Missionair en gereformeerd — tien stellingen (translated by R. Sollie-Sleijster for Een in Waarheid)
Tag Archives: Mission and evangelism
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.
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 to stand on the biblical teachings and practices which define us as Reformed churches.
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.
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!
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.