We now turn our attention to the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) as a case in point of the interaction between religious and social transformations in South Africa. The basic question is: how do these social transformations affect the religious transformations within the DRC, and vice versa?

Before attempting to answer this question, let us first take a step backwards. One of the basic theological frameworks within which the DRC sought to guard over its identity during the apartheid era, could be described in terms of a triangular movement, namely the search for security (with the help of an “eternal” myth), the appeal on national “potential” to overcome adversity, and the projection of guilt onto the enemy as the “other”.[1] Within this theological framework or triangle the DRC was not only seeking a safe haven, but it was also unashamedly backed by the powers of the state, and vice versa. With the demise of apartheid the relationship between church and state has obviously changed profoundly: whereas the state controlled the DRC to a large extent under apartheid, the church has been left in a type of vacuum after the dawn of democracy, seeking new theological frameworks to redefine its identity, in effect: seeking a new safe haven.[2]

Of interest for this paper would be the question whether the stereotypical theological structure that characterised the DRC during apartheid has in some way survived and perhaps re-emerged in different forms. For the sake of comparison[3] we would like to discuss certain contemporary trends using keywords that are reminiscent of the theological triangle as described above, namely stabilizing (or de-stabilizing), emigration (that is, inner emigration), and (once again!) separation. The common denominator in all of these keywords, however, is the search for a (new) identity that permeates the young South African democracy and which, in our opinion, also has an impact on contemporary DRC theology, i.e. that impacts on the interaction between religious and social transformations within Dutch Reformed traditions in South Africa.

In order for us to interpret this “new” theological triangle, we first take a brief look at the so-called enclave theory.

 The Enclave

The anthropologist Mary Douglas distinguishes between three social contexts, namely the Market, the Hierarchy, and the Enclave.[4] According to her, an enclave is usually formed by a dissenting minority developing a social unit maintaining strong boundaries.[5] The religious nature and claims of the enclave are of specific importance for this paper. Douglas describes the interaction between cultural and religious claims in the enclave as follows: “An enclave community can be recognized and described. It is not mysterious or unique. It starts in characteristic situations and faces characteristic problems. These invite specific solutions, the institutions in which the solutions are tried call forth a specific type of spirituality.”[6]

An enclave – like for instance formed around “Afrikaner Identity” before and during apartheid – differentiates itself from other groups in order to create internal cohesion.[7] An enclave is directed against the “other”, which could, again in the instance of historical Afrikaner identity, be seen as “other” empires (like the British – during the Boer wars), “other” races (as expressed during apartheid), “other” languages (as exemplified during the so-called “language movement”: or “Taalbeweging”), etc. Enclaves often operate with syndromes of anxiety (the “black danger”, or the “red, i.e. Roman Catholic danger”, etc.) and (often extreme) efforts to maintain the “purity” of the enclave. In typical enclave mentality, you are either “in” or “out”. No compromise, no grey areas – things are black and white. Writing about “black and white”, Mary Douglas says the following:

Seeing things in black and white is definitely a limitation. When you miss the colour, you miss the nuance, the 3D effect is softened, and facial expression is less vivid. We know this from black and white photography and old black and white cinema. I am using this title to talk about certain forms of social organisation that promote anger. This limited vision divides the world into two kinds: on one side ourselves, our fellow members, our friends; and on the other side, all the rest, outsiders. In the extreme case, insiders are saints and outsiders shunned as sinners. Inside is white; outside is black. In extreme cases it makes a world of saints and sinners. A wall of virtue keeps the two apart, the saints refuse to have anything to do with the outsiders. There can be no negotiation and the word “compromise” means betrayal.[8]

So, the haunting question remains: is a new “enclave” in the process of being formed in the DRC? Julie Aaboe is quite convinced of this:

In the opinion of many the DRC stands today rather as safe haven, a frame within which different Afrikaner identities is developing and or re-constructing as clearly identified in the strong pietistic influence within the DRC today, mirrored in the influence of Charismatic and Pentecostal faith traditions, foreign to reformed theology. This represents a problem. If one looks at the different strategies of re-constructing Afrikaner identity in contemporary SA, this development follows not only in the footprints of its own history, but follows also a general global development where ethnic and religious communities, enclave themselves in a modern day laager.[9]

In what follows, we try and trace some characteristics of this new (triangular!) enclave.


