Protestant denominations; something on the cults and on the mnjor non-Christian religions.)
To keep a congregation from becoming “theologically” isolated from the rest of the denomination the church library should include such periodicals as The Reformed Journal and Torch and Trumpet, while a magazine such as Christianity Today may serve to keep the members somewhat informed on theological trends in our country.
The church-library might well provide books dealing with specific problems such as sex, alcoholism, divorce, etc. Only hooks written from a specific Christian viewpoint should be made available. Here some may object that it is not the task of the church to deal with these matters, since the church is called upon to minister to one’s spiritual needs. It is, however, impossible to deal with a person’s spiritual needs apart from the relationships which men sustain to others. The church is called upon to minister to the “whole” person.
The church-library can also serve a useful purpose in providing reading materials for the children, especially where there are no Christian schools. Many stimulating children’s books are available, such as the series’ by C. S. Lewis or the books of Meindert De Jong. For young people also a church-library can be of great value. By providing autobiographical and biographical novels, it may alert young people to problems which otherwise often seem unreal to them. In many communities, especially in those without a Christian High School, the problem of “mixed” marriages, is a real one, a problem which young people tend to minimize. In situations like these a book such as High is the Wall (dealing with a Catholic-Protestant marriage), can open the eyes of young people to the problems which a mixed marriage creates. Books such as Search to Belong (Kaufman ) may well serve to point out the danger of carelessly choosing a life’s partner; the agony of an unwed mother; and the anguish of someone born out of wedlock. It will help those contemplating adoption to enter into the mind of someone who is adopted.
Should a church-library have fiction? Our answer would be yes. As the late Professor Zylstra put it,“ Good fiction always does two things: it instructs while it entertains.” That the church must “instruct” its members has already been mentioned. Good fiction can help people understand life as it really is; it may serve to point out that most of life is quite unlike a Reformed middle-class community. Although it would take us too far afield to discuss the controversial issue of “good” and “bad” action, from our limited acquaintance with church libraries we would judge that much of the fiction available in our libraries is not “good fiction.” To much of it can be applied the description which Professor Zylstra gave of “bad” fiction in general, namely, that “it merely gives expression to what people wish to think life is, not to what it is” (Testament of Vision). If this is the case it is of course neither educational nor profitable.
At the same time the role which fiction can play in proper entertainment ought not be minimized. The church should be concerned about the entertainment and the leisure time of its members. In view of the fact that the average American home has its television set on for six hours a day, the church may well ask itself whether or not it can suggest a more wholesome kind of recreation. Offering the alternative of reading good fiction could prove to be an effective way of countering this waste of time.
These, then, are some of the possibilities of a good church-library. But can they be put into practice? A church may indeed have an outstanding library and yet fail to minister through it, simply because no church can make its members use the libraries. Obviously it is by no means always the church which is at fault! Modern society simply does not seem conducive to serious reading; the rapid pace of life; the increasing mobility; television; the disintegration of family life, all of these have taken away the incentive to read.
Yet it seems to us that many churches have never really tried. Few churches provide adequate funds for their libraries, often because of a lack of interest on the part of the consistories (including perhaps the minister). Many churches lack adequate facilities to keep such materials. Some churches have no one in charge of their libraries, while others have someone in charge who is hardly qualified fOr this task. In many instances the church-library is one of the most neglected aspects of the church’s ministry.
At the risk of being accused of oversimplification and of being too idealistic, we would make the following suggestions to improve the condition of many of our church-libraries:
1. The consistory should appoint a committee of four or five qualified men and women to be in charge of a library.
2. The consistory should appropriate a certain amount of money annually to cover expenses (purchase of new books, subscriptions to journals, etc.).
3. A special room should be designated in which reading materials can be displayed and to which the people have access at least once or twice a week.
4. The people should be made acquainted with the materials available.
a) by occasional announcements in the church bulletin (especially new purchases)
b) through the society-leaders who can refer members to specific works, and
c) through the minister, especially in Catechism-classes.
In the past few years much has been written about the “explosion” of knowledge, and, indeed, knowledge is increasing at a rate unequalled in history. Consequently the demands made upon the Christian have increased. To face this situation effectively nothing is more urgently needed than a well-informed Christian who knows his Bible and understands it; who is thoroughly acquainted with the teachings of his church; who knows what life is all about and who is equipped to cope with some of its problems. It may well be one of the tasks of the church to see to it that its members have access to those materials which will enable them to become such committed and inspired Christians as the living in these days demands.
The church can minister effectively to the Christian family through a planned use of the printed page, contends Mr. Arthur J. Schoonveld, senior student at Calvin Seminary. In this article he makes several suggestions on improving our church libraries.