Not a Surplus, but a Shortage
This is not an editorial in the spirit of “I told you so.” On my part there is no desire or striving in this department for editorial self-justification. Besides, the matter to be discussed here is far too serious to be treated as a matter of “I was right” and “You were wrong.”
Several months ago I raised the question whether we as churches have a surplus of students for the ministry. At that time I cited a few statistics and came to the conclusion that between now and 1985 there was a potential of 10 graduates from our seminary. That picture has not changed substantially. On the basis of those statistics I proposed at the time that the average supply of 2 graduates per year is, on the basis of past experience, less than adequate to meet the needs, of our churches. I further proposed that our churches should not cease to pray that the Lord raise up young men for the ministry of the Word among us, and that parents, pastors, and elders should not discourage, but encourage potential students for the ministry in our congregations. At the conclusion of that editorial of last September I promised to write more on this subject. That concluding paragraph was:
But I hear someone suggest that I am not facing the reality that we have a potential surplus in 1979, when possibly there will be five candidates. Now far be it from me to try to lift the veil on the future. And anyone who knows me also knows that I am by no means a mystic. But I have always maintained — and maintain today — that the Lord did not give us all these students for naught: He had a reason and a purpose in giving them to us. On this subject also I have some thoughts: for apart from the matter of averages and average supply and demand, I am not convinced that we have a real surplus — surely not a surplus that can be wasted or cast aside. But on this subject I will submit some thoughts at a future date.
That potential surplus has vanished now and has changed into a shortage. For, the Lord willing, there will be four candidates after Synod of 1979 has examined this year’s seminary graduates; but it appears there will be five vacant positions, three congregations and two missionary posts.
There is an object lesson in all this.
A lesson not to worry? Yes. We cannot and need not lift the veil of the future. Neither our students and potential candidates nor our churches should attempt to do so. We simply cannot know what the future holds. And when the veil is lifted, so that the future becomes the present, it holds many an unexpected eventuality. To worry about it is foolish. It is vain. And how often does not the Lord put our foolish and sinful worries to shame in an altogether unexpected way!
A lesson to go forward in faith, faith founded on the Lord’s own Word? By all means! In this connection I wish to remind you of what my colleague, Prof. Hanko, said in last fall’s convocation address, in which he spoke of our calling to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers and of our Lord’s reminder that the harvest is plenteous, but the laborers few. Among other things he said:
The second reason why we are instructed to make this prayer is that the laborers are few. We might be inclined to dispute these words of Jesus. It seems to us as if there are more laborers than we know what to do with. There are, after all, only a few vacant churches and there are many students in our seminary. And so, we might argue, Jesus’ words cannot possibly apply to the times in which we live.
But Jesus Himself says differently. As applicable as the Word of God in its entirety is to our time, so also are these words which Christ speaks; and we ought to be careful lest we contradict Him as if we know better. It is true now too that in comparison with the work of the harvest the laborers are few.
We must look at all this in the proper light. Christ has entrusted us with His Word. And there are but few places in the world today where this truth is maintained in all its purity. If the harvest is to be gathered by the preaching of the truth of God’s Word, the laborers must come forth from churches where that truth is confessed in all its purity and preached.
But we must remember also that this is a matter of faith. Perhaps it is impossible to point out specifically the concrete need for more ministers of the Word. Perhaps if you should ask me to cite instances where all the men whom the Lord sends us are going, I would not be able to answer you to your satisfaction. But this is, after all, not the point. The Lord always asks us to live by faith, not by sight. This is the pattern of our entire life here below. And that faith by which we must walk very concretely demands of us that we believe these words which Christ spoke: the harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few.
Concretely put, therefore, the implication is ‘this. If ever you look about you and assess the situation and are inclined to come to the conclusion rationalistically that there are far too many laborers and far too small a harvest, you may know in advance that your conclusion is incorrect. It simply is not true. It cannot be true. Why not? Because it is contradictory of the Word of God. No, in such a case you must reassess the situation. And to do so, you must put on the spectacles of the Scriptures. Then lift up your eyes, and behold the fields white with harvest. The problem is not that of too many laborers and too small a harvest. It is always just the reverse: too few laborers, and too great a harvest. This is true a priori. If ever there comes a time, therefore, that there is an apparent surplus of laborers, do not be nearsighted and say, “What are we ever going to do with them all?” Instead, say: “Thanks, Lord, for providing laborers. If we are so nearsighted that we cannot see the harvest, open your eyes and show us that harvest. And then be pleased to use us as churches to send forth Thy laborers into Thy harvest.”
A Call To Go Forward
Partially in connection with the preceding editorial, I wish to reflect on some of the matters which confront our Synod this year. At the same time, I wish to stress that they do not merely confront our Synod, as though that assembly were some kind of body by itself, standing perhaps at the top: for such is not the nature of a synod. No, these are matters of concern to our churches-in-common; and they will continue to be such even long after the 1979 Synod has adjourned.
The matters to which I refer lie chiefly in the areas of home missions, foreign missions, and our contact with other churches, especially in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is not my purpose in this discussion to engage in any recriminations. Nor is it my purpose to criticize individuals or committees: I am interested in issues and in the cause of our Protestant Reformed Churches as they represent the church of Jesus Christ, not in personalities.
My concern is that we do not make sufficient progress or will not make sufficient progress in the above areas, and that thus we will not be obedient to our calling as churches. I will not say flatly that our churches are on “dead center.” I do, however, see danger signs. Whatever may have been the reasons, we passed through such a period of little or no progress, of a flagging and pessimistic spirit, and of a somewhat lethargic attitude in the late fifties and early sixties. And it would be detrimental if we would do so again.
