Last time I quoted at length from Prof. Dekker’s article in the Reformed Journal (May-June, 1964) and from his address to the Christian Reformed Synod of 1964 on the subject of what he calls the inept and ineffective performance of the Christian Reformed Church in its evangelism. I believe that Professor Dekker’s position may be fairly summarized as follows:
1. He has considered the results of his church’s evangelism (including organized missionary work conducted by the Christian Reformed Board of Home Missions, classical home missions committees, and local home missions agencies) from the viewpoint of its positive fruit, i.e., the number of converts produced.
2. He has concluded that this positive fruit, the number of converts, is very meager. This conclusion he states statistically as being either 1.4 or 1.2 members per congregation per year. (Note: Prof. Dekker gives the former figure in his article and the latter figure in his address to Synod. I cannot account for the difference; but it is not of great importance in this discussion.)
3. The meagerness of this fruit is, according to Dekker, cause for earnest self-criticism and even “agonizing reappraisal,” and points to something wrong with the evangelism of the Christian Reformed Church.
4. This wrong is not to be attributed to the time and money invested in Christian Reformed evangelism in the United States and Canada. It is rather to be attributed to incorrect motivation and to an improper message.
5. This incorrect motivation and improper message Prof. Dekker reduces to the failure of Christian Reformed evangelism to proceed from the universality of the redemptive love of God and the universality of Christ’s atonement. This failure Dekker has expressed variously. He has said that the common conception of limited atonement in the Christian Reformed Church tends “to inhibit missionary spirit and activity.” And, concretely, he has claimed that the church in its evangelism must say to each and every man, “God loves you,” and, “Christ died for you.”
Before I proceed to criticize this position of Dekker let me make two remarks. The first is that I have tried to present Dekker’s position fairly. If I have not done so, I wish he would point this out. The second is that it is not my purpose to appraise and to criticize Christian Reformed evangelism in this connection, but rather to evaluate Prof. Dekker’s method of criticism and hisdiagnosis of the fundamental came of what he calls the inhibited missionary spirit and activity of his church. I consider these latter matters of crucial importance; and I believe that there is something wrong with Dekker’s approach to the whole problem,—a faulty method that has also led him to a faulty conclusion.
By What Standard Meager?
This is a question which Prof. Dekker does not answer.
Assuming that the statistics which he presents are correct and that they present a fair and over-all picture of Christian Reformed evangelism in the United States and Canada,—and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy and fairness of these statistics,—the question remains: how does Professor Dekker arrive at the conclusion that these gains are meager and that they point to an inept and ineffective performance of the CRC in its evangelism? That Dekker considers this to be a poor record, and that he considers the evangelism of the CRC to be largely lacking in success is very evident from all that he has written.
But one looks in vain for any objective standard according to which he has gauged the results which he mentions. He rather assumes that this is a poor record, and he seems to assume that his readers will agree that this is a poor record.
Nor can I find his basis of comparison in what he writes even stated by implication. Is his conclusion reached by way of a comparison between the number of converts and “the millions of dollars and billions of hours we invest each year in our mission to the United States and Canada?” This he does not state, although he does state that “such is our record in spite of the millions of dollars and billions of hours we invest each year . . . .” Or is his conclusion reached on the basis of a comparison with the so-called evangelistic work of other denominations and movements? There is, of course, a good deal of emphasis in our day on statistics and growth and expansion. The success of evangelism seems to be judged on this basis. This is true, of course, of the Billy Graham crusades. Their success is always expressed in terms of the large crowds that are attracted and the number of “decisions” that are made. But this is also true of many denominations. When the yearbooks come out, there are always those who make a statistical study of the growth of a given denomination; and the success or failure of the evangelism program is judged thereby.
But, as I stated, Prof. Dekker does not tell us his standard of judgment; he merely assumes that the record is poor.
I would like to know: 1. What would constitute a normal measure of evangelistic success in. terms of members per congregation gained? Is it 2 per year, or 5 per year, or perhaps 50 per year? 2. What would Professor Dekker call an unusually successful year? After all, speaking now in terms of his position, he certainly would want to achieve the highest possible degree of success. 3. By what process is the norm of success to be determined?
That third question, of course, is an important one. It seems to me that if some kind of statistical norm of evangelistic success in terms of the number of converts per year per congregation is to be set up,—as seems to be the implication of Dekker’s assumption that his church’s record is poor,—then this norm must be determined by the proper method. It seems to me, further, that the proper method of determining such a statistical norm would be the Biblical method. Stated simply, does the Word of God anywhere indicate, even in general, that the church’s missions, in order to be termed successful, must measure up to a certain standard in terms of numbers of converts gained?
