Category Archives: Mission

Angels and Mission

When it comes to angels, there are two extremes.  One is to treat angels like little gods.  Roman Catholicism does this by encouraging prayers to angels.  Another extreme is to neglect angels altogether.  Neither extreme is biblical.

Historically, the Reformed churches have neither ignored the angels nor given them excessive attention.  If you look at the index of Calvin’s Institutes, two-thirds of a page are filled with references to angels.  This soundly reflects the emphasis found in the Scriptures.  Similarly, article 12 of the Belgic Confession has a paragraph devoted to the Scriptural teaching about the creation and purpose of angels.  However, I don’t think many people have considered how the biblical teaching on angels bears on how we think about the missionary task of the church.

Belgic Confession Article 12

Says our Confession, “He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and serve the elect.”  The angels were also part of God’s created work, though we do not know at what point they came into being.  Regardless, their purpose is clear:  they exist to serve God and his people.  Though they were created good, some of the angels have fallen – these we call the devils and evil spirits.   These hounds of hell “are so depraved that they are enemies of God and of all that is good.  With all their might, they lie in wait like murderers to ruin the Church and all its members and to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  This means that when we consider our missionary task, there is a formidable array of opponents waiting to destroy everything we try to do.  But, on the other hand, the reverse is also true:  we have a redoubtable heavenly host allied with us as, by the power and grace of God, we break ground for his kingdom.  The good angels serve to build and establish the church.  They are there to facilitate our missionary task.

The missionary task was given to the church by our Lord Jesus in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20.  The Scriptures are clear that the angels must always be considered in connection with him.  They exist to serve the church and its task because they first exist to serve our Lord Jesus Christ.  In popular portrayals, angels tend to be individualistic.  They stand on their own.  However, in the Scriptures, angels are first the servants of God, sent out by Christ and therefore under his authority.   This is clear in a passage such as Mark 1:13 where, following the temptations of Satan, our Lord Jesus was served by the angels.

The Service of the Angels

This service of the angels is a feature of the ongoing spiritual battle with Satan and his minions.  In the Old Testament this is most vividly seen in Numbers 22-24.  Dr. J. DeJong describes quite accurately the scene:  “Particularly the first chapter describes the intensity of the struggle with Balaam first being commanded not to go, and then going, and finally a messenger is sent to meet him, an adversary.  We have here an adversary against the Adversary, an opponent opposing the opponent.”[1]  And, of course, in the New Testament we see this battle with Satan and his angels in the Revelation of Christ to John.  The whole Bible makes it clear that we live in a time of spiritual conflict.  One of the preeminent ways our Lord Jesus fights this conflict is through his angelic armies.  These armies continue to serve Christ as he daily gathers his church from the four corners of the earth.

These angels are therefore an integral part of the mission of the church.  Their involvement is not dispassionate.  Rather, the Scriptures make clear that they are emotionally involved with what is going on.  They share in the disappointments and the joys as lost sinners are brought to their master, King Jesus.   Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  When there is joy within the bride of Christ, there is also joy with his servants the angels.   But why?

It’s because, as Christ’s servants, the angels are also participating with the church in the gathering of lost sinners.  Here we can think of their supporting role in the book of Acts.  Angels appear in the very first chapter to comfort and encourage the apostles after the ascent of our Saviour.  In chapter 5, an angel appears to release the apostles from prison so that the intense growth of the church could continue unabated.  He encouraged the apostles to continue preaching to that end.  In chapter 8, an angel goes to Philip and sends him down the desert road to Gaza where he providentially meets the Ethiopian eunuch – thus the gospel begins its journey into Africa.   In chapter 12, Peter is released from prison again by an angel.   Then, in chapter 27, an angel appears to Paul and assures him he will provide a witness before Caesar.

What About Today?

Do the angels continue to form an integral part of the mission of the church?  Though their presence may not be visible to the same degree, we have no reason to believe the angels have withdrawn themselves from the church-gathering work of Christ in this present day.  They serve Jesus Christ and have not stopped doing so.  In fact, the Olivet discourse shows that they will have a role in the last days of this earth:  “And then he will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the furthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.” (Mark 13:27).  In their facilitating and guiding the missionary task of the church today, they are preparing for the great last day of our Lord Jesus.

There is an interesting story that has circulated for many years in Reformed churches about a certain preacher in the Netherlands.  If I am correct, the story took place in the 1800s.  This preacher held an evangelistic service in a certain town and then made his way safely home through the dark streets.  A number of years later, a man came to him and told him that he’d become a Christian because of the preacher’s ministry.  He asked if he remembered that dark evening so many years ago.  He did.  He then asked who the other two men were who had been walking with him.  He and a friend were lying in wait to kill the preacher (who had irked them with his message and presence), but the other two had scared them away.  The preacher replied that he had been all alone that evening.  Suddenly, he realized that he had not been alone after all.

Whether or not that story is totally accurate, we can be sure the Scriptural teaching on angels means that missionaries are never alone.  Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and guides us with the Word.  But we also have the angelic host who protect us.  In so doing, they serve Jesus as he gathers his church through us.  They not only protect, but in ways unknown, they also engage the enemy in offensive battle.  While we do not want to speculate, we do know that the angels are fighting the spiritual war in the spiritual realm – and their victory is assured.

