Internationals pray at the Vineyard Church
Looking for God in Groningen
‘In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.’
After she finishes reading the passage, Ráhel Mágdo is silent for a moment. ‘I wonder what they mean by “sealed”’, she finally says. The group takes a minute to think, then starts discussing the matter. ‘Maybe it’s like a literal seal, like a stamp on your heart when you convert’, someone jokes.
For Romanian Ráhel and the other students present, this evening started like so many do in student houses around the city. They came in one by one, discussing the latest gossip over a bowl of tomato soup. But this isn’t a year club gathering, and the group won’t be going out later: this is the weekly Bible study session at the English-language Vineyard Church.
‘It’s for people at the church who are looking for something more’, says Jana Unterweide, a German psychology student. The Vineyard movement is an Evangelical organisation that aims to be approachable and accessible. 1650 churches from all over the world are connected to the organisation. Every Sunday morning, they hold a service in English. Because of this, many international students have found their way to the Vineyard Church.
I was torn between Tilburg and Groningen, but Tilburg didn’t have a Vineyard
For Jana, it was the deciding factor to move to Groningen: ‘I was torn between Tilburg and Groningen,’ she says, ‘but Tilburg didn’t have anything like Vineyard.’
Approximately half of the congregation is made up of students, from all corners of the world. ‘God is what connects us’, says pastor Koen Prinzen. ‘Him and the English language.’ He is happy to see how many international students join the church every year. ‘It’s always been a dynamic group that actively participates in the community. They do a lot of the volunteer work.’
European languages and cultures student Anniina Vahala, from Finland, serves as president of the Student Ministry Board at the Vineyard Church. ‘We regularly organise events. One event that’s coming up is where people can call us to ask us questions about Christianity’, she says.
The reason international students are so involved is because the Vineyard Church fulfils an important social function for them. ‘Dutch students often join associations, and it’s easy for them to visit their parents on the weekend. International students don’t really have that option’, Prinzen explains. ‘We can fulfil both these roles for them.’
Take the Bible study sessions: the church encourages people to get together, discuss the Bible and share their lives. Prinzen says it’s all part of becoming independent.
Within Vineyard, ‘home groups’ gather once a week to discuss Christian themes. Some groups are very specific: some focus on how to be a better student, or a better man or woman. But all of them use the Bible as a guideline.
Just like the service, Bible study sessions are open to anyone who’s interested. But just because the session is accessible doesn’t mean the discussions are low-brow. The seriousness with which Ráhel, Jana, and the others dissect ‘Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians’ is reminiscent of class discussions at the theological faculty.
Streamer: We’re like family and student association in one
Ráhel, who studies classical music at the conservatory, leads the group through the rest of the text. The words are carefully interpreted and discussed. ‘I think “the seal” might refer to how they used to sign a letter’, says Kristen Doorn, the only Dutch person there. ‘I agree’, says Ráhel. ‘Like a mark that God gives to people who believe in him.’
The group candidly discusses personal problems and insecurities, after which they think about how the text from Paul’s letter can apply to them. No one person is here to casually read the Bible: this gathering is almost like a therapeutic session, focused on helping one another.
The six religious student associations in Groningen prove that plenty of students are in touch with their faith. Nevertheless, they’re in the minority in the Netherlands: more than half of the population doesn’t adhere to any faith, with that number rising to two thirds among young people aged 18 to 25. Religious adherence also declines as education levels rise.
The members at the Vineyard Church have seen this as well. The Netherlands is a tolerant country, but members of the Bible study group say there are stigmas attached to Christianity. ‘Unfortunately, people have this image of Christians as being judgemental’, says Priscella Mellanie, an Indonesian psychology student. ‘I’m always a little cautious mentioning my faith. I usually don’t tell people unless they ask me.’
Streamer: During a ceremony for a teacher who passed away, they never even mentioned God
The group says that in the Netherlands, religion is a private matter. ‘Last year, a teacher from the conservatory passed away. During a ceremony organised by the school, they never even mentioned God’, says Ráhel. ‘Something like that is unthinkable in Romania. Even when people aren’t devout Christians, God would at least be referred to.’
The international students have noticed that same secular attitude at the RUG. Anniina experienced this first-hand when she was doing a minor in development studies. ‘Everyone had to present their research at the end of the block’, she says. ‘My presentation was on the ethics of evangelising during development aid. Other people were asked general questions about how they chose their subjects, but my work was met with criticism. Everyone had an opinion on it.’
Yet the group says that science and religion can coexist just fine. Jana even says studying at university has bolstered her faith. ‘I enabled me to be more critical of it’, she says. ‘That was a challenge, because I’d discuss the subject with so many different people. But that makes the fact that I’m still steadfast in my faith even better.’