Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
One of the concerns of any true church is that for missions and evangelism. It is biblically inaccurate to say that evangelism and missions is the chief purpose or the exclusive purpose of the church. It is equally inaccurate to say that evangelism is not one of the chief concerns of the church. The true church will have a genuine, Scripturally-directed concern to proclaim the gospel to the fullest of its ability.
It is essential that clear, biblical principles are hitched to the wagon of fervent, biblical activity. A team of horses without a loaded wagon is as useless as a wagon without the team of horses. We do not want principles without activity. Nor do we want activity without principles. The truth is to be the force which leads or drives genuine, God-honoring activity.
The first principle, which was described in a previous article of this rubric, is that the church of Christ MUST do this work. The explicit command of Christ, the King and Head of the church, is to go into all the world (Matt. 28:19), and to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). The church of Christ MUST labor to fulfill this sacred calling and privilege according to the measure of its God-given ability. Obedience must be joyfully and zealously rendered. King Jesus has spoken!
In this article we will consider the objects of mission work.
To whom does King Jesus direct this work?
It is immediately obvious that the task is very great. Do I hear someone say that such a task is impossible? That seems to be the case. It is far beyond not only the ability of any individual congregation but even the resources of the largest of denominations to teach all nations and preach to every creature. If the object of mission work is to be “all nations,” then it would seem that the task is impossible.
Two considerations must be made. First, Jesus presents two encouragements equal in greatness to the task He gives. He tells the disciples and us that He is given all authority in heaven and on earth, and that He, with this all-encompassing authority, is with the church unto the end of the age. The second consideration is that Jesus gives this seemingly impossible task to the true church of Christ collectively as she is manifested both around the world and in every age. Any given individual congregation does not have to go into every nation by itself.
In light of these two considerations, we can draw two quick conclusions. First, the fact that the individual church cannot go everywhere does not remove from it the responsibility to obey her Lord. As is the case with all responsibilities, that of the local congregation to do mission or evangelistic work is not determined by its providentially set limitations, but by divine commandments. Each local church must obey the command of its Lord. Secondly, the church’s obedience must be characterized by zeal. It must do whatever it can, and it must do so to the best of its ability, whether that be in its own evangelism work or in combining its efforts with its fellow churches in a denomination.
Now let us ask the question again. To whom is the work to be directed?
Going back to the words of Christ in the “Great Commission” we find that our work is to be directed to “all.”
There may be no limits or restrictions made. No Evangelism Committee and no denominational mission committee may deliberately restrict its efforts only to a certain kind of people, or, worse, exclude any nation, nationality, or kind of people. It must be toward both the churched and the unchurched, Jew and Gentile, black, brown, yellow, and white. It is to be directed to anyone God puts in our path. The neighbor whom God calls us to love is anyone who is brought, by divine providence, into the path of our life.
Who, does Jesus say, are to be taught? All. The Greek philosophers must be taught, for they are only fools who think themselves to be wise. Those who are intellectual giants must be taught, for unless they become as a little child they cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Teach the poor, not first in priorities health care or agricultural trades, but teach them the most important thing they must know: the true nature of their miseries and sin and of the good news of forgiveness in Christ. Teach all.
This awesome task the church must do fearlessly. There is no individual and there are no nations incapable of being taught by the irresistible and efficacious Holy Spirit.
We may not direct our evangelistic and mission efforts only toward those of the same nationality, so that, for example, those of Dutch extraction limit their mission efforts exclusively to those who are Dutch. Regenerated saints have a citizenship which makes them pilgrims and strangers on this earth, regardless of their bloodline and roots. No Christian of Dutch extraction should have the bumper sticker, “If you ain’t Dutch, you’re not much.” If a Christian who happens to be Dutch needs a sticker with which to cover his bumper, then do so with one which says, “If you aren’t in Christ, you’re in danger of hellfire.”
