The touch of God began in an aged, discouraged and divided congregation. Few imagined what the church was to become.
Bethel Church did not always draw thousands of people. The church had started in 1923. But in 1988 when leaders called 36-year-old Orlando Bottenbley as pastor, they were a deeply divided church of about 60 older people. He led them to seek God, to reconcile with each other, and to ask forgiveness from all who had left the church in pain.
“The Lord blessed us with a unity that became strong,” this pastor-evangelist says. Most of all “we trained our people to be a witness for Christ.”
The young pastor knew he also had to renew the worship services. Besides trying to preach in ways that were both “theological and practical,” he began making the worship a better match for the culture. “The organ played too slow,” he recalls, “but we didn’t have any other options.” So he invited the church’s young people to find the funds to go and get music lessons so they could play on Sundays. “And they did!” he reports.
This idea of empowering people, raising the quality bar, and learning from others has become a hallmark of Bethel Church from that point through today. When they wanted help with evangelism they tried London’s Alpha Course. When they saw an opportunity to do Christ-centered recovery, they adapted Saddleback’s program.
When growth required yet another facility expansion in recent years, they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead they sent a team to Willow Creek (led by another Dutchman, Bill Hybels) not only to learn at their Global Leadership Summit, but also to tour Willow’s latest facility expansion, and learn as much as they can from other models. Their gleanings from others show up from their adaptation of Willow’s Promiseland for children’s ministry to their partnership with various mission organizations (the week I visited, Netherland’s representative for Compassion spoke about child sponsorship).
Pastor Orlando still puts high priority on “inspiring people to have a burden to reach nonbelievers.” One of their own innovations is working well for them. Once a month on a Sunday night they invite four guests for a lively panel discussion. One is an atheist, one has no church background, one has church background but no relationship with Christ, and the fourth is an enthusiastic born-again Christian. “So many of our people are bringing non-Christian friends who are curious,” he says, “and then we put it on the Internet and thousands more watch it.”
BETHEL CHURCH AT A GLANCE
Vrije Baptistengemeente Bethel (Free Bethel Baptist Church) Country: Netherlands
Website: Bethel.nl (English), Mediaspeler.Bethel.nl (Dutch)
Pastor: Orlando Edgar Bottenbley
Became senior pastor there: 1988
Founding pastor? No
Year church attendance exceeded 2,000 in worship attendance: 2,000
Largest weekly seating capacity: 7,550
Plants other churches? Yes
Branch in USA? No
2014 average weekly worship attendance: 5,000
What Can We Learn From Bethel?
God can bring revival and renewal anywhere. Bethel Church is in a town of 45,000 a full two hours from the nearest major city—Amsterdam. The touch of God began in an aged, discouraged and divided congregation. Few people, if any, had seen or even imagined a model of what the church was to become. God used a leader, Orlando Bottenbley, his wife Nelleke and their family to lead the church to a new and better spiritual place.
God used a leader who had a big heart for outreach. Bottenbley’s heart and gifting are to win the lost, to focus the church outside its walls, and to mobilize God’s people for ministry, from praying to looking for opportunities to talk about the wonderful things God has done in their lives.
For better or worse, these churches often extend the ripples of what happens in North America. Bethel Church has not only sent teams to churches in the United States, but it’s also played a role in helping diffuse those ideas to other churches across the Netherlands and beyond. Jan Hendrik IJtsma (son-in-law to Bottenbley) plays a major role in setting up Willow Creek Association meetings held across Europe.
Churches like this often train other churches. Bottenbley has not limited his focus to what God is doing at Bethel Church. He regularly meets with other pastors, often younger ones, to train them and assist them in their own outreaches. He’s originally from Surinam, and nothing would bring him more joy than for the impact of God’s work at Bethel to spell not only across the Netherlands, but to other countries and colonies in the Dutch-speaking world.
Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is research director for Leadership Network and author or co-author of 27 books for church leaders. Bird oversees Leadership Network’s list of global megachurches at LeadNet.org/world.