Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
The Standard Bearer staff invited me to contribute three more articles. Rather than busy ourselves, in these articles, with happenings here in Southeast Asia, which we try to cover in our regular newsletters, I will venture into the important subject of zeal for missions. The spirit of this article is not careless and sweeping criticism of our churches’ attitude toward missions, but rather a somewhat careful examination of where we stand in this important subject of true enthusiasm for missions. I would like to follow up this article with another two, the next one on the importance of viewing missions not as a luxury but a duty which we have from none other than our Lord Himself, and the final one on how to stimulate our zeal by seizing upon the opportunities we have and working at it as the Lord allows.
All during the years of our churches’ existence, we have been accused, in one way or another, of lacking in missions. Generally this criticism has come in two forms. There are those who look at our record of missions and say that we do very little in missions. And there are those who add, no wonder the PRC does not do much in missions, their theology hinders them from doing mission work. Missionary Tom Miersma is busy addressing the latter in the Standard Bearer. I will try to focus on the former.
My conclusion is that there is some justification for the criticism that the PRC have failed in this area in the past. The root cause for this is lack of mission enthusiasm.
These words are not intended in any way to be public criticism of our pastors, professors, and missionaries. They are not written to find fault with our past synodical decisions. They are written more as an opportunity for self-examination. In writing these words, I focus first of all upon myself. My involvement as a pastor for some 37 years in local congregations, serving on denominational mission committees, functioning as delegate to classis and synod, means that I was no better than anyone else who reads this article. I call on my fellow church leaders to join me in examining ourselves in this regards.
Is it true that we lacked mission zeal in the past and struggle with it today?
Mission is the Gospel for the Lost
With this heading we focus immediately on the difficulty. In bringing the gospel to anyone outside of the confines of our established local congregations, we cannot ourselves determine to whom we will direct it. Mission work, outreach ministry, church extension, call it what you will, is bringing the gospel to those outside of our congregation. Ultimately, it is God who determines where He will send it in His good pleasure. But even though we cannot choose for ourselves the audience, our methods will be influenced by our intention as to who it is that we are trying to reach with the gospel. The most obvious example of this is the way in which the message is prepared. This applies both to the content of the message and to the language which is used in delivering that message. If we have in mind to include the lost (non-Christians), the message will focus on basics and will be written in simple style, including details as to the proper response to the good news of the gospel.
Objectively speaking, and I admit this subject is fraught with emotional reactions, we can certainly conclude that our churches have done very little toward bringing the gospel to the lost. All we need do is survey the material available and learn how unsuitable it is for reaching the non-Christian. We have many pamphlets and books on important subjects concerning Christian faithfulness, but nothing to my knowledge on how one may become a Christian in the first place. I have reflected upon our work in Isabel, South Dakota. I was involved to some degree in that work from the very start. While we were in Hull, Iowa we were involved as a near church. I sat on the Mission Committee dealing with Isabel. It is interesting to me now, that to my knowledge no work was directed to the native American Indians right there. There may have been some local effort, but as a denomination we did not discuss how we might reach them with the gospel. Did any of us pastors bring the gospel to Amos-Walks-Quietly who lived next door to the parsonage?
The point I want to raise is that it was not an issue of opportunity, it was a lack of mission consciousness and a burden for the lost. I am ashamed before God that I personally did not carry in my heart a burden for that man. Am I the exception, or was this common among us. If this is true among us as pastors, what do we expect of our people? I look back at some of the congregations in which I have served. Almost every one had a member with a burden for reaching out to the lost. Some suggested that we ought to have a Vacation Bible School and invite unchurched neighbors. Others said we ought to have a prison ministry. Some expressed a desire for a pamphlet they could use to hand to non-Christian workers around them. In every one of these instances, I did nothing to help. Again, I am ashamed before God. Yes, I said then, I am a pastor, I have enough work to do with my sheep, and it was painfully true. But when I examine myself now, I see that it also was a convenient excuse not to deal with an area that I felt terribly unprepared to face and for which I could get precious little help.
