Tag Archives: evangelism

Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (1)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.

In the Canadian Reformed Churches, we hear a lot of talk these days about our need to become more outward looking.  It’s therefore certainly worthwhile to consider whether this is simply a passing fad or whether there’s something biblical here that needs our attention.  I have three comments by way of introduction.

First of all, it may seem like this something that has just popped up recently.  However, this subject has been under discussion before in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  In 1972, here in Burlington, a minister taught a course about Reformed congregational evangelism.  The lectures were later published in a booklet format.  Later, in 1979, the material was expanded and published as a book.  Perhaps the author was known to some of you:  Rev. G. Van Dooren.  The second edition of his book was entitled Get Out! & Get Rid of Dilemmas.  Some of the questions we’re going to be considering were already addressed by Rev. Van Dooren over thirty years ago.  Now the easy thing to do would be to stop here and just tell you to go and read the book.  It’s apparently still available from Premier Publishing, so you could do that.  However, there comes a time when a younger generation has to pick up the mantle from the older.  Even if the questions we’re looking at today are old, they are still being asked and they’re still deserving of an answer from today’s generation.  While I respect the work done by Rev. Van Dooren, I’d also like to build on it and take it further in some ways.

My second introductory comment relates to my own history with these questions.  I was ordained in 2000, as a missionary.  I served the Lake Babine Nation in British Columbia, as a missionary of the Smithers church.  Together with my family, we lived on a small reserve about 100 km north of Smithers, Fort Babine.  A missionary and his task are naturally outward looking.  Eventually, the time came when our family was called off the mission field and I became a pastor in a regular church.  The Lord called me first to become a co-pastor of the Langley church.  One of the ways that the Lord drew me there was through the pleas of his people.  They said that, as a former missionary, they needed me to help their congregation become more outward looking.  Fresh off the mission field, I had a perspective that could serve their desire to be a church oriented to the community where the Lord placed them.  That plea certainly resonated.  Indeed, it became an important part of my work there.  Fast forward to 2009 and a call came my way from the Providence church in Hamilton.  This theme of having an outward looking pastor to lead a congregation that wants to be outward looking came up again.  I was recently reviewing some of the letters and e-mails I received from Providence church members when considering the call and I was surprised by how many of them brought it up.  It definitely factored into my discerning the Lord’s will for me to move to Hamilton.  Based on that, I think you can already sense where this is going to go.

My third introductory comment has to do with what one pioneer Canadian Reformed pastor allegedly said.  Back a number of years ago, I met an older brother who had been under the ministry of one of our pioneer pastors.  The name of the pastor is irrelevant.    This older brother told me that Rev. X. had once said something like, “Beware when the church is fixated on evangelism.  It’s never a good sign for the health of the church.”  I don’t know whether Rev. X. actually said it.  I’ve never seen any proof of it and that’s also why I hesitate to mention his name.  Regardless of whether it was said, there has often been suspicion attached to those who want to be more outward looking.  The sentiment attributed to Rev. X. is definitely out there.  When I first heard this comment, I actually tended to agree.  After all, there have been those in our churches who have used mission and evangelism as a tool to try and change things via the back door.  This is especially true with regard to worship.  By having a mission project or evangelism effort with the songs we want sung with the instruments we want played, perhaps we can pull the church along in the direction we think it should go.  At times, our missionary-minded and evangelistically-enthusiastic people have not been the most confessionally-grounded people in our churches.  The thinking sometimes seems to be that when we do mission work, we have to leave all this Reformed baggage behind.  So, that means we have to abandon the singing of psalms, we have to abandon the Three Forms of Unity, and anything else that makes us distinctively Reformed.  To borrow the expression of C.S. Lewis, the evangelistic believer or missional church must be “merely Christian.”  However, this is a false dilemma.  We can be confessionally Reformed in the fullest sense, and be outward looking churches.  You don’t have to choose between one and the other.  There are Reformed missionaries who have the Three Forms of Unity, not only as their confessional basis, but also as a powerful missionary tool.  Around the world in the most surprising places, there are Reformed churches who are not only NOT ashamed to sing the psalms (and even with Genevan melodies), but they delight in doing so.  So let me lay my cards on the table at the outset:  I am going to argue that not only can confessionally Reformed churches be outward looking and be healthy – they must be outward looking in order to be healthy.

Click here for part 2.


Book Review: Bringing the Gospel Home

Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, Randy Newman, Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.  Soft cover, 220 pages, $15.99.

There are growing numbers of first generation Christians in our Reformed churches.  There are also growing numbers of those who have come from unbelieving families that a generation or two ago were Christian.  These brothers and sisters face the question of what to do about their unbelieving parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives.  Sadly, we do also have those whose children or grandchildren have abandoned Christianity.  There too, we can be confronted with the question of how to most effectively reach out to these loved ones with the gospel.  If you identify with any of those situations, then this book is for you.