The biblical teaching on angels gives insight and strength, not only to the missionary (and those who support him), but also to the mission congregation.  New believers can know that their struggles are the concern of their Lord Jesus and he will support them with his angels.  But the mission congregation can also find strength in this teaching when they gather for worship.  Sometimes, especially at the beginning, mission congregations can be small.  Such a congregation does not worship alone.  Our Lord Jesus is there with them (according to his promise in Matt.18:20), but we also learn from such passages as Hebrews 12:22 that his holy angels are present too.   In his Institutes (3.20.23), Calvin writes:  “God willed to appoint the angels to care for our salvation.  Consequently, they attend sacred assemblies, and the church is for them a theater in which they marvel at the varied and manifold wisdom of God [Eph.3:10].” An acute awareness of this fact can be an immense support for young believers who often feel the isolation and loneliness which true faith can bring.

The bottom line is that angelology (the doctrine concerning angels) is a matter of comfort for all of us, and also when it comes to our missionary task.  When faced with our spiritual struggles (not against flesh and blood), we can recall the experience of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:16-17.   They were surrounded by a heavenly army of angels, prepared to fight the Lord’s battle.  Angels continue to do battle today; they continue to serve our Lord Jesus.  A heavenly host is warring together with us.  We know that the power of God is on their side and ours and thus we can have both courage and optimism in our work of proclaiming the gospel to lost sinners.

In different ways, Jesus Christ continues to gather his church:  He sends his Spirit.  He sends men.  He also sends angels.  Thus, the glory belongs not to the angels, nor to us, but to our faithful Saviour, the Shepherd who gathers his sheep.

[1] “Angels and their Role in Pastoral Care,” by Dr. J. DeJong, in Koinonia 19.1 (Spring 2002), p.11.


Attending a Babine Funeral

I often still think about my few years as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  It was an incredible experience, one that has left a mark on me.  To give you an idea of some of what we saw and heard, the following is an excerpt from my 2011 book, The Gospel Under the Northern Lights: A Missionary Memoir.  The events described here took place just a couple of months after we arrived in Fort Babine in October 2000.

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Attending a Funeral

Another interesting person we came to know and love was William Duncan.  He was an older single man who lived by himself in an immaculate house.  He had been a fishing guide and still had a passion for fishing, although his health didn’t always allow him to indulge.  When I first met him, he was 67.  He was comfortable talking about the fact that he was a hereditary chief from the Caribou clan.  His hereditary name was We Heh.  He had a lot of insight to give into the culture and history of the area.  He told me Fort Babine used to have one feast hall for each of the four clans, but they slowly deteriorated and disappeared.  Eventually, all the potlatch feasts would be held only in Burns Lake.  As a hereditary chief, Willie tried to attend all the feasts he could and he invited me to join him sometime.  One day I did.

Ted Lowley was a resident of the Lake Babine Nation reserve in Burns Lake and had recently passed away.  His funeral and the associated potlatch were held on December 9, 2000.  Willie was ready when I stopped by at his place at 8:00 in the morning and, together with Fred William, we set off for Burns Lake, via Smithers.  Along the way, we chatted and I discovered from Fred that the current population of Fort Babine was about ninety people living in twenty-six houses.  I also learned there was a lot of animosity between the people of Fort Babine and those of Burns Lake.  There was a strong feeling of alienation and that had to do with the history and the amalgamation process back in 1957.

We arrived in Smithers in good time, filled up with gas, and then headed over to the “Babine Bus Depot.”  That was what a lot of people called the Super Valu grocery store and its tiny mall.  There we had some breakfast together and met up with Adam George, who decided to come with us to Burns Lake.  We were in Burns by noon and went straight to the Roman Catholic Church there for the funeral service.  Approximately five or six hundred people were there for that, mostly native.

After the funeral mass, the coffin was taken to the cemetery.  After a few words from the priest and some sprinkling of “holy” water, the body was lowered into the grave.  As was typical for First Nations funerals, the family was expressive in their grief.  It’s certainly not what someone growing up in a Dutch immigrant community is used to.  It’s not bad; it’s just different and that’s fine.  Later on, all the immediate family members took a turn shovelling dirt onto the coffin.

From the cemetery we went over to the Woyenne feast hall.  Willie had been told that the funeral feast would start right away.  However, there was no one there.  By this time we were getting hungry, so Willie took us out for lunch to a local Chinese restaurant.  Afterwards, we headed back to the feast hall, but there was still hardly anybody there.  We took a tour around the Woyenne Lake Babine Nation reserve, including a look at the local Taj Mahal – the LBN band office.  There were a lot of new houses on the reserve, paved roads, good water and sewer, and a nearby hospital.