During the days of apartheid the church-going members of the DRC were told time and again that they had an anchor in analogical biblical histories. Security lay in the fact that the God of these histories was on their side, against their “enemies”. Over many decades, and through thousands of sermons, this myth was shaped and kept intact: if the Afrikaner household acted according to (this specific interpretation of) the biblical histories, all would be well. God would secure their future.[10]

After the demise of apartheid and the shattering of the myth, it is clear that many of these people are desperately looking for (a new) security, historical links and anchors – as an expression of their search for identity. They have been fundamentally disillusioned by the church, and specifically also the preaching within this church that has indoctrinated them for so long. Many people no longer trust the church, or at least have lost their blind and naïve loyalty to the church. The anchors that kept them tied to their moorings have been cut. Stability has become instability; a defined identity has been replaced with the search for a new identity. The shattering of the old myth has opened up a vacuum – the question now is: what new myths are being embraced by the disillusioned? And: how do you preach to such disillusioned people?

The first and foremost problem facing the church is simply that many of these people are no longer present; the audiences who listen to sermons are rapidly decreasing. The past decade has seen a dramatic decline in the membership of the so-called mainline churches in South Africa (specifically also the DRC), mostly in favour of the charismatic movements, accompanied by a phenomenal growth in the African Independent Churches (AIC).

From these trends it is clear that many of the institutional (mainline) churches are now fighting for survival. Not only are the institutions[11] of these churches viewed with scepticism, but also the theology, or basic dogma, is no longer accepted as obvious. The argument is understandable and goes like this: if the church misled us once in such a fundamental way, how are we to know that it will not do the same again? The emergence of the so-called “New Reformation”, which challenges traditional confessions of the church such as the immaculate conception, the historicity of the resurrection, the authority of scripture and the validity of promises concerning the second coming of Christ, perhaps exemplifies this break-away in a tangible way.[12] Others simply no longer engage in dialogue with the church.

This syndrome of apathy could also be ascribed to the accelerated dawn of modernity on South Africa (or collapse into modernity, as described above) since 1994. Whereas the country was isolated up to this point in time, its borders are now open to all the influences of globalization. Processes of secularization and privatization[13] have been condensed into sixteen years of democracy, with the expectation that South Africans should digest this in a much shorter time span than was the case in many other countries. All of these factors contribute towards the trickling, and in some cases, flooding away of members from the worship services.

One the one hand, preaching has become more tentative than before, no longer emanating from the certainty of a fixed and stable “truth”. One the other hand, preachers tend to be very pragmatic in their approach, desperately trying not too rock the (sinking) boat too much. Preaching has to an extent taken on the mode of maintenance, rather than being an expression of innovative theology.

Paradoxically enough, another strand could be identified in the various efforts that are made to retain those members who still show up for worship services, with liturgical experimentation and innovation taking place within the DRC in a way that few would dared have dream of before. In many cases congregations are structured according to market-driven and consumerist considerations, coupled with the copious use of modern technology. Preaching and liturgy have become geared towards the attraction and entertainment of people. One often has the feeling that now, since the controlling power of the church no longer exists, members of the church, and preachers and liturgists in particular, are frantically searching for new forms of security and identity, up to the point where they may become guilty of cultic smuggling across dogmatic borders, without giving much thought to the theological (homiletic and liturgical) consequences of doing so.[14]


A common denominator in most of these homiletic and liturgical practices seems to be the fact that they are fundamentally introversive. Whilst many (mostly white) South Africans have immigrated to other countries, those remaining in South Africa seem to be emigrating inwardly.[15] They seek the safety of the enclave, rather than facing the “other”. The hermeneutical movement of the apartheid era into the potential of the people’s pietistic reserves now takes on different forms: no longer to rectify the state of society according to certain nationalistic ideals, but simply to escape from all responsibilities regarding the new South African society. This stance is sometimes embodied in what could be called an ascetic liturgy, in which, for instance issues such as the macro economy, labour market, skills and education, and poverty and inequality – as highlighted by the Transformation Audit – are not reflected at all.[16]

But this is nothing new. Research done on trends in Afrikaans religious programmes as far back as 1987 indicates that the religion that was offered to ordinary Afrikaans-speaking people then was almost always imperative in nature, but not as an appeal that affects the daily and concrete reality.[17] It rather was a type of alien-to-daily-life, non-existential appeal on the grounds of pietistic potential. The pro­grammes’ contents said virtually nothing about the issues that, for instance, received attention in the daily press. This research, conducted in conjunction with the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, found that not one of the ten most commented on issues of the day was reflected in the sermons that were broadcast!

