One of my passions is mission and evangelism. I suppose this makes sense since I started my ministry as a missionary in 2000. In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve emphasized how important it is for believers to be outward looking. I’ve repeatedly shown how God’s Word teaches us to be people who have a heart for the lost around us. At the same time, I’ve always been convinced that none of this is contrary to our Reformed identity — quite the opposite! In fact, the burden of my doctoral dissertation (For the Cause of the Son of God) was to demonstrate that, far from discouraging an outward looking perspective, the Belgic Confession fosters it. Being missional is integral to being Reformed.
In years gone by, there were those who saw a tension between Reformed identity and being outward looking churches. Sadly, today that phenomenon still exists. To address it, I want to put out a number of theses about being missional and Reformed. I’ll divide them into negative and positive theses. In this post, I’ll lay out the negative theses and in a following post, I’ll do the other ones. I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that far more could be said).
1. To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed confessions
Our Reformed identity is grounded in what we confess from God’s Word in the Three Forms of Unity. These confessions foster an outward looking, missional perspective. In For the Cause of the Son of God, I pointed out how the Belgic Confession was originally written as “the church’s witness to the world” (to use the brilliant title of P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Confession). In a follow-up book, To Win Our Neighbours for Christ, I argued that also the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort foster a missionary-mindedness in our churches. Our confessional heritage is decidedly NOT a liability when it comes to being outward looking.
2. To be missional, there is no need to give up Reformed worship
Being Reformed means worshipping in a Reformed fashion. By that, I mean that we do not worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96). It’s what we call the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Because it is grounded in Scripture, the RPW ought to be non-negotiable for Reformed churches. A Reformed worship service ought always to have the same basic elements — the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, offerings, and sacraments. The circumstantial aspects of worship are negotiable and can differ from church to church. A missional Reformed church can and should maintain Reformed worship, but it will often be necessary to provide instruction to visitors and new believers concerning that Reformed worship. Such instruction, offered inside and outside the worship context, will also benefit those who have been longtime members.
3. To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed name
It should be obvious that your name is part of your identity. In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer insists that it is a myth that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name” (p.38). In research for this book, Rainer discovered that over 80% of the formerly unchurched people he surveyed said that “the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church” (p.39). Further, Rainer points out that of those who said that the church name did have an influence, nearly two-thirds said that it was a positive influence. There is no reason to believe things would be different with Reformed churches. Giving up your Reformed name serves no missional purpose — so why do it? Moreover, why not be upfront and honest about what kind of church you are?
4. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed local church community
Sometimes Reformed believers resist efforts to become more outward looking by arguing that our priority has to be the local communion of saints. First we need to work on a stronger bond between brothers and sisters in our church family, and then once we have that, then maybe we can start thinking about (and maybe even doing!) evangelism. This is a false dilemma. The church exists ultimately for the glory of God, but it exists for his glory through human beings. The church exists for God’s glory through human beings loving one another both inside and outside the church. Scripture does not prioritize one over the other and neither should we. We are to love our brothers and sisters in our church family, but also love all those whom God places on our path — and show that love by sharing the gospel with them when God gives the opportunity.
5. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed connections
Here we’re thinking of the broader Reformed church community, i.e. on the federational level. Here we’re thinking of connections through things like Reformed church polity. Reformed churches differ from one another, even in the same federation. They each have a different history and sometimes even a different church culture. Different is not bad, so long as these differences are within the bounds of what we confess and what we have agreed upon in our church order. Churches that are less missionally-minded need contact with more missionally-minded churches in minor assemblies and other such contexts. All churches, however much missionally-minded, benefit from the accountability and encouragement that comes from living together in a federation.