Randy Newman grew up in a Jewish family and was brought to faith in Christ while in college.  He’s writing out of his own first-hand experiences.  He’s also interviewed numerous others with a burden for lost loved ones.  They and he have learned that evangelizing family is tough.

This is a well-written and practical guide to evangelism amongst those who know us best – and may be the least likely to listen to our witness.  Each chapter is structured around a biblical theme:  Family, Grace, Truth, Love, Humility, Time, and Eternity.  At the conclusion of each is a  set of concrete “Steps to Take.”  The book is filled with anecdotes – many with happy endings, and some not so happy.  As I was reading the book, I often got the sense that the author was sitting across from me and telling me all this first-hand.  Bringing the Gospel Home has a breezy, conversational feel to it and the author’s great sense of humour is often evident.

Let me just one paragraph to give you a feel for the book.  It comes from the chapter on humility.  Newman suggests that humility can sometimes be framed as a question.  Sometimes it can be put as a request for permission:

“Would you ever be up for discussing spiritual things?” sounds less threatening to some people than, “If you were to die tonight, how sure are you that you’d go to heaven?”  A permission question accomplishes two things.  It disarms the hearer of normal resistance because the question implies you don’t want to talk about religion right now.  It also opens the person up to your presentation at some later date because they gave you permission.  The contrast yields dramatically differing results.  (143-144)

That’s a fabulous suggestion and it could be useful in many other situations besides witnessing to family.

Bringing the Gospel Home is theologically sound and saturated with a passion for teaching people the best ways to share the good news of Christ.  It has the potential to be a powerful tool to help those who care about the eternal destiny of unbelieving loved ones.  This is definitely among the best books on evangelism that I’ve come across.


Different People, Different Places (2)

Part 2 of the revised text of a presentation for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in 2008.  Part 1 can be found here.

Deliberate Atheists

There are few people who will outrightly describe themselves as atheists.  There were no atheists, for instance, in Fort Babine.  An atheist is a person who considers the existence of God to be unproven.  They typically claim to have intellectual problems with God’s existence.

Many atheists are well-read and intelligent people.  Yet you might be surprised how many of them have never actually read the Bible.  Although some training in apologetics would be helpful (and according to 1 Peter 3:15 is our responsibility), the one thing that all of us can do is to challenge the atheist on the reading of the Bible.  Has he or she read it?  The Word of God is powerful all on its own and many an unbeliever has been converted just by picking up and reading the Bible.

Seekers

These are those who have some conviction of their sin and guilt before God.  They recognize that they have a problem and their ears are open and attentive to the good news.  Perhaps God has already been after them for some time.  With these our calling is simply to tell them the good news of what Christ has done.

In the Bible we also see examples of most of all those sorts of people.  Psalm 14 and 53 tell us about the fool who says there is no God.  After the Pentecost preaching of Peter, Jews who were formerly indifferent or hostile became seekers.  Ananias and Sapphira were false Christians, as was Simon the Sorcerer.  We need look no further than the Pharisees to find the self-righteous.  And we could add another category as well:  the non-Christian religious.  We see these people in Acts 17 in Athens or in Iconium in Acts 14.  These people needed to be turned from idols to the living and true God.  Such people live in your city as well.

Now among all those groups, many of us know people with whom we have relationships of various sorts.  Let’s now survey those relationships and reflect on how those relationships will determine our approach.

Long-term Intimate

These are people such as family and close friends.  We usually don’t have any difficulting speaking with people in this group.  If there are unbelievers in this circle, we should be able to speak with them directly about spiritual things.  However, it should be recognized that speaking directly does not mean being offensive and rude.  As in every situation, it has to be clear — many times it has to be said out loud — that we say what we say because we care deeply about that person.  People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.

Long-term Acquaintance

These may include more distant relatives, neighbours, co-workers, fellow students, etc.  These are people whom we’ve known for a long time and they know the basics about who we are.  Certainly we hope they know we’re Christians – there would be nothing worse than having a person with whom you’ve worked for ten years say something like, “Hey, I didn’t know you were a Christian!”   With these folks, we would be less direct, depending on whether or not we’ve talked about spiritual things with them in the past.

We have a unique responsibility to all those with whom we are in long-term relationships, whether intimate or not.  These people see us regularly and they know the witness of our lives, even if they have not heard the witness of our lips.

Short-term

These are the people who come and go in our lives.  They’re in our lives for ten minutes or two months, or something like that.  We have few opportunities to get into anything indepth with these folks.  Our relationship with them is stays at a superficial level.

