Previous article in this series: March 1, 2014, p. 256.
In this article we continue to examine one of the paragraphs of the preamble to the constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches. That paragraph reads:
We believe that this missionary activity includes the work of church extension and church reformation, as well as the task of carrying out the Gospel to the unchurched and heathen. However, we are convinced that our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation (1942 Acts of Synod, p. 26).
In our last two articles we concerned ourselves in the main with definitions. We defined church extension, church reformation, and labor among the dispersed. The focus of this article and the next is whether we have become so committed to the work of church reformation that we falter when it comes to presenting the gospel to unbelievers or the unchurched.
We concluded in our first article that church extension was actually the goal of domestic missions, while church reformation was the means we used to reach that goal. The constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee has linked these two together. It states: “our present duty lies primarily in the field [not fields—WGB] of church extension and church reformation.” These two are considered one work. The goal of domestic missions or local evangelism is to extend the church of Christ, either by adding members to our congregations or by adding churches to our denomination. This is church extension. The means used in the Protestant Reformed Churches to accomplish this goal is church reformation, both in the narrower and the broader sense of this term. There are either individual congregations that, under the guidance of their officebearers, desire to re-form themselves into a faithful church, or there are groups of people looking to leave their apostatizing churches in order to become a congregation in the Protestant Reformed Churches. These then send a request to our churches to labor among them to that end. We as churches have always utilized such opportunities, both in foreign as well as domestic missions, to preach the gospel and strive to reform and extend the church. Our labors have been focused on those who are already believers and ask of us our help.
But it seems that, somewhere in our history, the idea that both local evangelism work and domestic mission work must be done by means of church reformation prevailed. In the mind of many, church reformation is not simply the common way of doing mission work and local evangelism, but, indeed, the only proper norm for doing mission work. Any other way is suspect.
This, in turn, has led to various ideas and practices that flow out of church reformation. Here are a couple of examples.
First of all, many believe that the “Macedonian call” is necessary before we can begin a work in a certain area. The reference is to what took place during the second missionary journey of the apostle Paul. Paul had intended to do mission work in Bithynia, a region in northern Asia Minor, but the Spirit “suffered them not” to go there. Paul then traveled to Troas and while there he received a vision of a man from Macedonia who said, “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” God had obviously directed Paul through this request into the region of Macedonia, to which Paul went directly and in which he took up his work. Many conclude from this incident in Paul’s journeys that the only proper way our Domestic Mission Committee may initiate a mission work is in response to being asked by a group of people to “come over and help” them.
This implies, of course, that there is a group of believers who are unhappy with what is being taught them in their church and who ask the Protestant Reformed Churches to organize them into a congregation in our denomination. By accepting the request we immediately enter into the work of church reformation. Or, perhaps a similar scenario: there are a few unrelated contacts in a given area, all of whom have expressed a desire that we come and help them. If there are enough of these contacts, the Mission Committee is willing to investigate a possible mission work there. This, too, results in the work of church reformation, since these contacts are already believers who are unhappy with the conditions found in their own churches.
Insistence that the Macedonian call is the only portal through which we can enter to initiate a mission work binds our churches solely to the labor of church reformation. There is no doubt, of course, that the Macedonian call has its place in determining a mission labor, but to say that it is the exclusive way to begin a work ignores the method Paul used in the remainder of his mission labors, and severely limits our present mission labors. In the May 1, 1994 issue of the Standard Bearer, in an article entitled “The Macedonian Call,” Rev. Carl Haak observes:
…we must not interpret the Macedonian call to mean that before the church would engage in a work of missions she must have a specific call to a specific area. To interpret the Macedonian call in that way puts the command or the call to engage in mission work which the Lord gave us into a straight-jacket and may actually produce in the church idleness and put an obstacle in front of the work of missions which is already hard enough.
We agree with this assessment.
That church reformation has driven our mission work and church evangelism work is also evident, in the second place, in the lectures we sponsor and pamphlets we produce. There certainly is a place for the many lectures that have been sponsored by our churches. They are spiritually wholesome and edifying for the church of Christ. Our members ought to utilize such opportunities to attend our lectures. Besides, lectures have effectively served in the past to stimulate interest in the truth of the gospel and in our churches. They have served well in the area of church reformation. The same is true of our pamphlets. They still are valuable in the promotion of the gospel all over the world. There are many believers who have read and still read our pamphlets and are drawn to the doctrines of grace taught in them.
