Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of the Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
The consideration of the principles of missions legitimately includes a discussion of the methods of missions. The reason is simple. The methods are to be determined from the principles.
The biblical basis for this relationship between principles and methods, between faith and practice, is easily shown. The Scriptures give us the contents of our faith – what we are to believe in order to be saved. They make one wise unto salvation (II Timothy 3:15), but they also thoroughly equip one unto every good work – how we are to live (II Timothy 3:17).
Every method of evangelism, therefore, is to be derived directly, or by clear implication, from exegesis of Scripture. Likewise, every method and practice of mission work which is not derived from Scripture is sure to be summoned before God’s bar and to receive harsh judgment.
This must be emphasized. This close relationship between principles and methods is not always seen in practice. Man, throughout history, has always been pragmatic to some degree, but in today’s world it seems that pragmatism determines everything. By pragmatic we mean: to use whatever works or works the best, without asking questions. This kind of thinking greatly influences the church world. Evangelists and mission boards may go to the Scriptures for their message, but they often go to the world of business or to the fastest growing churches for their methods. The church-growth movement, which has swept the churches in the Americas, is built on the foundation of pragmatic methods: grow, and grow as fast as possible. Yesterday’s mail brought me a large flyer from the Church Growth Institute, which is presenting seminars on “How To Reach The Baby Boomer.” At the seminars one can learn “how to select the method of evangelism that Baby Boomers best respond to”; “how to incorporate the Boomer into the body of Christ” (I did not know man could do that); “how to recognize the Boomer lifestyle, the values they hold, and the impact they will have on the church”; and “how to increase your lay involvement by 46%” (how they get such exact percentages I do not know).
However, the question that should be asked is not what works, but what does the Bible say or imply about methods. We want our methods of missions and evangelism to be an extension of our theology, an extension of what we believe. The view which one has of God, of sin, and of grace, affects seriously how we do our work of missions. If a congregation believes that Jesus Christ is their sovereign and gracious Lord, then they will gratefully put forth every effort to be obedient to His every command and to please Him with their doctrine and practice.
Consider a few negative examples. The theological position according to which grace is in the sacramental water of baptism will produce a methodology for evangelism and missions which baptizes as many people as quickly as possible. If we believe that natural man’s will is morally free, then regeneration will be defined as the individual’s determination to believe; and our evangelism will consist of anything which will move the will of man, for example, moral persuasions, emotional beseechings, and slick sales pitches. If we believe that millions of men are just waiting for the right presentation of Christ in order to be saved, then we will be driven to selling Christ, begging for decisions, and constantly feeling guilty for not doing enough. It is easy to see why it is that the methods one uses in missions and evangelism is simply the extension of one’s theology into life and practice.
The Reformed faith determines the methods used by Reformed missionaries and by the Evangelism Committees of local Reformed churches.
Reformed theology holds that the goal of all God’s works is the glory of Himself (cf. Revelation 4:11; Romans 11:36) and that His glory must be the goal of all that man does. “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). Evangelistic methods issue forth from this doctrinal position. Because God cannot be glorified where He is not known, our evangelism literature and mission preaching has as a priority the desire to make God known to sinners. While preaching on the mission field at Athens, the apostle Paul did not speak first of Jesus, of the resurrection, and of the judgment day, but of God and His creation and His all-comprehensive providence (Acts 17). God and His glory are the reference point for a proper understanding of Jesus and salvation in Him. Therefore the sovereignty of God, His just wrath and His righteousness, are to be vigorously preached on the mission field, so that the doctrine of God might be the starting point for a proper understanding of one’s real need and of the infinite gratitude one owes to God for salvation in Jesus Christ. Therefore the effort of missions and evangelism is to teach the sinner that his misery and sorrows arise from his failure to glorify God by walking in obedience to all of God’s commandments. Therefore the repenting and believing sinner will be taught to glorify God in gratitude by observing all things whatsoever God has commanded us.
Because the Reformed faith maintains the glory of God as the goal of all our mission efforts, we must resist all means and methods which make man’s good the chief end in evangelism. Not that we are uninterested in man’s good. But when we make man’s good the chief end of our mission and evangelism efforts, then there is a strong temptation to smooth over the offensive elements of the truth, in order to make it more appealing and more palatable to man. Not only our message, but also our methods will be affected.
Because in Reformed and biblical doctrine Jesus is the highest manifestation of the glory of God, we will not in our presenting the gospel treat Jesus like one would treat a piece of merchandize. Rather we will seek to be an instrument of God to bring the sinner out of the bondage of sin and into willing and humble obedience to His Savior and Lord.
And it goes without saying that such a theology will result in giving all the praise to God when there is success and fruit in one’s labors.
One’s methodology is then a reflection of one’s theology that the glory of God is the goal of all God’s works, and therefore also of all of our efforts and deeds.
Consider another example of how the Reformed faith determines practice, of how doctrine determines methods.