Why do I say “partially in connection with the preceding editorial?” The reason is that past experience confirms that the danger is not unreal that our churches — not only those without a pastor, but also the others — will look at the short supply of laborers available and will be inclined to conclude that they cannot afford the manpower for various labors outside the bounds of our own denomination. We must beware, especially in the light of the rich heritage which the Lord has given us and in the light of the open doors to which He is pointing us, that we do not become selfishly introverted, that we do not insist on taking care of our own interests first, and that we do not take the attitude of giving the leftovers — if there are any — to others outside the confines of our denomination. I am well aware that no congregation likes to be without a pastor for long. I also insist that it is not an unhealthy situation when there is a ‘imited number of vacancies in the churches; this also creates an incentive for students; besides, it provides room for a certain amount of change, which is also salutary. But above all, I would point to the fact that while established congregations can get along for a time without a pastor, it is virtually impossible to take care of the labors outside our denominational Walls without men who can be permanently in the field. To have such men is imperative, therefore, for the accomplishment of the work.
Now let us turn to specifics.
Turning, first of all, to the work of home missions, it may be granted that some progress was initiated at our last synod when it was decided to appoint South Holland a calling church for another missionary. But the situation is that this decision is just beginning to be implemented, while our current home missionary, Rev. Harbach, is reportedly going to retire. The result? One gained, one lost. But according to my information, there are some four or five possible areas of labor, not counting the perennial problem of the work in Jamaica. I will gladly concede that when nothing else can be done, part-time laborers are the next best thing. I will also concede that from time to time emissaries are necessary for investigative work, although we should beware that we do not so frequently use “emissaries” that they become a new kind of office. But I will insist that what we truly need is long-term, consistent labors by men who are not just visiting a field for a time but who are stationed there. This must not be delayed. Mission fields do not lie in limbo until it pleases someone at long last to work — no more than a harvest waits when it is ripe. In the past our churches have always expressed a willingness to go where they were requested to come. We must keep that promise with all that in us lies. Specifically, I suggest: 1) That we ought to survey the various possible areas of labor and set some priorities. 2) That we ought to call at least three home missionaries if at all possible and as soon as possible. We could probably use five. 3) That calling consistories should use as their criterion in calling not the question of who is available or who might be likely to accept, but who is the best possible man for the work. On the mission field we ought, so to speak, to “put our best foot forward.” In that connection, I wish to stress that the fact that a given minister has children must not be a deterrent or be the criterion for not calling him. In that case our need for home missionaries simply cannot be filled. 4) That it must be expected and demanded of a home missionary that he not confine his labors to a little group of interested persons, but that he work whatever field he is in to the utmost of his power. Preaching, lecturing, radio broadcasting, personal contacts, Bible classes, and literature distribution should all be directed to this end; and periodic reports to the home church and the Mission Committee should furnish specifics about this.
With respect to the second item of our denominational labors, I may be brief. It is now four years ago that representatives of our churches had their first personal contact with the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches of New Zealand, and more specifically with the O.P.C. of Christchurch. At that time, at their initiative, not ours, a call for help in the form of a loaned minister came to our churches. The reason for this call lay not only in their need, but in the fact that when the Lord brought them and us into contact with one another, they recognized in us a true and vital communion of Reformed churches, faithful to the Word of God and to the Reformed confessions. They recognized in our churches the only ones to whom they could properly turn for help in their need. When this was reported to the Synod of 1976, the synod heeded this cry. And while the proposal of the Contact Committee was modified in some details, it was decided to say Yes to the request of Christchurch. Thereafter steps were taken to provide long-term help, and to provide interim help pending that long-term help. Meanwhile our Yes did not remain quite so firm, and we began to think and to say, in effect, “Well, maybe. . . . .” Aspects of this matter were committed to a study committee, scheduled to report to this year’s synod. In the meantime, our churches have provided interim help in the form of Rev. Van Overloop and Rev. Heys.
If our churches heed the majority of the Study Committee, as I am convinced they surely should, then we will still be back to “square one.” And if we are serious about our contact and fellowship with other churches, as we surely should be, then let us show this in very deed and strive earnestly and with all deliberate speed to heed this cry for help, and pray earnestly that the Lord will lay it upon the heart of one of our ministers to heed a call for long-term service to the congregation in Christchurch. This is the more imperative in the light of the fact that it has proved impossible for brother Andrew Young to come here and be trained at our seminary. The minister who goes to Christchurch will have the added duty of helping to train young men for the ministry over there.
The third area to which I call your attention is that of our Foreign Mission labor in Singapore. I am somewhat hesitant to write about this, due to the fact that at this time I have not yet seen the official report I of the two brethren who recently worked there. But I have received a warm and glowing oral report from one of the brethren. I have been told that our churches will be confronted with a request for our first foreign missionary. And make no mistake about it: this is legitimate foreign mission work. Involved are young people who are called directly out of heathendom and from heathen families to faith in Christ. What a glorious thing! I am told that our emissaries found in the GLTS (formerly the GLTD) a vital interest in the Reformed truth. I am also told that a missionary would be gladly received by this group of young saints and that he would find an abundance of labor. In a most mysterious way we have been brought into contact with these young people and this field of labor. To me, there is no question but what the Lord our God is pointing us to an open door. When the request comes, our synod must make provision to heed it. That there is a large task here is undoubtedly true. That there are difficulties to be faced and problems to be solved is also true. That one of the greatest problems will be to obtain the right man and his family for the work is also true. But let us be much in prayer for this work, for the group of young saints in Singapore, and for the Lord’s guidance in accomplishing our calling and eventually in obtaining a man of His choosing for that work.
May the Lord bless our Synod in all its labors, and may He give our churches grace to labor while it is day, ere the night cometh, in the which no man can work.