Through research[18] that was done during 1996-2000, it became clear that the basic moralistic trend that also characterized the apartheid sermons was alive and well in preaching in the “new South Africa.” But whereas this trend was coupled to certain nationalistic ideals under apartheid, it seems to have become more individualistic in the new dispensation. Now it is no longer up to the nation to save the day (it is in any case too divided for that), but rather the pious individual. Ethical preaching that impacts on societal issues still seems to be glaringly absent.

This inward emigration of DRC preaching and liturgy takes on many forms. One tendency that is often commented on is the so-called charismatic spirituality[19] that has taken root in many DRC congregations, with liturgies becoming more informal and orientated towards personal experience. Preaching as such seems to be gradually losing its prime position and role in worship services, and is often reduced to a short “conversation” towards the end of the service. In some cases the inward movement also represents a movement over, and thus avoidance of, the harsh realities of the South African context, with a strong emphasis on celebration and virtually no expression of lament.[20]

Another interesting trend that could be described as “inward” is the phenomenon of meditative worship services, with a return to symbolism and aesthetics[21] – although one must hasten to add that this movement is not necessarily pietistic or contra-society.[22]


It is clear that South Africa, as a young democracy, is struggling to find its identity.[23] In the euphoria of the political transition in 1994, much was made of the uniqueness of South Africa as a “unity in diversity”, epitomized in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s colourful phrase: rainbow nation. The dark days of ethnocracy seemed to be over. Since then, however, there have been some indications that people are again retreating into ethnic categories when trying to define their identity, sometimes even in fundamentalist ways.

That the church and her preaching have been affected by this seems to be evident. A sad expression of this is the fact that the church (at least the Reformed Family of Churches) is still to a large extent separated structurally. The process of unification between the Dutch Reformed Church and the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA) seems to be derailing – with a large contingency of (white) members and ministers of the DRC indicating in a recent survey that they will not accept the Belhar Confession – which forms the heart of URCSA theology and church life. Therefore the unified, prophetic voice of (Reformed) churches in South Africa is absent: it is as if the church has lost its energy to protest against societal evils like poverty, corruption, crime, stigmatization, etc.

It is as if the myth of separation between “us” and “them”, so integral to the ideology of apartheid, has come back to haunt us. The legalized borders of the enclave may have been abolished, but that does not necessarily mean that the spirit of the enclave is not still alive and well in South Africa, at least within DRC realities. This is a reality also painfully underlined by both the findings of the South African Reconciliation Barometer and the Transformation Audit.


It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how the future scenario in South Africa will turn out with regard to the development of new enclaves. What is clear in our opinion, however, is that the different churches (denominations) will have to cross borders in order to be enriched and guided by the other. We will have to move beyond denominationalism, if we hope to have any impact on society. We will have to revisit the hermeneutical space of the ecumenical church in order to address societal ills in our country. For it is exactly within this hermeneutical space that we may discover not a self-destructive “stability”, but rather our true identity; not a misleading introversion, but rather vocation (to help transform society); not stigmatization of, and separation from, the other, but rather the experience of facing the other and, in doing so, facing ourselves – and in the end, hopefully, the Other. It seems as if the “safest” haven indeed lies outside “our” haven.

[1] Cf. Johan Cilliers, God for us? An analysis and evaluation of Dutch Reformed preaching during the Apartheid years (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2006), 15f.

[2] Cf. Johan Cilliers, Preaching between assimilation and separation: perspectives on church and state in South African society. Preaching: Does it make a Difference? Studia Homiletica 7. Eds. Mogens Lindhart and Henning Thomsen. (Frederiksberg: Aros Vorlag, 2010), 67-76.