Mission work is bringing the gospel to the lost. That is the heart of all mission work. I trust I don’t have to press this point for now. We can examine this a bit more in our next article. We must agree that this after all is what missions is all about. The lost are everywhere, and they present themselves in many ways. It is most dramatic in our Singapore situation, where we live in the midst of obvious idolatry and heathen religions. The American scene is changing as well. Some of the lost are the generations who have been removed from the gospel by the actions of unfaithful parents or grandparents. They are just as lost as the Buddhist or Hindu. Some are lost when they think they are Christians but are not, something even more deceitful. Add to that mixture the great influx into America of people from almost every country who take with them their own native religions, and we can say we are surrounded with all sorts of people who are lost in sin and have not Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. They are here in Singapore and by you in America, Europe, Australia, and every country under the sun.
Our problem is not opportunity, it is rather the lack of zeal and burden for the lost. If we have a true burden, we will also find a way to do missions and have the necessary funds and manpower as well. Godly zeal will move us to cry to God to meet this need.
Understanding Vs. Excuses
In writing these words, I am not attempting to belittle the history of our churches or ignore the contrast between Singapore and America. If I should do this, I would be very unfair to myself and our churches. I have a desire that someone make a careful study of our history regarding missions. I am sure it would be a worthwhile contribution to our self-analysis. Obviously, I cannot do this in this brief article. Neither can I do it with my work responsibilities now. Herein lies the danger as well: over-simplification of issues can do more harm than good. I do not want that to happen, for my love for our churches and the cause of the gospel among us is deeply written in my heart.
Yes, there are many factors which contribute to our present status regarding missions. The most obvious is that in our history we have had to focus on church reformation. This was true in the beginning of our churches’ existence, it continued when we had to defend it from those who would take it away in the 1950s. Our special place in the general church world was to defend and develop the truth of God’s sovereignty, especially as it related to the preaching of the gospel. This continues to this day and serves as an important focus of our attention.
As we ourselves mature and develop as a Reformed church (and I do not use the word mature in a derogatory way), we should see that what at one time required much attention and to some degree continues to demand attention must not cause us to lose our balance as to the main purpose of our existence. We must not only preserve the gospel preaching in its proper form (deny the well-meant offer of the gospel and teach the proper call of the gospel), we must actually do the preaching. This relates both to the local congregation and to the mission field. We must demonstrate to the church world at large that we are able not only to articulate the call of the gospel in our understanding and teaching, but in our practice as well. I fear that our focus on defense may sometimes inhibit our actual practice. If we can be objective enough to take a look at ourselves, we might understand why so many over all these years continue to accuse our churches of not doing mission work. It is a fact that we have done little and are doing little to bring this precious gospel to the lost.
I thank God that our understanding of the covenant has developed as it has in our churches, homes, and schools. This has demanded huge amounts of energy, money, and manpower. Our churches have untold blessings in this area, and we can properly say to the world, look at us, we practice what we believe in the area of God’s covenant. This is unique, and in this way we surely stand forth as a wonderful example to the church world. It is the envy of the Singaporeans who visit our churches in America. Again, as we mature and develop, we must not be so self-focused and covenant orientated that it becomes an obsession for all our efforts. It is time now for us to reach out and take others into our churches so that they can enjoy firsthand the blessings God has given to us as we put into practice what we believe. By the grace of God there is much now that makes the gospel which we preach attractive even as it is practiced among us.
The efforts to defend and advance the true understanding of the gospel and to put into practice the covenant implications have taken much of our time, money, and manpower. We are a small number of churches and cannot do everything. It is amazing that interspersed in all these past activities was mission effort as God gave us opportunity to do it. Almost all of it was directed to other Christians and churches with the urgent call to embrace the truth as we professed it. God used this as a mighty testimony and, thanks be to Him, He continues to do this more and more throughout the world.
