In the fourth largest nation in the world (population 180 million), live several million Christians who trace their history to Dutch Reformed missionaries. If the 3000 inhabited islands of Indonesia were superimposed on the United States, they would stretch from Oregon to Bermuda. Indonesians like Americans even though most Americans don’t know this. I have done investigative work in Indonesia accompanied by my wife, visiting three major islands for a total of twelve weeks.
Who are our Reformed brothers and sisters in Indonesia and how can we be helpful to one another?
When Vasco Da Gama rounded the cape of Good Hope in 1497, he opened the door for Portuguese penetration of the East. Portugal was the dominant power in Indonesia throughout the sixteenth century, including the Spice Islands (today called the Moluccas). Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican friars all worked in “the East Indies,” and by the end of the century they claimed that they had 200,000 converts, most of whom disappeared during the first part of the next century.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, shortly before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Dutch were rapidly replacing the Portuguese in the East Indies. Already in 1601, Classis Amsterdam urged the East India Company, which was authorized to develop Indonesia, to employ chaplains to care for their personnel and to present the gospel to Indonesians.
Judged by contemporary standards this was not the way to do missionary work. Many of these chaplain missionaries never learned the Malay language and apparently needed encouragement to take their mission assignment seriously; for a time they were paid a bonus for every Indonesian they baptized.
Nonetheless, by 1668 the New Testament was published in the Malay language and several schools on several different islands had been established for Indonesian students. All their work endured. There are today a few islands, or portions of islands, in eastern Indonesia where 90% of the people claim to be Christians. Already at the end of the seventeenth century it was reported that there were 100,000 Christians on the island of java and 40,000 on Ambon in the Maluccas.
THE LAST TWO CENTURIES
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Dutch government took over direct supervision of Indonesia from the East India Company, and Dutch Christians in the Netherlands took a more active interest in presenting the gospel to Indonesians. This expanded interest coincided with and was influenced by a greatly expanded interest in foreign missions in the British Isles.
Numerous mission societies and every Reformed denomination had missionaries working somewhere in Indonesia. German Lutherans were also involved especially among the Batak people of Sumatra.
The expanded work during the nineteenth century came none too soon, for the Muslims were also expanding throughout the time of Dutch involvement in Indonesia. Muslim leaders criticized Christianity to the Indonesian people, calling it the religion of the Dutch overlords. Thus the stage was set during the nineteenth century for a competitive relationship between these two faiths -a competitive relationship that did not die away during the twentieth century.
The Japanese occupation of Indonesia during the Second World War prepared the way for the Indonesian War of Independence that followed the war. After several years of fighting, Indonesia was granted full independence by the Dutch in 1949. Inasmuch as Christian Indonesians had fought with Muslim Indonesians against the Dutch, at least on the island of Java, it was decided that in the newly independent Indonesia there would be freedom of religion for all. This was a concession made by Muslims who claim 75% of the population and this was in contrast to many Muslim nations where Christians were made second class citizens.
Freedom of religion was reaffirmed after the attempted Communist Coup of 1965. The coup leaders were so confident of success that they had prepared lists of all who were to be executed, including the American missionaries who lived next door to their headquarters.
However, when General Suharto, the one general who survived the slaughter of seven other generals, rallied the Indonesian army and put down the coup, both Christians and Muslims were encouraged. The new government banned atheism and many Muslims began killing Indonesians of Chinese descent because the coup leaders had been mostly Chinese. The cruelty of the radical Muslims to the Chinese and the kindness of the Christian Indonesians to the Chinese survivors, persuaded many Javanese (from the island of Java) to declare themselves Christians when government enumerators came around. The attempted coup of 1965 was used of God to bring more Muslims (some of whom were nominal) into the Christian fold than any other event in the history of Islam. To this day some Javanese are converting from Islam to Christianity year by year.
THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
In 1981, Frank Cooley, an American Presbyterian missionary, reported that there were 30 denominations of Reformed background in Indonesia. Four of these denominations were members of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. This diversity of Reformed denominations reflects in part the diversity of Reformed denominations in the Netherlands. It also reflects tremendous ethnic and linguistic diversity among Indonesians separated by many miles of water from one another.
