Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON. See here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3 and here for part 4.
Some Possible Objections and Concerns
Someone might be thinking, “In our church communities, we’re already so busy. It sounds like you’re pushing more busyness. That’s the last thing we need.” To be clear, I am not saying that Scripture and our Confessions are calling us to be busy with more programs or projects. For many of us, we are already too busy. There’s something to the warning attributed to Corrie ten Boom: “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” This is not about adding extra activities to our church agenda. Being an outward looking church is first and foremost a matter of attitude, perspective, or vision. How do we look at the world around us? Do we look at it with fear and suspicion or with godly compassion? How do we view the church’s calling to the community? Do we even think about it? Even reflecting on and discussing these types of questions is a step in the right direction.
While that outward oriented attitude doesn’t necessarily lead to more programs clogging up our weekly agenda, it will affect the way we do many things in the church. One example would be the church website. Is it designed with an outward looking perspective or does it communicate a ghetto mentality, i.e. this website is for a select few? Another example would be hospitality. There is a Reformed church in our area that exemplifies biblical hospitality. When you visit there, they take notice of you right away and they seek you out and welcome you. They make sure that you’ve found everything you need, including the nursery, a church bulletin, a song book, etc. Our family was visiting there a while back and for some reason we had to leave right away afterwards. People from the church literally chased us down in the parking lot and invited us to come back in and join them from coffee and refreshments. Having a friendly eye for visitors on Sunday definitely indicates an outward looking church.
Now if a church wants to add a program to enhance its outreach, there can’t be any objection to that. All I’m saying is that the teaching of Scripture and our confessions does not necessarily compel us to add new projects and programs. It compels to us to adjust our perspective and consider how that re-formed perspective might impact what we already do as a church.
Another person might be thinking, “We need to take care of the people inside the church first before we can start thinking about looking outward. Our first priority needs to be our brothers and sisters already in the church. This will distract us from our first priority.” It sounds rather noble, perhaps even biblical. But there is a dilemma being created here where there need not be one. This dilemma was one of the false dilemmas addressed by Rev. Van Dooren over thirty years ago. Where an outward looking church originates is a heart for people in general. This is about engendering love for those around us, love which expresses itself in empathy, compassion, and respect. When a believer recognizes this as the teaching of Scripture, it affects how you deal with everybody, both outside and inside the church. You’re going to have a heart, not only for your lost coworker, but also for your hurting sister two pews in front of you.
There are people like this in our churches already. In one of our neighbouring churches in Hamilton, there is a widow in her 70s who has a fantastic reputation for this. She has the big heart of our Saviour for her neighbours. She’s not afraid of the unbelievers around her. She gets to know them by delivering papers and striking up little conversations along the way. She finds out where they’re hurting and tries to show love in word and deed. At appropriate moments, she shares the gospel with them. But none of that comes at the expense of the communion of saints. Within the church, she does the same thing. When someone in the church needs a meal or some babysitting, she’s right there to offer. She shows the love of Christ and gives a helping hand or a listening ear, whatever is needed. In Acts we meet the believer named Dorcas, “she was full of good works and charity.” This woman in Hamilton is a modern-day Dorcas, outward looking, full of love for the lost, but also for her brothers and sisters. There’s no dilemma because that kind of heart is the heart of our Saviour. Taking the instruction of Scripture seriously will mean that we’re not only empathetic, compassionate, and respectful to the lost, but also to our brothers and sisters in the church. Aren’t we fond of saying that life is one? This is another reason why being a healthy church is inextricably connected with being an outward looking church. If the love of our Saviour is not there for outsiders, it won’t really be there in any meaningful way for insiders either. Healthy churches increasingly reflect the love of our Saviour.
A lot more could be said, but I’ll end here and turn to my conclusion.
There is a profound irony in the history of our churches. At the very beginning, there was a question of what our churches would be called. The name “Canadian Reformed Churches” was eventually chosen because we wanted to be churches for Canada and for Canadians. It’s fair to argue that we’re called “Canadian Reformed” because we wanted to be outward looking from the beginning. How ironic it is that in our communities our churches have often been known as “the Dutch church” or “a Dutch church”! It’s understandable in some sense, because our history is tied up with Dutch immigration and then this characterization becomes unavoidable. But this sometimes goes further and there is, at least in some places with some people, a perception that our church communities are virtually impenetrable Dutch ghettoes. There’s nothing wrong with having a Dutch heritage – that’s who we are, we can’t deny it and don’t need to. Rather, it’s that perception of being impenetrable ghettoes that we want to work at addressing, especially when that perception is held among ourselves and considered to be a good thing. This is changing in some places and has been for a while already. There are Canadian Reformed churches where the church directory reveals a remarkable diversity of ethnic backgrounds. However, there is always room for growth. So the question I want to end with is: if Scripture and our confessions lead us in this direction, how do we guide our churches to be more outward looking?
This is a question of leadership. The calling of church leadership is to provide direction, to think big picture, to have an idea of what the church is and where and how it needs to be growing. In our personal spiritual growth, we should never be satisfied with the status quo. There is never a point in this age where we can say that we have arrived at the full measure of maturity in Christ. We believe that sanctification is a process. What is true for us as individual Christians is also true for us as the body of Christ in this age. We have not arrived. There is always a direction that we need to be moving in. If we are not growing in Christ, then we are backsliding. There is no neutral place where you’re simply stagnant or static. The church is always going in one direction or another. The calling of office bearers is to lead the church in the direction indicated in God’s Word.
But how? That really is another topic altogether. Let me suggest that it begins with being intentional. If we’re convinced that Scripture and our confessions lead us in this direction, then perhaps our office bearers need to lay that out in some form and thereby lead our congregations in that direction. What form might that take? I would suggest that a vision or a vision statement might be helpful. While the idea is new to our churches, our schools and other organizations have effectively made use of this concept for some time already. Mission boards also typically work with this idea – why not churches? Without some intentionality about this, it’s easy to hear it once or occasionally, and then forget about it. It then no longer factors into our discussions around the table about all kinds of issues. Having some intentionality and having that explicitly expressed in the form of a vision statement has the potential to keep this aspect of the church’s purpose before us at all times.
Another important aspect is prayer. Here too, the church must lead from the front. Our pastors need to remember to pray for the lost. We have to plead not only for their salvation, but also that our hearts would break for them in view of the eternity that awaits them if they do not repent and believe. Many of our members have family members who are lost – pray for them. Many of our members work with people or live next to people who are lost – pray for them. Pray also for opportunities to share the gospel with these lost folks God has providentially placed in our lives. We should also pray for God to give us more lost people that we can care about and share the gospel with. If this is regularly made a matter of public prayer in the church, then we might reasonably expect a trickle-down effect into the family and private prayers of our people. All these prayers will shape an outward looking church.
Unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. I haven’t addressed every angle with you. Yet I hope my goal has been attained and you’ve either been convinced of or reaffirmed in a conviction that the very nature of the church is outward looking. I’ll let Rev. Van Dooren have the last word. He wrote of the necessity of the church of Christ being an “open church.” That was his way of saying “outward looking.” This is part of what he said about that and it bears repeating all these years later:
By the expression ‘an open Church’ we do not only stress that, according to her nature, the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes everyone who desires to join her in true faith but also that she looks around, opens her arms, ‘goes out’ to bring in the lost. In one word, the Church bears the image of her Saviour, Jesus Christ. (Get Out, 9)