To this question Professor Dekker does not address himself; and to this question he certainly should address himself if he wants to criticize the results of Christian Reformed evangelism.
Especially as far as evangelism among the so-called “unchurched,” the generations of those who once belonged to the church but who have fallen away, this is a very interesting and important question. I am well aware that there is a good deal of emphasis placed on such evangelism at present. And this is certainly a phase of the evangelistic success or failure of which Dekker is writing. Now I am not now interested in how successful this work is on the part of the Christian Reformed Church. Nor will I criticize it from the point of view of the question whether this evangelism is productive of healthy growth and is adding healthily Reformed congregations to the CRC (although from time to time I have heard of Christian Reformed voices of criticism in this respect). Our particular question is: what degree of success can be expected upon such evangelism? What would constitute success in such work in terms of positive results? And does Scripture have anything to say on this score?
Without Much Fruit
In connection with the above question we have been taught at our Protestant Reformed Seminary that such evangelism among the “unchurched” cannot be expected to have much fruit, and that there is a Scriptural reason for this. Thus, for example, the Rev. H. Hoeksema stated in a class lecture:
“Now in the new dispensation, therefore, in distinction from the old, the gospel is preached among all nations because the church must be gathered from them. There is, at least in my opinion, a distinction between the nations as far as the Jews and the Gentiles are concerned, according to Romans 9-11, particularly chapter 11. There is this distinction, that the Jews may be grafted in on their own olive tree. That is something indeed very distinctive, because as a general rule God does not return to those that are branches of the olive tree cut off. But in regard to the Jews that was not only possible, but was a fact. The Jews, according to Romans 11, have the distinctive privilege that after they had rejected the gospel, had re jetted the Christ, or rather, after they had been cut off from the church, after they had been cut out as branches of the vine, they may be grafted in again,—something that is not true in general, at least,—there may be exceptions,—but something that is not true of the Gentiles. When, after the gospel has been preached, and after the church has been established, the generations that represent the branches of the olive tree are cut off from the church, God does not cause them to be grafted in again. This also answers the question of evangelism. So-called evangelism is conducted usually in the larger cities of the nations among whom the gospel has already been preached. Evangelism is conducted among those that once belonged to the church, and now belong to the church no more in any sense, or, among those that nominally still belong to the church, but belong to the false church. In this city I told a Mr. Loomis once,—he came to me, and wondered how he could organize a church as our church there; he was surprised that apparently at least we had such a flourishing church, and was very anxious to organize a church like that among people that no longer were in the church,—I told him by all means not to go to the slums. It seems as if when you want to conduct evangelism, the idea is usually to go to the slums, to the poor, and people that are outcasts even socially. You can just as well go to College Avenue and Madison Avenue, and try it there once. Go to Fountain Street Baptist Church, and try it there once. Maybe you will have some fruit there. There is no reason to go the slums at all; you can just as well go to the rich. Well, he didn’t feel like that at all. But nevertheless, his work failed. But at any rate, evangelism is usually carried on in the cities among those that either have severed every connection with the church, or belong to a false church. And therefore they belong to the dead branches,—the generations that once were ingrafted in the olive tree and no longer have a living connection with the olive tree, are cut off, according to Romans 11, particularly vs. 22. There the apostle tells the church, warns them, that they must not boast because of the branches that are cut off from Israel, because, Paul says, it is only the sovereign goodness of God that you are in the tree; and only when that sovereign goodness of God continues, can you stay in the tree; otherwise you will be cut off too. Well, that happened to those branches among whom this work of evangelism is to be conducted. And therefore, it is my conviction,—I would not say that that work is entirely fruitless, because you never know whether perhaps an individual here and there does not yet belong to the dead branches,—but otherwise, in general, I dare say, that work is usually without fruit. If God wants to bring one of those dead branches into the olive tree, He certainly can bring them to the church. Where the true church is, and where the gospel is still preached, there is plenty opportunity for them to hear the gospel. And for that reason, I think, that work of evangelism,—and that is also actual fact,—is usually without fruit. In Chicago there was that work. I forget the name of the man now. But at any rate, he worked in the slums of Chicago. And as long as I knew, there was absolutely no fruit there. And he worked there for many years. So my conclusion is that although the church can and does witness, even to the dead branches, the work of evangelism, as a work of mission, is without muck fruit, because God does not return to the branches that are once cut off.” (Mimeographed Notes on “Principles of Mission.” pp. 25, 26)
(to be continued)