Finally, at around 4:00 we went back to the hall and more people were beginning to arrive.  There was lots of standing and sitting around and socializing.  The feast itself didn’t get started until around 7:00.  It began with prayer and then food was served.  We had bannock, soup, and platefuls of all kinds of other good stuff.   While we ate, people were busy making contributions to pay for the cost of the funeral.  There is some reciprocity involved with this aspect of the potlatch – in other words, a person would make a contribution knowing that eventually it would somehow get paid back.  But there were also many instances where people would make contributions with “no-return,” meaning they didn’t want to get paid back.  That was motivated more by generosity than by reciprocity.  The giving of gifts would go on for several hours, but we had to leave early because I wanted to be home by midnight.  The next day was Sunday and we would be up early to make the trip back into Smithers to attend church.  So that was the second time I attended a potlatch.  It helped me to understand more about First Nations culture in this part of BC.

A few days later, we traded in the big blue Suburban for a smaller vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe.  Our days of providing bus service between Smithers and Fort Babine were over.  With our family of four in the vehicle, there was only room for one more person.  The Tahoe was great to drive, although like with every vehicle we had up there, we ended up stuck in the snow and ice more times than I care to remember.  I also became an expert in changing flat tires – in short order I was able to do it in well under 15 minutes.

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Interested in reading more?  The Gospel Under the Northern Lights is available here.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.


Missional and Reformed — Five Positive Theses

Fostering an outward-looking perspective for our Reformed churches is important to me.  Doing that while maintaining a Reformed identity is also vital.  So, the other day I posted five negative theses about being missional and Reformed.  Today, as promised, I’m following up with five positive theses.  As before, I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that way more could be said).

1. Being missional involves putting Jesus and the gospel at the center of everything

This one is first because it is of primary importance.  Since we recognize the pressing urgency of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Reformed churches must be always self-consciously putting the gospel out there.  By “gospel” I mean the good news of everything Jesus Christ has done and will do for sinners.   That gospel message has to resound not only in our preaching, but in every aspect of church life.   We ought to be known as churches that just can’t stop talking about Jesus.

2. Being missional involves intentional discipleship into an outward-looking mindset and practices

It is odd to me that the idea of discipleship is not more strongly emphasized in many of our Reformed churches — because Scripture teaches that one of the key things that defines a Christian is being a disciple of Jesus.  Being a disciple means being a student, not only in the sense of learning information from the Master, but learning to follow and imitate the Master’s way of life.  Our Teacher’s way of life was always outward-looking — he seeks and saves the lost.  So as Reformed churches, we ought to be discipling existing and prospective church members to do likewise.  Catechism classes should include discipling our younger members in how to reach out.  New member classes should be so bold as to teach new disciples how to start right away at making more disciples — we need to harness their excitement and enthusiasm for the gospel to spread the gospel further!

3. Being missional involves an attitude shift

Sometimes people have the idea that becoming more missional means radically changing everything we do as Reformed churches, dropping some things and adding others.  Not so.  Instead, at its heart, missionality involves a shift in perspective.  We go from having a church which exists as an end unto itself, to being a church oriented outwards and inwards.  We beginning thinking about the lost, we talk about the lost, and we pray about the lost.  This shift in perspective/attitude, also means adjusting existing programs to incorporate an outward looking perspective.  I give one such example here.

4. Being missional involves a cultural shift

Most, if not all, of our Reformed churches are what we call “high-context cultures.”  There are many unspoken assumptions embedded in our local church cultures.  For example, in the Free Reformed and Canadian Reformed churches, we usually expect everyone to know there is a section of Psalms in the Book of Praise, followed by a section of hymns.  In some of our churches, you are expected to look at the church bulletin and know that the women’s society meets at the church at such and such a day and time — no one will tell you, you just ought to know.  In other churches, strangely and sadly, you are expected to know that there is assigned seating.  Many more examples could be given.  Being missional means shifting to a low(-er) context culture where we don’t assume newcomers will automatically understand everything we do and say.  An excellent place to begin putting this into practice is the church website.  Ask an unbeliever to look at your church website and point out the Reformed jargon or anything unclear.  You might be surprised.

5. Being missional involves awareness that on any given Sunday we could have guests worshipping with us

We ought to pray about guests — that God would bring them and that God would bless them.  We expect to see guests and when they arrive, we want to be aware that they’re there.  For some years, I have greeted our members and guests before the worship service.  Part of the reason I do this is to be aware of who is worshipping with us, whether we have guests or not.  But congregation members should also be attuned to this.  In some of our churches, there are Bibles and Books of Praise in the pew (good missional practice, in my view), in others not.  For those who don’t, the members of the church should be observing newcomers and whether they have a Bible and Book of Praise, or not.  If they don’t, offer them one of yours, or help them to access the books from the ushers or whatever.  When there are guests, warmly welcome them — introduce yourself, offer hospitality, etc.  We do this because of who we represent — we represent our King.  He has a warm, friendly heart and so should we.

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With these five negative and positive theses, I don’t claim to have exhausted what could be said on this topic.  I also don’t claim that all of these are implemented in the church I serve or by me personally.  However, I believe they are goals for which we ought to strive.  I commend them for your serious consideration.  The world around us is perishing and the church is the means by which Christ will bring rescue.  Therefore, it behooves us to look outward and care deeply about the lost, while at the same time continuing on stand on the biblical teachings and practices which define us as Reformed churches.


Missional and Reformed — Five Negative Theses

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.

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