That our Reformed faith holds for truth the impossibility of natural man to do any saving good is reflected in our methods. We believe that the carnal mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7) and cannot know spiritual things (I Corinthians 2:14), and we believe that the natural man cannot come to the Father unless he is drawn by Him (John 6:44). We believe that regeneration is absolutely necessary both for one’s perception of and for one’s entrance into the kingdom of God.
When these truths are kept clearly in mind, the methods of evangelism will manifest a consciousness that God alone causes the gospel to be externally preached to the elect, natural man, that He alone can soften his hard heart, powerfully enlighten his darkened mind, and infuse good qualities into his evil will. The chief method resulting from this necessity of God’s omnipotence is that the missionary, all the members (and especially the officebearers) of the church which sends the missionary, and every evangelism committee will pray. They will spend much more time in prayer, pleading with God for the miraculous works necessary for any human to receive the truth, than they will spend in planning clever ways to manipulate a response to the truth. They will spend more energy in proclamation than in promotion. In addition, while they will be clear in the presentation of the demand of the Gospel to repent and believe, they will at the same time make it equally clear that the human will is not autonomous and cannot repent and believe of itself. Their goal is that the sinners to whom the Gospel of Christ crucified is presented will plead for God to be merciful to them as sinners.
The total depravity of the sinner, and the good pleasure of the Almighty God to use the Holy Spirit to apply the truth to the human understanding as the means of conversion, results in a methodology which emphasizes the contents of the message. Paul expresses it well when he relates to King Agrippa the commission Jesus gave to him on the road to Damascus. One’s methods of mission and evangelism will be “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith. . .” (Acts 26:18). Because the truth applied to the understanding by the Spirit is God’s means of bringing one into saving relationship, then all our methods will emphasize what is the content of the message. Then our emphasis will not be on whether a method is successful. Instead of being concerned about swaying emotions or moving wills, we will be striving to enlighten their understanding.
Another aspect of our methodology which results from the Reformed position that the ultimate success of evangelism and missions rests upon the will of a sovereign God is patience. “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be . . . patient, . . . instructing . . . . if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (II Timothy 2:24, 25). We can afford to be patient because our Reformed theology tells us that the success is ultimately in the hands of God. We go through the process of one planting, and another watering, for which we can patiently wait.
Reformed theology will also, result in a methodology which keeps back not a single part of the counsel of God. The missionary will not hesitate to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). There will be no need to water down God’s demands so they might be more appealing to men. We can be unashamed when we preach that which is offensive to man (I Corinthians 1:23). Though we know that men will be completely turned off by our message, we persist in our efforts because if they are the elect of God, then God will spiritually shake them up just as He did the Philippian jailer with the earthquake. If God is calling them, then Christ will become the wisdom of God unto them.
Another principle of Reformed theology is that the authoritative preaching of the Word of God is the primary means ordained of God for the calling of His elect. God has ordained by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (I Corinthians 1:21). Also, God has ordained that by the means of the preaching of sent ones will men call upon the name of the Lord and be saved (Romans 10:13-15). If such is our theology, then our methodology will reflect this. Preaching, whether publicly on the Lord’s day or from house to house (Acts 20:20), will be primary and central. Paul reasoned out of the Scriptures, opening them and alleging from them (Acts 17:2, 3). Those who are convinced that God has ordained the means of the proclamation of His Word will not see music as a means of evangelism. There may be a place for music, but music may not be considered as a means of evangelizing. Also, we will find no place for testimony-giving experience-sharing, dramatic presentations, and dances in evangelism. Our theology of evangelism holds that God has ordained the means to be the authoritative and verbal proclamation of His message.
The Reformed faith emphasizes God’s sovereignty, but it also maintains man’s responsibility. Even while our theology confesses that God accomplishes His works by His appointed means, it also confesses that He uses the instrumentality of His church to preach, to send out preachers, to support the ministry of the Word in the local churches and in the mission field, to witness in the whole of our conduct, but especially to use the opportunities to speak a word in season. Then in our methodology we will be a busy and active people, a responsible people. We will strive to use every God-given opportunity to present the message of sovereign grace to our neighbors and friends. We must use every occasion to bring those in need of the Holy Spirit’s work to hear with us the preaching of God’s Word.
There is another doctrine of the Reformed faith which has a direct effect on the methods of missions and evangelism. Reformed theology confesses the centrality of the church in the purpose of God. This centrality is manifest in that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3:14, 15) and is the means by which the manifold wisdom of God is known (Ephesians 3:10). Also it is into true churches that those saved are added (Acts 22:47). And Jesus spoke of church membership when in the “Great Commission” He commanded the disciples to baptize, for baptism into fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was and is the mark of the visible community of the church. We will therefore not bypass the visible church in favor of para-church organizations or identity groups within a local church to the detriment of the whole. Also, we can no more think evangelism without the church than we can think evangelism without the Gospel.
Theology determines not only that we do the work of missions and evangelism, but also the methods with which we do it. All fit and lawful means are to be used to bring the glad tidings that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners. What is fit and lawful is determined by the doctrines of the sovereignty and majesty of God, the irresistibility and necessity of the Holy Spirit, the power of grace, and the dignity and authority of the Word of God and of the preaching thereof.