Category Archives: Mission

Predestination in Mission

91zstravscl

For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.


Uber Evangelism

uber2

I’m always on the look out for creative ways to share the gospel.  This past weekend I was in Singapore speaking at a Reformation Day Conference.  This conference was organized by the First Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore.  One of the elders of the church was driving me back to my accommodations on Sunday evening and we were chatting about all kinds of different things.  As we pulled up to the housing complex, this retired man casually mentioned something he does with his time during the week:  he’s an Uber driver.  If you’re not familiar with it, Uber is a popular ride-sharing service.  Uber offers an app that connects people who want rides with people who can provide rides.  This brother uses Uber as an opportunity to share the gospel with strangers.  He keeps a supply of evangelistic tracts in his car and hands them out to whoever it is that he picks up.  While he’s driving, he often engages in conversations with his passengers and sometimes those conversations lead to the gospel.  He’ll also be listening to sermons or Christian music as he drives.  This is a great example of using the opportunities God gives to spread the good news of Christ!


Sometimes I Still Don’t Get It

2701805-article

I blew it the other day.  I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up.  Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake.  Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.

When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17).  Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus.  One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table.  We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature.  Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.

Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.”  I was one of the early contributors.  It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people.  The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback.  I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input.  I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote.  She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon.  There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms.   We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary.  Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp.  I took the lesson to heart.

I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field.  When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind.  Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate.  I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible.  Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation.  Explain, explain, explain.  Try not to take anything for granted.  You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time.  It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams.  Lay it out for them.

So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church.  I was asked to preach on Psalm 23.  This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that.  It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23.  As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her.  I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that.  Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David?  It’s Bryan’s funeral.  He keeps saying the wrong name!”  Face palm.  That’s my face.  My palm.  My bad.  I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23.  It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either.  That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners.  I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.

Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball.  Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message.  Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort.  And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message?  No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness.  Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can.  After all, souls are in the balance.  I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach.  As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever.  It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him.  Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it.  They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting.  Responding to the message is their responsibility.  Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine.  Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.

 


Ten Ways to a More Welcoming Church

friendly church greeters

Reformed churches who hold to the Heidelberg Catechism understand that, when Christ taught us to pray “Your kingdom come,” part of what he was teaching us to ask for is for God “to preserve and increase” his church (HC QA 123).  As I’ve explained elsewhere, the word “increase” is definitely referring to numerical increase.  Christ teaches us to pray for the numerical growth of the church.  If we are going to pray that sincerely, then we had better also be prepared for when God begins to answer such a petition.  If we pray for visitors, we also have to be prepared to welcome these visitors in the most God-glorifying and loving way that we can.  Let me share ten practical ways in which churches can show a more friendly face to a newcomer.

I should note two things before we begin:  first, I’m writing mostly for the benefit of Free Reformed Churches and Canadian Reformed Churches.  Others might find some value in what I say here too, but my target audience are the folks I know best.  Second, none of this involves doing anything different within the worship service itself.  Being a friendly, welcoming church does not mean making changes to the elements of our worship service and the awe and reverence we want to show to God.

TEN WAYS TO A MORE WELCOMING CHURCH

  • A Professional and Informative Website.  Before most visitors come through the church doors, they are almost always going to check out your website first.  This is the face of your church to the world.  Because of who we represent, it’s crucial that we put our best foot forward with a clean (uncluttered), easy-to-navigate website with helpful information.  I recently saw a church website that didn’t even list an address or service times, let alone contact information — inexcusable!
  • Designated Visitor Parking.  I have yet to see this done at any Reformed church, but it is a great idea.  It’s especially important if your church parking lot is already congested with regular members.  The last thing you want is a visitor driving up to your church, seeing a full parking lot, and then deciding to go elsewhere or nowhere at all.
  • Clear Signage for the Babysitting (that’s “Creche” for Aussie readers).  We want visitors to feel free to bring their children.  That’s communicated effectively if you clearly indicate where the babysitting services are to be found.  Visitors shouldn’t have to search high and low.
  • Attentive and Friendly Greeters and Ushers.  Some churches have greeters and ushers, but they may as well not, because they don’t really do anything.  They don’t even give eye contact to members, let alone visitors.  A welcoming church needs to have friendly faces at the door who will extend a warm welcome to all.  A welcoming church needs to have members who will notice if a visitor doesn’t have a Bible or Book of Praise and provide them with what they need.  These folks are the front-line of a welcoming church and if they’re not firing on all cylinders, a lot of everything else falls flat.
  • Open Seating.  Nothing says “You’re not welcome here” more than a church where all the seats are taken by members before they’ve even arrived.  “Sorry, you can’t sit there.  That’s Mr. so-and-so’s spot.”  Ugh.  But if your church is going to insist on this habit for whatever reason, at least have ushers who know where to put the visitors.  Also, if someone is sitting in “your spot,” please don’t tell them to move elsewhere.  No, you welcome them with a smile and you move elsewhere.  It just seems like Basic Christian Manners 101 — what would Christ do in your shoes?
  • Readily Available Bibles and Books of Praise.  I’ve been around enough to know that, in some churches, there is often a lively debate about whether or not to put Bibles and songbooks in the pews.  Doing so makes them readily available to visitors.  I can see the rationale for doing otherwise, but then the welcoming church has to ensure that the books are going to be easily accessed by visitors.  In my current (and previous) church, the ushers were responsible for making sure that visitors had Bibles and Books of Praise.  Having enough on hand is another important consideration — especially when there are special events like baptisms and professions of faith.
  • Literature — Free Handouts.   Some churches have a welcome center which includes literature about the church and what it believes.  These are free handouts available for visitors, both pamphlets and books.  Regular members and office bearers can get material from there for visitors, as needed.  In my previous church, we kept on hand supplies of Welcome to a Reformed Church, Jesus Loves the Little Children, We Believe, and others.  We also kept on hand extra copies of Clarion and Reformed Perspective.
  • Conscientious Members.  The ideal welcoming church will have members who keep their eyes open for visitors — and then act appropriately.  During the service, did you see that guy without a Book of Praise looking all confused?  Hand him yours and share with your neighbour.  While handing it to him, point out to him the song you’re singing or about to sing.  After the service, did you see that lady standing around all by herself hoping that someone would talk to her?  Go and talk to her.  Introduce yourself and welcome her.  Offer to introduce her to the pastor or other office bearers.  Just pay attention and treat the person who looks out of place like you’d like to be treated if you were in their position.
  • Invite Visitors to Coffee Socials.  A lot of churches have regular coffee socials.  I remember visiting a United Reformed Church in Lynden, WA and the elder who gave the announcements mentioned their coffee social afterwards, and then added, “If you’re visiting with us, please do stay with us for coffee and other refreshments so that we can get to know you.”  And they meant it.  At another URC in Brantford, Ontario, our family had to leave right after the service, but one of the elders ran after us into the parking lot and asked us to please come back in and join them for coffee.  That was a welcoming church!
  • Follow Up.  This is especially important for office bearers.  If you meet a visitor, exchange contact information with them so that you can follow up.  Write a note to them or give them a call and see if they have any questions, or give them the opportunity to meet with you for a coffee.  The personal touch will communicate that you’re interested and genuinely care about this person.

There are many more things that could be mentioned, but those are the ones that I’ve selected as most helpful.  Implementing just two or three of those above will already go a long to making a visit to your church a more welcoming experience — allowing people to see that the love and hospitality of our Saviour Jesus has impressed us and is shaping us.

 


Nuevo artículo en español

Juan Calvino y las misiones