These explanations must not serve as an excuse not to do mission work. I firmly believe that God has a purpose for our churches including, besides all this important activity, mission outreach to the lost. We must honestly examine ourselves to determine whether these considerations have been in the past and are now serving as excuses that we do not need to do mission work. Do we include in our priority of work which Christ has given us as churches to do, mission work among the lost? Unless we say yes to this, we fail our Lord in this important area.
The Need for Leadership
Enthusiasm is very subjective and almost impossible to measure. It might be more useful to ask ourselves, do our priorities indicate lack of enthusiasm for missions. Could we be doing more work in missions without jeopardizing the important work we are now doing already. I do not propose answers to these important questions. I only ask that we think about them and discuss them among ourselves. I do know that we need leadership in this important area.
1. Our seminary is lacking in teaching missions. This is no reflection upon our present professors. It reflects upon our circumstances. We do not have the advantage of a special department of missions with a detailed curriculum or a professor who is experienced in mission work, something which is almost required. If we cannot provide thorough training in missions, where do we go for it? Besides this, what generates enthusiasm for missions among our clergy? It will come from a seminary which stimulates them and challenges them to consider reaching out to the lost, whether in the local congregation or the mission field. I never had this, and it hurt my ministry. I wish that all our students could have what I have now in my old age. Can we do something about this on the seminary level? I am aware of the activity of inviting guest lecturers in the area of missions, assigning the reading of mission books, even internships in mission fields. This is going in the right direction. I just encourage more of it so that our seminary may serve as a catalyst for this important work as it does in the other areas of ministry.
2. Unless we do mission work among the lost, we will never learn how to do it. It is just because of this that we do not have a professor who can teach missions from experience. Generally, seminaries use men who have served in the mission field for some 15-20 years and then engage in further specialized study in order to teach missions. The missionaries we have had in the past served only a few years in any given field. And some were already near retirement. We need to get some young man (family) involved in missions so that he can be considered for leadership responsibilities later on. We must think of missions as a calling for life, not just another pastorate. We must look at fields as lifelong places of labor, or we will continue to make mistakes. From my perspective, just when we were making some progress in Jamaica (our synod decided to focus on the cities and not limit our work to the hill people, something which never took place), we lost the will to continue. We must get over the frustration of missions and get to work. Our churches will never make progress unless we practice doing it. Too often, our sincere efforts and shortcomings are used as excuses not to work at all.
3. We could improve on the financing of missions. Often, if any program gets chopped from the synodical budget, it is a mission program. Rather than bemoaning that fact, it seems to me we would do well to allow our people voluntarily to contribute to more mission projects and raise funds for some missions other than through the so-called “budget.” We could, for example, adopt at synod a mission project in the Philippines and have the Foreign Mission Committee supervise the work there. We could approve various stages of work and approve their activity but condition some of them upon the FMC raising the necessary funds from the people. This will keep the synodical budget down to manageable levels and allow our people to contribute voluntarily to mission work as they are able. Synod could even set some guidelines how these funds can be raised.
4. We can work harder in our churches, homes, and schools to stimulate mission work. Parents, teachers, as well as preachers, have a wonderful opportunity to encourage our children and youth to consider the lost. I am impressed with the willingness of the youth of the church here to reach out to their lost friends. We pray about this at catechism class and youth meetings. They are sensitive to this. PRC children have the advantage of covenant protection. But the limitation of this for missions is that the next generation of youth will be as introverted as we are if we do not help them. We must address this lack and sensitize them to have a burden for the lost. Mission programs and reading of mission books will help. I am glad to see that some of our schools are working on this. My wife and I receive letters from some of the students. This is good, and we must think of more ways to help them learn how to have a burden for the lost and how to witness to them when they have opportunity.
In conclusion, I want to ask you to think of an inconsistency which creeps in among us. We correctly say, Arminianism is “another gospel.” We say that the gospel has been preached to almost all nations under heaven. We thank God that the Reformed churches have been part of this wonderful work. More has been done by Arminian churches. As believers, convicted of the Reformed faith, may God stir us up that we increase in our labors of bringing the gospel to the lost.
How enthused are you? In your opinion, are we doing enough for them?