With these sorts of relationships, we should look for open doors in which to speak about spiritual things at some level.  But when those doors open, we have to be careful about not being too aggressive.  In our society, people are greatly annoyed by aggressive strangers no matter what the motives are, religious or not.  Canadians just don’t track with that sort of behaviour.  My observation is that many Americans don’t see that as odd, but in Canadian society people are not like that.  Canadians see themselves as kinder and gentler.

Being unaggressive doesn’t mean we’re uncaring or unconcerned.  It means that we’re sensitive to the culture in which we live.  It also means that we recognize that we’re not the ones who save the lost.  God is.  We pray for open doors and when God gives them, we’ll be willing to go through them and take them.  But ultimately the salvation of our neighbours doesn’t depend on us and our efforts.

God will use all of us with all our natural gifts and personalities and even our weaknesses.  Some of us are more open and extroverted than others.  Some have no problem striking up a conversation that leads to talking about spiritual things in a natural, friendly way with strangers.  Let’s not stop them or discourage them!  But others of us are shy and it takes a long time before we get to the point where we personally share our faith and tell about the gospel.  I count myself in the last group and I don’t have to feel guilty about that and neither does anybody else.  That’s the way God created us and he’ll use us however he wills.  At the same time, we can never use our shyness as an excuse never to speak about spiritual things.

You may have a situation where a neighbour comes by and all you do for fifteen minutes is talk about the weather or whatever else.  Maybe at the end of the conversation you give him a tract or an Evangel magazine or something like that.  That’s fine.  But in that sort of situation, make a mental note to pray for that neighbour.  Not only to pray for him that day, but to pray for him regularly if he isn’t a Christian or you’re not sure.  My experience as a missionary taught me that prayer is one of the most powerful things we have at our disposal in our outreach.  I would pray for people’s salvation and for opportunities to speak the gospel to individuals.  God would give the open doors to do those very things.  It happened to me over and over again.  I can’t say that God saved dozens of people through me, but he did allow the opportunity for the Word to get out and the gospel to be heard.  I’m convinced he’ll do the same for you.

In connection with that, James 5:16 is a well-known Bible passage:  “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”  That applies as much to outreach as it does to anything else in life.  Don’t get hung up on methods and techniques – the best outreach is simply being yourself, loving your neighbour and praying earnestly for him or her.  There is no one magic technique that will work for everybody – the gospel by its nature simply doesn’t lend itself to that kind of manipulation.

I do hope that God will bless your efforts.  May he use you to call those who are in darkness into his marvelous light, for the glory of his name.


Different People, Different Places (1)

Part 1 of the revised text of a presentation for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in 2008.

In the spring of 2004 I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Bristol, England.  Bristol is an interesting city.  It’s the place from which John Cabot set sail in 1497.  It also has a long history of harbouring the Christian faith in various forms.  The main chapel of the famous Methodist John Wesley is found there.  There is a well-known and very large church, St. Mary Redclyffe, which dates back to the thirteenth century.  And you’d have to see it to believe it, but there are still churches on just about every corner in the downtown core.  Most of them stand empty or have been converted into coffee shops, museums, art galleries and apartments.  Today it is a typical city in the U.K. – very few people still go to church and even fewer are Bible-believing Christians in any sense.  So far as I know (and I looked), there were no confessionally Reformed churches in Bristol.  We often deplore the so-called secularization of the Netherlands where many of us have our roots, but the situation is no better and maybe even worse in the U.K.

As I was in Bristol that weekend, I was exploring the downtown area when I saw something I’d never seen before:  a street preacher.  There was this articulate black British man preaching the gospel right on the street.  I stopped and listened for a while and it sure sounded like the gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, very few people around were stopping to listen.  There was a small group of three or four people, but I think those were his friends, probably waiting their turn.  I thought about this afterwards:  was this an effective way to reach out with the gospel to the people of Bristol, people who appear  mostly to be estranged from Christ?

I thought about this more recently when I became familiar with the work of an evangelist by the name of Ray Comfort.  Comfort was born in New Zealand, but is a pastor in the United States.  Some time ago I watched a video of Comfort doing street evangelism somewhere in the US.  I think it’s fair to characterize Comfort’s approach as aggressive and in-your-face.  He believes that he needs to be.  He believes that he has to confront unbelievers with the demands of God’s law, their inability to keep it and their need for a Saviour in Jesus Christ.  Is this what we need to do as well?

I would not say that it’s sinful or necessarily wrong or evil, but I am going to suggest that this may not be the wisest or most appropriate way to approach your neighbours.  Before I explain why that is, let me briefly outline where I’m coming from.

