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Conventicle is an odd old word, but kind of fun actually, a word which suggests, by its composition, what it is–a kind of “mini-convention.” Only historians use the word anymore, but conventicles have never been as popular as they are these days. In fact, it’s entirely possible that there has never been a time in church history–at least among the American evangelical subculture–when “mini-conventions” were anywhere close to being as ubiquitous as they are right now. Thousands meet daily across the continent, hundreds of thousands, I’m sure, every Sabbath.
Yet, they are, by definition, tiny. Mega-churches, I’m told, work hard at nurturing them because they swear their conventicles, their mini-conventions, their small groups, are the building blocks of their ministries. Without their small groups there could be no big group, so the church’s considerable mass is created and sustained by the precious warmth where just two or three are gathered.
Think of them as cell groups, the tight little circles spawned by Al-Qaeda, by militant Islam, the tiny brotherhoods the NSA works so blame hard to find.
Okay, that’s pushing it.
Real historians would likely date their entrance into religious life earlier than this, but I know the word only because I know that conventicles were alive and kicking in the late 18th and early 19th century Lowlands, including the Netherlands, from which my people came.
There, they burned with religious fervor and factionalism, an especially potent mix. Those who attended conventicles felt distinctly counter-cultural and may well have operated outside the law in simply showing up and meeting with like-minded dedicated saints. Once together, they ‘d read deeply devotional literature, sing psalms, pray long and hard, and, it must be admitted, even do some plotting because often their existence back then depended on a state church that had, the conventicle-ites claimed, lost its doctrinal way.
Mega-church small groups have nothing clandestine about them. I’m sure they’d all welcome visitors, day or night, front door or back.
But those small groups are kissing cousins in a way–like-minded souls who grow tight and close and intimate. When they do, they create a building block of dedication.
In his Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, our own James Bratt claims that Kuyper’s people, both sets of grandparents, were conventicle-ites, part of a movement that, by fervent piety and deep commitments, eventually undermined the authority of a religious structure that was itself dying–the state church system.
. . .the orthodox gave up on purifying the Reformed church as a whole and concentrated on cultivating true religion in smaller circles. Sometimes as study and discussion group and sometimes as well-defined conventicles, sometimes supplementing official church services and occasionally replacing them, the pious gathered to read classics of confessional and devotional orthodoxy by “old writer” (oude schrijvers) like Voetius, Willem ‘a Brakel, and Bernadus Smytegelt.
Education can have pernicious effects. It can and does, when successful, make people think after all. And when it does, where it leads is anybody’s guess. Protestants–Calvinists especially–were so dedicated to the Word (sola scriptura) that they believed absolutely everyone ought to be reading it. When everyone did read it, any organized church is in trouble.
Historically, conventicles were hotbeds of piety and dissent. Like the followers of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan New England, the “conventicle-ites” gave their all to their own small group, more allegiance certainly than they gave to the established church and, often enough, ordinary, respectable church attendance.
I grew up with the descendants of the conventicle-ites–oh, what I saw around me was no hotbed of dissent, neither was my family a matchbox of malcontents. They were conservative to be sure, but not radical. But when they got together with family or others of their own deeply pious stamp, they loved nothing better than talking, at length, about God’s rich grace to our unworthy selves, his lovingkindness, his miraculous entries into their own hurried, everyday and often God-neglecting lives.
They sometimes took an odd kind of pleasure in recounting their own sin, the depth of the darkness in their souls, the horrors of life apart from God, if for no other reason than to trace God’s grace and thereby trumpet the magnificence of his love. My ancestors–like Kuypers’–loved to trace the twin towers of Calvinism in the day-to-dayness of their own lives, to locate anew man’s sin and God’s sovereignty.
There was lots of heavy breathing in conventicles, just as there were in my family gatherings when I grew up, maybe even a little touching, and almost certainly there were tears. I’ve seen ’em myself.
The conventicle tradition was in my mother and in her father before her, so much so that Grandpa’s wife, my grandma, who wasn’t an heir, had all she could do at times to tamp it down when it got out of hand–because it could. That hefty spirituality, like any strength, can morph into its own weakness.
And right now I’m coming out of the conventicle closet because I have to admit it’s in me too, in these very words that appear right now across this screen.
I don’t belong to any church’s mini-convention. I’m not even a member of a small group in the church that holds my membership.
But I know this–for better or for worse, I’m very much a child of the conventicle-ites.
Most of my ancestors were not part of this, except for my mother's maternal grandfather, Albertus Nawyn, a Frisian who went to the Veluwe to work on an estate. My grandma remembered him leaving early in the morning to walk to a group in Appeldoorn. My wife's paternal ancestor, Evert Takken, hosted a conventicle in Utrecht, in his smithy, which evolved into an afgescheiden gemeente under Scholte. I can imagine how warm and powerful this groups were, how thrilling and how moving, when you consider how cool and afstandig Dutch churches can be, even today.