While saying that Christians of one nationality should not limit their evangelistic efforts to those of the same nationality to the exclusion of all others, it must be recognized as a fact that generally those of one nationality are better suited to bring the gospel to those of the same nationality. A Christian Jew is often the best suited to speak to an unconverted Jew. Converted Chinese will usually know best how to present the gospel to the Chinese. When going into India with the gospel, a Christian of Indian extraction would be better suited for the work than would the Chinese or Anglo-Saxon Christian. Such is generally the case because those of the same nationality usually know better the background and understand better the mind-set of those who are the objects of their mission work.
However, this fact has not and should not stop one from speaking to and teaching someone of a different nationality. Obviously, the first missionaries to any foreign land were not of the same nationality. Paul did not let his nationality hinder him from bringing the gospel to the Macedonians of Philippi and Thessalonica. Although nationalities do distinguish mankind, that which unites all of humanity is that they all are the children of Adam, and in Adam they are dead in sins and trespasses and in need of the Savior.
The illegitimacy of deliberate restriction and exclusion in the objects of a church’s missions is best understood when one considers that the goal of mission and evangelistic work is the glory of God in the way of the edification of the church of Christ. The goal of this work is not making Christian a nation or a nationality, but the making of disciples of Christ, whose citizenship is not of any earthly nation but of the spiritual kingdom of heaven.
No true mission work will be characterized by exclusivism.
Having said the above, we recognize the obvious fact that there are limitations to a congregation’s and denomination’s ability to do the work. There are limited resources,, limited manpower, limited time, limited finances. These limitations prohibit the church from doing all it wants to do.
The wisest and best use of limited resources demands that the resources be concentrated on doing the best with what is available. Jesus did not tell the early New Testament church to go into China and Africa and Europe immediately. The same Lord who gave the command to teach all nations, commanded them to begin at Jerusalem and Judea, then spread to Samaria, and then proceed unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Wisdom is the best use of the means unto the highest end. The wisest use of limited resources is to concentrate on a few aspects of the work. The danger of spreading thinly one’s limited resources over several areas is that shoddy work is done and the church ends up not being a faithful steward with the limited talents and opportunities it has been given. On the other hand, when the church operates within the limited resources God has given it, then it must not feel guilty, as long as it is being faithful (doing its best) with what it has.
Never forgetting the calling to reach all we can possibly reach, we must do the best we can possibly do with the neighbors whom God places in the path of our life. God has providentially led some Evangelism Committees to “specialize,” or have an emphasis, in their work. Some have settled into that aspect of the work of missions which consists in publishing pamphlets for those who have a knowledge of the faith. This “specialization” is good, for they are able to provide materials for many of their fellow Evangelism Committees. Others make the emphasis of their evangelistic work that of tape duplication and distribution. From this perspective the individual churches and evangelism committees should lean on each other, using each other’s tools for the best performance in their work.
The conclusion of the matter must be that, while maintaining a clear vision of the great calling to preach to “every creature,” the church strives to be an obedient and faithful steward, using the finances and manpower God has given her to the best of her ability for the glory of God and the edification of the church of Christ.
Mission work is most easily and usually divided into three aspects: local evangelism, domestic missions, and foreign missions.
Local evangelism (also called church extension) is the work performed by a local, established congregation in order to maintain a witness and testimony of the Reformed faith in its own community and for the increase of its own membership (Acts 1:8).
Domestic missions is the work which the churches of the denomination perform collectively for the spread of the gospel and for the establishment of new congregations in its own land. This work is performed through the cooperative efforts of the denominational Mission Committee and a local consistory, which is appointed to serve as the calling church of a missionary (Matt. 24:14). Normally the goal of this work is the establishment of an instituted church which is a sister congregation within the denomination.
Foreign missions is the work which the churches of a denomination perform collectively in a foreign land for the spread of the gospel and for the establishment of indigenous congregations. Normally, the goal of this work is the establishment of a sister-church relationship with them.