But our lectures and pamphlets serve their purpose only in the area of church reformation. Lectures address themselves to audiences that already have a certain level (a very high level at times) of knowledge of Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The only ones who will understand these lectures are those fairly well steeped in Reformed theology. Most of the pamphlets produced by our evangelism committees assume that those who read them have a good understanding of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. Such pamphlets have their place. But the function they serve as far as evangelism and mission work are concerned is very limited because they serve only the work of church reformation. Rev. Ronald
Van Overloop, in an article written for the special issue of the Standard Bearer of December 1, 1981 entitled, “Our Publications and Missions,” writes a glowing report about the publications of the Protestant Reformed Churches. With that report we are in total agreement. In the article he also turns his attention to the “function our books and pamphlets are performing in the area of mission work.” He states:
One must say that, although these pieces of literature are all good as far as their content is concerned, and are useful in many ways, they are not designed to any great extent for mission work. There are some reasons for this.
Many of the books and pamphlets are directed to Protestant Reformed people. This is evident from the fact that many are but printed copies of lectures directed to Protestant Reformed people. These are very good and useful in instructing our people in the truth of God’s Word, but not intended for mission work and therefore have a limited value.
This is equally true of the pamphlets which were written for our mission work of years ago. They were directed to people who were of the denomination out of which the Protestant Reformed denomination came. The nature of mission work is changing as we find ourselves working more and more with non-Dutch people and with those who are not of the same Reformed background and heritage….
Another reason why it is said that our current list of literature is not designed to a great extent for present mission work is that today doctrinal knowledge is slim. The exceptions are trained officebearers and an occasional layman. A greater number may be acquainted with some of the theological terms and expressions, but they have little or no idea what they mean. Besides this, each group of churches tends to have its own peculiar theological expressions. The phrase “the counsel of God” conveys much significance to some, but to others little or nothing. Our pamphlets and books have many of these and similar expressions. This makes them difficult to understand if these terms, phrases, and concepts are not simply and clearly explained. To the extent that these are not explained, and their meaning and significance is assumed, the literature loses its value when used outside the sphere of our denomination.
There are those who may disagree with what Rev. Van Overloop states, but their argument is based on a limited notion of church extension and mission work. Our lectures and literature serve missions in the area of church reformation. But their testimony does not go beyond our witness to Reformed believers.
If we tie church extension together only with church reformation, this will hamper our domestic mission labors and, in some areas, church evangelism. The work of church reformation has become almost non-existent today. Maybe there are those who do not see this as true because they are not actively involved in evangelism and missions. If there are requests for us to help, they are very, very few. Neither are our present lectures and pamphlets shaking up the church world enough to break some loose so that they seek to be re-formed. That is a sad and disheartening fact to admit, but it is true. That does not mean we give up on this area of labor. We have the calling to carry on in the important work of church reformation. But it does mean that we need to reevaluate church extension and missions.
This is where the vision of our fathers in 1942 enters in. They stated in the preamble of the constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee: “We believe that mission work includes…the task of carrying out the gospel to the unchurched and heathen.” It is true that they added, “However, we are convinced that our present duty lies in the field of church extension and church reformation.” But they did state “that our present duty” lies in this field. That was seventy years ago! Neither ought we to overlook the sentiment that was expressed in the original draft of the constitution to the synod of 1942: “Although we look forward to the time that the way will be opened for us to labor among the heathen, both here and abroad, and among the dispersed, we are convinced that our present duty still lies in the field of church extension and church reformation.” Our fathers looked forward to the time when we as a small denomination, so limited at that time in manpower and finances, could go beyond the work of church reformation. True, this statement was not included in the constitution as it was adopted, but it was left out, not because of any disagreement, but only for the sake of brevity.
The Lord for some time now has made it apparent to those busy in domestic mission work that the time has come to bring the gospel to the unchurched and heathen in our land. We need to carry our work and the methods we use to accomplish that work beyond (not excluding) church reformation and begin a broader labor in mission—and even in local evangelism. Church extension or mission work must be done among the unchurched! Why? Because the vast majority of people in our own land are indeed unchurched. This phenomenon has been developing for many years already and rapidly continues to worsen. We cannot ignore it. If we do, we will find that we have very little left to do in our witness to this world as churches. We must continue in the work of church reformation but willingly swing the door open wide to work among the unchurched.
In a fourth article we will address the practical matter of how we can initiate a mission work among the unchurched.