Previous article in this series: March 15, 2014, p. 278.
The Form for the Ordination of Missionaries in the Protestant Reformed Churches is employed to ordain missionaries to be sent either to the heathen or to the dispersed. A mission work directed “to the heathen” has become synonymous with foreign mission work. A missionary sent “to the dispersed” labors in our own country or other Christianized lands. From the Form it is clear what is meant by those who are dispersed. They are the scattered (dispersed) sheep of Christ’s pasture. These sheep had ancestors that were faithful members of the church of Christ. But because of the rampant unbelief of society and the apostasy of the church where they were members, these sheep left the church and have been absorbed into the unbelieving society of which they are a part. This is why we can say that a home missionary is sent to the dispersed. At one time many, if not most, in our country had membership in a church. They were more or less faithful members of that church. Now their generations no longer belong to a church, or perhaps their names are on a church roster, but they never darken the doorway of that church.
The preamble of the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee refers to them as the “unchurched.” This is a fitting description of the general condition of the dispersed in our day; they have no desire to be a part of the church. This is not an indictment against those few scattered sheep who do believe, yet due to circumstances in their lives find themselves desperately seeking but not finding a church home. But it is self-evident that the vast majority of the unchurched, though they may have a superficial knowledge of Christianity, are unbelievers. If it were not for this superficial knowledge, and that their forebears at one time belonged to the church, we would call these people heathen, that is, a people who know nothing of salvation in the cross of Jesus Christ. As it is, these dispersed or unchurched people of our land can be likened to the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes of Israel. They have departed so far from the truth of God and His Word that they have become worse than the heathen nations that know not God.
The preamble to the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee clearly differentiates between labor among the unchurched and heathen, on the one hand, and the work of church reformation, on the other. We quote one last time the paragraph of the preamble to the constitution that does this. “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.” We already noted that the division of labors among the heathen, unchurched, and church reformation is a good one. Domestic Missions includes all three.
But there are a two assumptions in this paragraph of the preamble that have limited us in our view of home missions. The first of these assumptions we already addressed in our first article on this subject. It is that church extension and church reformation are one and the same. We need not repeat the reasons these two ought to be separated from each other. The reader need only reread the first article.
The second assumption in the constitution is the idea that “our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation.” In this article we wish to address this assumption. It is true that it was the “present duty” of the Mission Committee in 1942, given the particular circumstances of our churches at that time. Twenty-three years later this “present duty” was still seen to be the most important part of our domestic mission work when the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1965 adopted their “New Policy” on mission work.
…historically our labors have in the past been directed chiefly toward the immediate Reformed community, that is, toward those of a historically Reformed position and background—particularly, of course, the Christian Reformed constituency. This was continued, in the main, until the split of 1953, except that for a time efforts were concentrated on the Liberated immigrants.
Your sub-committee believes that this should still be the main goal of our mission efforts, and so recommends. This should not be misunderstood, as though this is our exclusive goal; but it should be understood as our main goal and as the direction in which our efforts should go. (Adopted by Synod 1965, Art. 197, p. 35. The section of the New Policy referred to is found on pp. 113, 114.)
But that word “present” has now followed us through seventy years of existence as churches. Is church reformation still today the primary “present duty” of the Mission Committee and local evangelism? Or can we finally say that, though church reformation remains an important task of domestic missions, the preaching of the gospel to the unchurched is just as urgent as church reformation, if not more so? Is the “present duty” today primarily in the field of church reformation, as the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee states, or is it now our primary duty to preach the gospel to the unchurched?
Here are three considerations.
First, we live in a post-modern society. There are few who believe in objective truth. It is an age of tolerance of every sin and heresy under heaven. Toleration and acceptance is the new catchphrase of our land. This attitude reveals itself not simply in the wicked world of unbelief but within Christianity itself. Many Evangelical churches, as well as mainstream Reformed and Presbyterian churches, have been swept away by the swift current of apostasy and have embraced the tolerance of our modern age. The result of this trend in society and the church is that there is no more knowledge! Churches see no need to instruct their members in the Word of God. People who belong to churches today do not even know simple Bible history, much less Bible doctrine. There is a denial of the objective standard of truth set forth in Scriptures. Among church members there is a famine of the hearing of the Word of God.