While I was in university in Edmonton, I was part of an outreach effort that we called the Areopagus Project.  Once a week we set up a table in a high traffic area on campus.  We had two people sitting at the table and we had free Bibles available, plus a variety of tracts.  Through the contacts at the table, we also invited people to a campus Bible Study conducted by ourselves and some friends from the local Free Church of Scotland.  Upon moving to Hamilton for seminary studies, I was involved with a sort of pre-cursor work to what we now call Streetlight Ministries.  Rev. Ted VanRaalte and myself (along with our wives) would regularly do an evangelistic Bible Study at a drug and alcohol rehab facility in downtown Hamilton.  Then, of course, in 1999 I became involved with the mission work of the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church and in 2000 I was called to become their missionary in Fort Babine.  In my work as a pastor in established churches, I’ve also from time to time had the opportunity to share the hope we have.  So, over the last 15 years or so I’ve been blessed to be able to share the gospel with many people numerous times and in various settings.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned it’s that there is no one formula to follow in witnessing to our neighbours about the gospel.  I can’t come and say here’s what you need to do, step 1, step 2, and so on.  Witnessing and evangelism is not like that in the Bible and it doesn’t work like that in life today.  People are different and unpredictable.  Situations are different and unpredictable.  The most important character trait we need to develop when we desire to reach out and witness to our neighbours is flexibility.  People are not the same – those who witness are all different and those who receive the witness are all different.

What I’d like to do is survey the ways in which people on the receiving end are different and how we might witness to them more effectively in recognition of their differences.  Specifically, I want to briefly discuss how people differ in where they are spiritually and where they are in relation to us.  In this, I’m briefly summarizing part of a book on evangelism that I’ve found helpful, Tell the Truth, by Will Metzger.

So, first of all, let’s survey some of the ways in which people differ in their spiritual state and what their needs are in light of what God says in Scripture.

The Ignorant and Indifferent

Many people in broader Canadian society fall under this category.  These are those who normally simply don’t care about spiritual things.  They may be moral people and they may go to church on special occasions, they may even describe themselves as Christians when surveys are done, but in general, they just drift through life.

These folks need to be challenged and surprised to see their need for a Saviour.  They need to be warned and shown the high demands of God’s law (“Be perfect!”) so that they will be driven to the cross of Christ.  If they remain indifferent and uninterested, we, like Jesus with the rich young ruler in Luke 18, just let them go their way.  Perhaps God will still work with them further in the future.  Perhaps not.  But even just letting them go, we don’t stop loving them or praying for them.

The Self-Righteous

When I was a missionary in Fort Babine, there were a number of people in the community who warmly welcomed our presence.  There was one family in particular that thought it was especially good we were there.  They would say things like, “It’s good that you’re here, those other people in the community sure need you to straighten them out.”  They themselves were already straightened out, so they had no interest in the gospel.  These are the self-righteous and they will be found everywhere.

These people need to be shown that their pride is idolatry and extremely offensive to God.  We need to hold up the mirror of God’s Word to them so that they will see the ugliness of their pride and run to Christ.  We need to be pray they will be convicted of their own sin and go to the cross for forgiveness and reconciliation.

False Christians

These people may think they are Christians, but the reality is something different.  In our society we can especially think of people who are Jehovah’s Witnesses or devout Roman Catholics.  If they were surveyed, they too might answer that they are Christians.  But meanwhile, if they are trusting in anything else other than Christ alone, they are in a world of eternal trouble.  Of course, there may be the odd Roman Catholic who is truly trusting in Christ alone but doesn’t leave Rome for one reason or another.  Yet those are rare.

These folks need to hear the biblical gospel that it is in Christ alone that we have our salvation and well-being.  We have to persistently share with them the good news that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone.  The solas of the Reformation will be our repeated refrain with them.

Click here to go on to part 2.


Church Growth

“Although it is easy for us to overlook, it is an empirical fact that most of the church’s members over the last two millennia have been converted not through mass evangelism or revivals but through the ordinary means of grace in the church’s public ministry.  Most of these saints could not have told us when they came to believe the gospel; the Spirit worked through the weekly ministry of the church and the daily encounter with God’s Word in the home.  We may get tired of it.  We may wonder if it is powerful, wise, and relevant in an era of impressive marketing and political campaigns.  Yet in spite of its profoundly mixed record of faithfulness to its commission, this ordinary ministry of baptizing, catechizing, preaching, receiving the Supper, praying, singing, caring and comforting, admonishing and encouraging in fellowship, and finally, burying the dead in the hope of the resurrection has yielded the most effective results even when considered on purely empirical grounds.  Those who are deeply rooted in the mysteries of the gospel will not only be more confident but more zealous to share their hope in the ordinary course of daily life.  And they will also more eagerly encourage others to attend the public means of grace, where strangers are reconciled.”

Michael Horton, the Gospel-Driven Life, 212-213.