That brings us to the more concrete question of how. How should all this function on the ground, in practice? Let me try and give some suggestions.
As we consider this, it’s helpful to introduce a three-fold distinction. Ralph Winter, David Hesselgrave and other missiologists have spoken of three different kinds of mission. Among other things, these three represent different levels of difficulty in communicating the gospel. This three-fold distinction works with the idea of the distance between cultures, what we call cultural distance.
The distinction is between M-1, M-2, and M-3 missions. M stands for Missions, naturally. In M-3 missions, we’re faced with the greatest possible cultural distance between the ones doing mission and the target group. We would place the work of our missionaries in Brazil in this category. The Canadian Reformed missionaries living and working in Brazil have various backgrounds. But none of them grew up speaking Portuguese. The Brazilian culture was initially foreign to them. However, they did not necessarily need to travel to Brazil to find this cultural distance. There are many cities in North America with cultural enclaves where missions would also have to be placed in this category. In these M-3 situations, missions are the most challenging, especially in the initial stages. In this sort of work, it is imperative that those doing the work are trained in working cross-culturally. That means not only learning another language, but also being diligent about learning another culture. This is not something that can be done casually, on a part-time basis.
In M-2 missions, there is less cultural distance. This would be the category where our mission among the native people in Fort Babine fit. With this category, there is a smaller amount of cultural distance to overcome. Oftentimes a common language can be used to communicate. Certain aspects of culture are shared. We have this with the native people in most areas of Canada. In Fort Babine, they have accepted certain parts of the broader Canadian culture and incorporated them into their own culture. Over the years, aspects of their traditional Babine culture have been lost or changed because of contact with the newcomers in the land. So when we communicated the gospel in Fort Babine, it was definitely easier than doing so in Brazil. Even if the culture in Fort Babine is significantly different, we were close enough to our home culture (physically and culturally) that we never fully experienced what is known as culture shock or culture stress.
The last category is M-1. With this one, no cultural barrier needs to be surpassed. Both the missionary and the target group share mostly the same culture. When the gospel is communicated, unbelievers will understand it or at least have the potential to understand, if the Spirit grants that understanding. They may not accept it and believe it, but at least they can superficially understand what is being said by the missionary. In such a situation, we can say that meaningful communication of the gospel has taken place. We have two missionaries in our churches who fall into this category. One of them is Rev. Dong – I’m sure you’re familiar with him and the work he is doing. Another Canadian Reformed missionary (Rev. Edwer Dethan) is a native Indonesian. He was sent out by the church in Smithville to work in his home country of Indonesia on the island of Timor. Being a native of Timor, he speaks the language fluently (both Indonesian and local dialect(s)) and knows the culture intimately. For these two missionaries, communicating the gospel will still have its challenges, but most of these will be overtly spiritual. Rather than having to learn another culture (including language), they have been able to get busy right away with gospel proclamation.
While we cannot say that it is biblically mandated, M-1 missions are the wisest and most effective use of our limited resources. Where opportunities arise to do M-3 missions, it’s best to call a man who can give himself to this full time. Often the same is true for M-2 missions – at times, these opportunities can look deceptively easy. We can be misled into thinking that we truly know a people group and that we as a community or as individuals are competent to bring the gospel to them – meanwhile, there are significant cultural barriers and misunderstandings which prevent an effective communication of the gospel. After some initial enthusiasm, this often creates frustration and disillusionment. If a congregation is looking to expand its outreach in the local area, I would suggest that it’s best to focus on M-1 opportunities. Where there are situations that are M-2 and M-3 for us, perhaps God will bring people our way for whom those situations are M-1. We can certainly pray for that!
I want to also tie in a brief comment here on the concept of partnerships. My colleague Prof. Haak in the Netherlands has written a bit on this subject under the rubric of what we call ecumenics. This is a popular subject today in Christian missions. When I see the request from the Sudanese Reformed Presbyterian Churches, I see an opportunity for a partnership. What an opportunity for us to share with them the riches we’ve been given in our Reformed heritage! However, let me also encourage you to flip it around. There may be a grand opportunity here for them to share with us their knowledge and expertise as well. Perhaps we might send a man to Sudan. Perhaps they might be able to send a man for some time to Abbotsford to work among the Sudanese here. There are different ways that can be worked out. Regardless, with a partnership, it’s important that the flow works both ways. On both sides, God has given gifts and we can and we should share those gifts with one another wherever possible.
So you need to carefully consider your options and the opportunities that God has placed before you. Let me add a word of caution as you do that. It is possible to get so bogged down in discussions about how and where to work that nothing gets done – paralysis by analysis. We’re exceptionally good at that in the Canadian Reformed Churches. It is also possible to spread yourself too thin. You want to do everything and the result is that many things are being done, but none of them are being done well. So, I would suggest you grab hold of one opportunity and do it with excellence and passion.
Though I am going to be brief on the question of why we should do missions, it’s not because it is unimportant. In fact, nothing could be more so. I think John Piper summed it all up best when he wrote these words at the beginning of his book Let the Nations Be Glad:
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions.
We long to see God worshipped. We earnestly desire to see his name glorified above all. We care about missions because we care about God, we love him, and we want to see him made much of. That is the first and highest reason we want to do missions.
Closely connected with that is the love we have for those around us. Our hearts break for the lost. When we see our unbelieving neighbours, we become sorrowful when we consider their eternal destination. Love compels us to do something, to be God’s instruments for bringing the gospel to those who are dead in darkness.
When we consider our motivation for mission, it all boils down to those two things: love for God and love for our neighbour. We want to see God exalted and we long to see our neighbours saved. Whatever your congregation decides to do in the area of outreach, I want to encourage you to keep that two-fold motivation clear in your mind.
As you know, we believe the Scriptures teach that true churches have three marks: faithful preaching, administration of the sacraments and the exercise of discipline. In years gone by, there have been those who argue for the addition of a fourth mark. Some of those say the fourth mark should be mission. Such calls are well-intentioned, but misguided. We confess that there are not only marks of the true church, but also several characteristics – these are things that belong to the essence of the church. So in the Nicene Creed, we confess one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Apostolic refers to the teaching of the apostles, but there is more to it. An apostle is literally one who is sent out. The apostolic church is a missionary church. When we consider mission, it is not a matter of true or false church. It is a matter of whether this particular church is a church at all. Mission belongs to the essence of the church.
There is a real sense in which we can say that mission is just part of who we are as a church. Sending and supporting and going are natural outcomes of being the body of Christ. It is something the Holy Spirit leads us to do because we are united to Christ. Brothers and sisters, the evidence is there that the Spirit is indeed leading your congregation in that direction. Let me conclude with that short verse from 1 Thessalonians 5:19, “Do not quench the Spirit.”