[3] This of course implies delimitation: many other trends could be identified, according to the perspective from which one views the contemporary South African scene.

[4] Mary Douglas, In the Wilderness – The doctrine of Defilement in the book of Numbers (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 48f.

[5] Douglas, In the Wilderness, 45-49.

[6] Douglas, In the Wilderness, 49.

[7] Julie Aaboe, The Other and the Construction of Cultural and Christian identity: The case of the Dutch Reformed Church in Transition (Unpublished PhD, University of Cape Town, 2007), 65.

[9] Julie Aaboe, What does it mean to be a Christian? Paper delivered at Stellenbosch Conference, 31/08/2008.

[10] Cf. Cilliers, God for us?, 15f.

[11] It is interesting to note how many DRC congregations no longer use the name Dutch Reformed on their billboards and in their marketing. Names such as The Community Church, The Family Church, The Hospitable Church, The Cross Church, etc. are preferred and seem to be popping up everywhere. For some, the link to their historical roots has become an embarrassment.

[12] Cf. the book under editorship of Piet Müller, Die Nuwe Hervorming. (Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2002).

[13] Cf. Hennie Pieterse, “Liturgy on the edge of community.” Society for Practical Theology in South Africa, UNISA (2008) 1-8.

[14] Cf. Oepke Noordmans, Liturgie. (Amsterdam: UM Holland, 1939), 5.

[15] Cf. Jaap Durand, Ontluisterde Wêreld. Die Afrikaner en sy kerk in ‘n veranderende Suid-Afrika (Wellington: Lux Verbi.BM, 2002), 60.

[16] Cf. Johan Cilliers and Cas Wepener, “In herinnering aan die kinders… wat aan honger en koue moet sterf. Liturgie in ‘n konteks van armoede.” NGTT Volume 45/2 (2004) 364-372. Also Johan Cilliers and Cas Wepener, “Ritual and the Generation of Social Capital in Contexts of Poverty: A South African Exploration.” International Journal of Practical Theology Volume II, Issue 1 (2007) 37-55.

[17] Bethel Müller, Tendense in Afrikaanse Godsdiens Programme (Stellenbosch: US Drukkery, 1987), 44-46.

[18] Documented in Johan Cilliers, Die uitwissing van God op die kansel. Ontstellende bevindinge oor Suid-Afrikaanse prediking (Kaapstad: Lux-Verbi, 1996); Johan Cilliers, Die uitwysing van God op die kansel. Inspirerende perspektiewe op die prediking – om God te sien en ander te lààt sien (Kaapstad: Lux-Verbi, 1998); Johan Cilliers, Die genade van gehoorsaamheid. Hoe evangelies is die etiese preke wat ons in Suid-Afrika hoor? (Kaapstad: Lux Verbi. BM, 2000).

[19] We are not evaluating the charismatic movement as such here, nor postulating that this movement is a-societal in its approach. One of the charismatic mega-churches in South Africa, headed by Pastor Ray McCauley, for instance, is well known for many outreaches into society and ethical (even prophetic) declarations on societal ills.

[20] Johan Cilliers, “Preaching as language of hope in a context of HIV and AIDS.” Preaching as a Language of Hope. Studia Homiletica 6, Ed Cas Vos, Lucy L Hogan and Johan H Cilliers. (Pretoria: Protea Book House, 2007), 155-176.

[21] We are very positive about this development. For too long the Reformed tradition has neglected the value of aesthetics, specifically also for liturgy. But there seems to be a renewed interest in this. Cf. Johan Cilliers, Binne die kring-dans van die kuns. Die betekenis van estetika vir die gereformeerde liturgie (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2007), 55f.

[22] The Centre for Christian Spirituality, an ecumenical body constituted by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is doing sterling work in this regard, in development of ideas concerning meditation, mysticism, spiritual mentoring and contemplative worship, but also coupled with ethical responsibility. It seems as if serious theological reflection on this subject, however, is still in its early stages.

[23] Cf. Johan Cilliers, “Religious and cultural transformations and the challenges for the churches – A South African Perspective.” Praktiese Teologie in Suid-Afrika. Volume 2 (2007), 1-19.