It is little wonder that the people of our society stop going to church. The modern church has nothing to offer them anymore, other than social programs and an alternate form of entertainment. Observance of the Lord’s Day is no longer required. Sunday worship is optional, not a necessity. Why belong to a church? Society has become antagonistic toward and critical of the church. What was true of society in Europe in the 1950s is even more true of our society in America today. J. H. Bavinck, in his book An Introduction to the Science of Missions, writes on pages 75 and 76,
…In our day there are many around us who certainly had believing forebears but who are so woefully ignorant of the gospel that it is impossible to address them on the basis of the covenant. Such stand in the midst of the stream of our modern Godless culture; they are without religious conviction and regard as fools any who would speak to them of Jesus Christ. The ignorance of the Bible that is abroad today is so great that to preach the gospel one must begin at the very beginning.
This is an accurate description of our present society and nation. There is such horrible ignorance “one must begin at the very beginning.” Because this is true, the predominant work of domestic missions is that of preaching the gospel to the unchurched.
In the second place, we live in a pluralistic society. Pluralism is “that state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture within the confines of a common civilization” (Webster). There has been a constant influx of people from different countries into our land. They carry with them their particular culture and pagan religions. There are large communities in almost every major city that actively practice their pagan religions. Our society has become not only unchurched but also, in many instances, pagan. The church is able to preach the gospel to the heathen in our very own land. Again, this emphasizes the need to preach the gospel to the unchurched and heathen.
In the third place, we live in an unbelieving society. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the book American Grace, undertook the task of gathering statistics and evaluating them as they pertain to churches and religion in the United States. They write:
Americans overwhelmingly, albeit not universally, identify with a religion. Identity, however, does not necessarily translate into religious activity because not all who identify with a religion frequently attend religious services, or engage in other religious behavior. (p. 8)
Jesus Himself condemns this behavior as unbelief: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Putnam and Campbell continue their assessment of religion in America on page 17 of their book.
The third largest “religious” group in the United States [behind that of Evangelicalism and Catholicism—WGB] is actually defined by the absence of a religious affiliation —the “nones.” There are more nones (17 percent) than mainline Protestants (14 percent), a striking fact given that the mainline wing of Protestantism once represented the heart and soul of American religion and society. Significantly, the ranks of the nones have been growing, while the mainline Protestants’ share of the population has been shrinking.
Consider the evidence. The largest denomination in the United States is Catholicism—an apostate church. The second largest is the Evangelical churches, whose membership consists, for the most part, of those who see no or little need to gather in worship or engage in religious behavior. The third largest is the “nones.” Mainline Protestantism is rapidly shrinking. The only conclusion we can draw from this is that we live in an unbelieving society.
This is why the church’s (present) duty is to call those lost in sin and unbelief to faith and repentance. When the church concentrates her attention predominantly on church reformation, as we have done in the past, she labors among a very small segment of our society. Then, to limit our mission work even more, “our labors have in the past been directed chiefly toward the immediate Reformed community, that is, toward those of a historically Reformed position and background—particularly, of course, the Christian Reformed constituency” (1965 Policy). The people among whom we labored were not only believers, but Reformed believers. It is true that the Protestant Reformed Churches have more recently labored among groups of people or with churches that were not of Reformed persuasion at the start. But usually the people with whom we have worked had a certain level of knowledge in Reformed doctrine and the confessions. To focus our domestic mission work predominantly on church reformation today, given the situation of our present society, severely limits the work we are called to do.
The time has come—is long overdue—that we become much more involved in preaching the gospel to the unchurched. This was the foresight of those men who originally drafted the Constitution of the Mission Committee: “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” (1942 Acts of Synod, Appendage V, pp. XXIV, XXV). Well, the way is now opened. Without neglecting church reformation we ought now to press forward into the work God is plainly revealing to us.
This does not mean that all of a sudden there will be an explosion in church membership and in the growth of our denomination. We live in the last days. The church that does not cave in to the pressure of compromise is not suddenly going to bring large flocks of dispersed sheep into the fold. Preaching the gospel to the unchurched will not necessarily bring glowing results. But if we move beyond the limitation expressed in the Preamble to the current Domestic Mission Committee Constitution, then the focus of our witness to this world will be where it properly belongs. It will be much broader. This will, in turn, affect the methods of our witness. Instead of waiting for people to ask the church to help them, we will seek out the lost sheep. Instead of always focusing our attention in lectures and pamphlets on those who have a knowledge of the Reformed faith, we will also address the unchurched. Especially will this be true as far as domestic missions is concerned.
It would be quite a change if the Preamble to the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee would be revised to read, “We believe that our missionary activity or church extension work includes the work of preaching the gospel to the unchurched and heathen, as well as the task of church reformation. However, we are convinced that our present duty now lies primarily in the field of preaching the gospel to the unchurched.”