Previous article in this series: December 15, 2015, p. 130.
This is the second article presented by the Domestic Mission Committee (DMC) encouraging local churches to be more involved in mission work in the area of their congregations. I was asked by the DMC to write because I have been involved personally in this type of work in our outreach in the Pittsburgh area. In this article I intend to set forth a few suggestions regarding the method of local mission work. Of course, what is suggested is not meant to be the sole way of performing this work. There are, no doubt, other methods that have been used effectively to begin a work in a new area somewhat removed from the local church.
That local missions is a legitimate work is indeed scriptural. When Paul labored in Galatia on his first missionary journey, he established a number of churches in close proximity to each other. Antioch in Pisidia was 85 miles away from Iconium, then another 30 miles to Lystra and another 30 to Derbe. We cannot claim that it was more than God’s providential guidance that directed Paul to these cities, but, even if this were true, there was not one isolated church that began in this region of Asia Minor. Paul labored immediately to establish several churches in Galatia. The same was true in Macedonia. Paul labored in Thessalonica, Berea, and Philippi. After Paul had established the church in Thessalonica, this church took seriously the call to spread the gospel throughout the region. We read in I Thessalonians 1:8, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.” The labors of this congregation extended far beyond the locale, that is, the close proximity of their church. In fact, their labors extended beyond the city of Thessalonica itself. When the apostle Paul labored in Ephesus, we find that he used this church as a hub to spread the gospel to Asia. Some scholars say that a number of the churches whom Jesus addressed in Revelation were the result of labors performed by Paul in the area of Asia.
All this only makes sense! Although a church can exist alone in an isolated area of our country, it is far better to have another church or number of churches nearby to share in fellowship and mutual labors with one another. I know the saints in Pittsburgh enjoy such fellowship when a group of saints travel to Pittsburgh to visit and worship with us (such as the young people of Georgetown PRC recently did). How much better to have another congregation of like faith nearby! Besides, it is the calling of the local church to sound out the Word of the Lord to places within reach of the church.
That being said, however, we need to examine the “nitty-gritty” question of how this can be done. It may sound noble to state theoretically that we ought to be involved in such labor. But when it comes right down to it, how to perform what we must do is not so easy a matter. Believe me, I know! This is exactly the struggle I have had these past years on the mission field! Yes, it is a given, that the church is called to preach the gospel. But there must be people present who will listen to the preaching. A preacher cannot simply go to a place, rent a building, and then start preaching to four walls. There must be ways to attract people to the preaching. There must be ways to stimulate interest in an area that will eventually bring people under the preaching of the gospel.
What can be done?
First of all, once having chosen a place to labor, the church must be determined to labor. We cannot plant a seed in parched ground and expect it to grow with a minimal amount of work, maybe a little water now and then. We need to cultivate the soil, fertilize it, and keep the ground wet—all that in preparation for the seed to grow. Then after it is sprouted, we continue nurturing that plant. A local church cannot expect a mission labor to grow and flourish by putting an ad in a newspaper (a method that has proven ineffective in today’s society) or hanging a few fliers here and there advertising a lecture. The church needs to target an area with a plan in mind. The local church through its Evangelism Committee needs to enlist the help of the members of the church, go into a city or community, and say, “Here we are! We are enthused about the gospel we as a church preach and teach, and we want to share it with you.” The church must show a sustained presence in an area. This means that the members of the church should exhibit an interest in the work. They must also learn to interact properly with those who are new to the Reformed faith. There is no need to be timid about the precious truths God has given us by His grace. Yet we must be wise in dealing with others who have little or no knowledge of Scripture.
A suggestion sometimes made is a good one: start with a midweek Bible study group. Paul was involved in much more than public preaching. He explains to the elders of Ephesus in, “And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house.” A mass mailing or two in a certain city or community usually results in attracting a small number of people desirous of a Bible study. This is a good start—but only a start. Advertising is then needed. Consistent (perhaps daily) radio advertisements, not simply announcing one particular event, but consistent advertising of the simple truths of Scripture, especially the doctrines of grace. With this, it should be stated that this is sponsored by the church on behalf of the Bible study group that meets in such and such a place.
