1975 AACS Niagara Conference
Wow! We set a few records at our 1975 Niagara Conference: the total registration approached about 900 people and included 200 children. The temperature inside and outside approached 100 F. And there were over 160 tents and trailers parked wherever there was space.
This was also the first time we tried a workshop format at a Niagara conference. This report Heather Marsman, an AACS member from Barrie, Ontario, focusses on these workshops and the central questions asked by speakers and conferees.
Were you at Niagara Christian College On the August holiday weekend for the AACS Conference? Did you boil in the heat? Did you find out Monday morning that your borrowed tent leaked? Did you miss by one the last hotdog Sunday evening or were you the one who testified to having swallowed five watermelon pits in the dark Friday night? Maybe you were along when, somehow, that wristwatch was found by the river at five in the morning, or maybe you were the man I overheard telling about his first-time experience babysitting one to four year olds.
If you were there, you didn’t encounter the usual topics of politics, inflation, or congregational squabbles. Instead, you talked about your marriage, your friendships, your being man, woman. While the workshop leaders talked about the norms for these relationships, we weren’t just taking notes so that we could get the principles straight or remember the structures as outlined. We were in there struggling to work it out for ourselves .
Through all the laughing and the singing, in the listening and the responding we were each of us involved in a deeply personal assessment of the structures of our own relationships, a confession of our problem areas, a hurting and a reaching out for answers, encouragement, mutual acceptance, and the courage to accept the strength of the Spirit at work in our midst.
After devotions Saturday moning, when Matthew 19 was introduced as the keynote Scripture passage for the conference, Jim Olthuis set out the framework which was to guide our activities during the weekend. Emphasizing the words involvement, encouragement, enjoyment, he expressed the hope that we might identify some of the weak spots in our relationships and begin to work on them.
This hope he founded on the uniquely Christian character of our approach. Beginning with the confession that God calls us to live out of His Word, we can fight the lie that man is basically a chemical machine, an animal with a veneer of civilization. Instead, we know from Scripture that man is made to be a creature of troth, of integrity and commitment under the law of God, and that only by losing ourselves in Him do we gain the freedom to make our individual responses to the norms He designed for marriage, for friendship, for man-woman partnership in the creation. We were also urged to remember that good times or bad times in our relationships do not signify salvation or damnation, but that our final hope must rest in Christ Jesus alone .
After that we started to work. We listened to Penelope Tyndale of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship who whistle-stopped her way through history, setting us aghast at the pervasive denial of woman as a full human being, at the decision of the Canadian courts as late as 1920 that a woman was not a full person under the terms of the British North America Act (the British came to our aid and overruled that one), and the church’s general refusal to deal with the issue which left many women considering the church part of the problem if not the chief cause .
She did more than this. She shared with us her personal struggle to take up a wider task in the kingdom after fourteen years in the home and with a grade eleven education. She admitted to having some problem areas in her biblical understanding of a woman’s place in home, church, and society. She shared with us her understanding of many Of the passages dealing with women in the Scriptures, and stirred up in many of us questions and new thoughts.
So did Louis Martin of the Christian Counselling Services who spoke on “The Christian and an Approach to the Riddle of His Behaviour”. The internal questioning for most of us began when he asked us to accept that the Christian can be a continuing sinner in his behaviour, in “the flesh”, but in his heart, his mind and his goals, be totally committed to Jesus Christ and so struggle to change his behaviour. That bothered us at first. This Baptist therapist was not tampering with the doctrines of total depravity and total redemption in Christ, but was challenging us to a deeper orthodoxy. He challenged us to give up all our legalistic little prescriptions for how a “good” Christian should behave. We were not asked to discard or weaken the norms, not at all, but we were urged not to impose private and culturally-determined codes of behaviour on our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I noticed that many people had the opposite problem with the talks given by Arnold De Graaff and Mary Vander Vennen. Because these two leaders had a more practical rather than a theoretical orientation in their presentations, fear was expressed that there might not be a distinctly Christian basis for their suggestions and insights. If Arnold De Graaff in “Perspectives on Child Rearing” was going to emphasize an approach (Parent Effectiveness Training) taken from a non-Christian psychiatrist (T. Gordon), how could we be sure we were not going to take along some non-Christian values too? Although Gordon does not present his views in a Christian framework, De Graaff stressed that he has highlighted certain aspects of child rearing practices that have often been neglected and which need to be incorporated within a Christian perspective .
Mary VanderVennen (also of Christian Counselling Services) took the topic “The Dynamics of Family Life”. From her work as a family therapist she defined the family as a multi-generational unit that functions like a system. A system she explained as a collection of units that are all interrelated so that any change in one unit affects the others and back again. She then described three types of problem marriages which she commonly encounters in her work — the conflictual, the overadequate-underadequate, and the united front marriage — and she explained how these marital relationships usually affect the children in the families involved.
Perhaps because her listeners could see elements of their own marriages in her typical problem marriages, there was an uneasiness and a seeming need for a balancing picture of a sound Christian marriage and family. She was challenged as to whether she was bound to give her patients an account of the hope in which she stands. The end question appears to be whether a therapist bears responsibility for her clients’ heart commitment, or whether her task is mainly that of clearing up behavioural problems so that the client is then better prepared to answer that ultimate question.
Jim Olthuis gave two workshops, “The Joy of Friendship” and “Fostering Intimacy in Marriage” He described friendship as a troth relationship characterized by openness, vulnerability and honesty, male to male, female to female and male to female. It is the male-female friendship which is most difficult to maintain and foster in our culture because it has been wrongly identified only with marriage. Therefore our society exerts unwarranted pressures on it and individuals erect barriers against it. He urged those who experience congeniality with someone of the opposite sex not to suppress the feeling but to be fully aware that this relationship is not that of marriage .
In “Fostering Intimacy in Marriage”, Jim emphasized the uniqueness of the Christian’s position in tackling the weak areas of his relationship to his partner. Christ is greater than any of our failures and in Him there is much hope for greater intimacy. He identified several damaging cultural patterns, such as the lack of congeniality before marriage where a broad range of concerns are never discussed, and expressed a concern that mutual commitment must come before a healthy marriage can be formed.
The foregoing account gives only bits and pieces of the experience which was the AACS Conference at Niagara Christian College . For those of you who did not attend it, I hope I have been able to give a taste for what it was like. A person who attended only on Monday commented that he felt as if he had caught the tail end of something delicious. And it was.