There are about 17 million Christians in Indonesia today. 75% of them are Protestants. Of the Protestants, the majority were Reformed in background in 1982 (although they don’t use this term in their official denominational names).
By 1993, the report on Indonesia given by Patrick Johnstone appeared to suggest that the other Protestant groups had overtaken the Reformed in total adherents. The Batak Lutherans had 21/2 million adherents and some Pentecostal groups were growing rapidly, especially among Indonesians of Chinese descent. There are other groups as well, such as the Christian and MissionaryAlliance, Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists and others.
Looking to the future, one can see three clouds hanging over all the churches of Indonesia.
The first cloud is a lack of zeal for missions especially in the Reformed and Lutheran churches. This lack may indicate a deeper problem as will be seen. But it merits special mention. In recent years many Korean churches have begun sending missionaries all over the world and paying their way. Indonesian churches could also do this for Indonesian Christians have greater means than most other Indonesians. At a time when their government is denying visas to North American missionaries who desire to work on the islands of Irian Jaya or Kalimantan Indonesian Christians could step into the gap. They could also send missionaries overseas as the Koreans have done and Filipinos desire to do. Will those who fail to share their faith with others, be able to keep their faith when adversity comes?
And that leads us to the second cloud. The power and influence of Islam is growing in Indonesia. As the turbulence of the 40’s and the 60’s fades into memory, the more radical Muslims are wanting the government to promote their faith and make all other groups to be second class citizens. It is said that some Muslim young men deliberately want to marry Christian girls in order to “convert” them and their children to Islam.
The final and most ominous cloud is this: Significant religious change is now being exported from the Netherlands to Indonesia. One can see it in books being translated from Dutch into Indonesian and sold in the bookstores. One can feel it from Dutch professors sent to teach in Indonesian seminaries and in various church meetings. Where the orthodox faith is stiU preserved, traditionalism is replacing a keen evangelical interest and buoyancy. Missionaries of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship are aware of this trend and are seeking from within the current structures to be an influence for good. But when the denominations are so numerous and Christians so dispersed, what can a handful of missionaries do?
Is there anything North American Christians call do to help? Awareness of the problem may lead to prayer for fellow Christians in Indonesia and this in itself will be helpful.
In the second place, Reformed colleges and seminaries in North America could encourage unusually gifted students from Indonesia to study on their campuses. This implies some type of scholarship or assistance. I say “unusually gifted students” because up until now some schools have been content to accept whoever applies and can gather the funds to come to North America. Direct contact with church leaders and professors in Indonesia is needed in order to locate the very best students and provide help for them. My third suggestion might facilitate this contact.
We might, in the third place, think of a “Pacific Rim Reformed Educational Association.” Initial members of this association could come from North America, South Korea and Indonesia. Vigorous Reformed Christians from Korea could be brought into contact with Indonesian Christians who need to be energized possibly by fellow Asians similar to them. North Americans could serve as facilitators and consultants. From such an association, the right students might also be matched with the right schools, good Christian study books provided in the Indonesian language, exchange of professors encouraged and other helpful projects developed.
Over the centuries Jesus Christ has built up His Church in Indonesia. There are Reformed Christians in Indonesia in various denominations who long for fellowship with American Christians and others. Any American citizen can travel to Indonesia and receive an automatic two month visa at the airport. We have the means to do something to help our brothers and sisters in Christ if we really put our minds to it. Do we also have the will?
Cooley, Frank L. Indonesia: Church & Society (New York: Friendship Press, 1968) and The Growing Seed: The Christian Church in Indonesia (New York: National Council of Churches USA, 1982). “Indonesia: Two Worlds, Time Apart,” Natiorral Geographic, January, 1989. Johnstone, Patrick. “Indonesia” in Operation World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993). Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965). Rauws, J., H. Kraemer, F. Van Hasselt, N. Slotemaker De Bruine. The Netherlands Indies (London: World Dominion Press, 1935).
Dr. Timothy Monsma, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, is Director of Cities for Christ Worldwide, Escondido,CA, and Africa Director for Action International Ministries, Seattle, WA.