Social media plays a huge role today. I do not bother my head with it, but I am told I do not because I am old. Perhaps that is true. The younger generation, however, is big into social media. A church website ought to be coordinated with social media, a blog, and search engines targeted toward that particular community in which the church works. The Pittsburgh Fellowship has developed over the years a mailing list that includes only people within reachable distance of Pittsburgh. Quarterly newsletters are sent out informing these contacts of activities and events sponsored by our Fellowship. Correspondence either by mail or email is an effective means of remaining connected with people in the area, even if they do not attend the Bible study.
A midweek Bible study can be used as a springboard to launch other functions in an area. Lectures and seminars ought to follow. Seminars are more personal and give time for much more interaction than a lecture, but lectures (speeches) do have their place. These lectures must be aimed at the level of those who are unfamiliar with doctrinal truths. The truths may be woven into the fabrics of our lives and other believers, but most people are not familiar with the Bible much less the great doctrines of Scripture. The truth must be made simple, without assuming that the people we are teaching understand all the theological terminology so common to us. The topics of the lectures or seminars must be of interest to the community or the families with whom we already have made contact. They must be distinctively Reformed, but not necessarily controversial. Remember that the goal is to teach the truth of God’s Word to people who desire it but do not understand it in all its facets.
Neither ought the local church in her work become discouraged if the attendance at a lecture or seminar, or even the Bible study, is small. We live in the last days. We are not going to attract great crowds of people. Do not try to compensate for small numbers by inviting the whole congregation or several of our churches to attend the lecture. Keep it local and have only a few families from the church attend, in order that those attending for the first time do not feel uncomfortable. Also, avoid the extremes: do not ignore, but do not suffocate those who are visiting for the first time.
It is important that such mission work never come to a standstill. The local church ought always to be looking for opportunities to preach or teach in the community. Perhaps there is a rest home or retirement village that holds chapels. Volunteer to have the church’s name on the list and provide speakers for the chapels. Perhaps other study groups can be formed: maybe a Bible study for women in the morning, or a young adults group that could study issues they are struggling with from the point of view of God’s control over all things.
Although the social aspect of the work is not essential, nevertheless, it is good to get to know the people with whom we labor. Perhaps a dinner can be planned where all of them attend, or a picnic during the summer months. Maybe a choir of the local church can perform in the area of labor. The choir may be larger than the audience, but that should not deter the church from sponsoring such events on a regular basis. And all the while these events ought to be advertised along with the normal advertising of the church’s presence. Personal contacts by members of the church and/or the Evangelism Committee are important.
I realize that all of this takes time. Who has the time? We are so busy with our own affairs. The answer to this is already found in the excuse. Maybe we need to take some time out for the things of the kingdom of God. Mission work always takes time. The work can be spread out among members of the church so that it takes less time for each family. But the church truly devoted to this work will take the time to do it. The minister, elders, evangelism committees, and the members ought all be committed to the work. There may come a time when the church needs specialized care of the work. Perhaps the work requires additional ministers or even a missionary. Then it is time to request the aid of the DMC. The DMC and possibly a missionary are ready and willing to help in this regard. This does not mean that the church is now finished with her work. The DMC and/or the missionary will only assist in the church’s continued labors. Always the church should be busy in the work of missions.
Finances? Yes, a work of this sort does take money as well. But God’s saints are always willing to give to a worthy cause. We see how our schools flourish by the generous giving of people. The causes of God’s kingdom in our churches do not languish. If a carefully laid out plan is published to the congregation with the request for financial assistance, the needs of this local mission work can be met.
These are some practical suggestions regarding the methods of carrying out local mission work. There is a warning we need to heed, however. Mission work is not merely a mechanical process. It is not true that after putting all of these suggestions into use, the inevitable result will be a large group of people ready to call a man to preach on the Lord’s Day and to organize. If that is what we expect, we set ourselves up for disappointment. This kind of work does not necessarily bring instantaneous results. Neither will it result in a large body of people. It is God, after all, who gives the increase. It is God who calls His people from darkness to light. The church, however, is called by God faithfully to sow the seed. A body of people ready to organize into a church does not drop from the skies into our laps (very often). The point is: are we faithful as churches in the calling to preach the gospel to all creatures? Are we faithful in sharing what God has given us with others? As my father reminded me when I was a young man, “You see work? Do it!” God will bless us when we are faithful.