Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. (Preceding article in series: August 2003, p. 452.)
Some of our readers may not be comfortable with designating a special worship service in the established churches as a gospel service. This designation is intended to distinguish such a service from the regular worship services that take place twice every Lord’s Day. But, one might ask, if every worship service ought to include gospel preaching, and if the gospel is the good news of salvation that the pastor is commanded to bring every time he mounts the pulpit, why would we speak of a special gospel service?
Actually, the idea is not foreign to us. We just make use of it in a different way.
Many of our congregations designate an occasional evening service as an opportunity for our members to take neighbors, relatives, colleagues, or friends who may be members of various other denominations or who may be nominally Reformed but have not thought through the distinctives that we have come to appreciate as churches. Usually, the Evangelism Committee puts forth special effort to promote this service by advertising it in the local newspaper, and special tracts are prepared so that the members can hand them out as invitations to others to attend this service. The pastor picks a passage from the Bible that is conducive to achieve this goal and more than likely takes into consideration that he must watch his vocabulary and not use “theological jargon,” which may not be commonly understood in today’s society.
I do not use “jargon” in a disparaging way. We preachers can easily use theological terms much as a doctor uses medical ones. When we visit the doctor, he describes what ails us, and we have to stop him and say, “Wait a minute; I don’t understand a thing you are saying.” We must not ourselves err in this regard when we speak to non-Christians or to those who are not familiar with specialized terms. We must, certainly, use precise terms, but we must be careful to explain what they mean. This is helpful both in our conversation and in our preaching.
A gospel service is the same idea as it relates to “mission preaching” in the established church. The focus of this service is upon those who may never before have heard the gospel or who may have been exposed to Christianity but not made any commitment to the gospel of grace. Preparations are put forth by the Evangelism Committee to promote this service, and the members are encouraged to invite those who cross their paths who are not Christians to come with them and hear the Word of God preached. The pastor takes this into account as well, and he chooses a text that is appropriate for this purpose and puts forth special effort to make the call of the gospel simple and understandable, including a call to respond by repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The point that we have been making in this series of articles is that such special services are really not necessary if the pastor has the right view of his congregation and preaches regularly with the passion that any faithful servant of God does. This is important to maintain, because special gospel services must be just that, special. They have a very limited but definite place in the life of the church. But they must never be taken as an alternative to regular “mission preaching” or gospel preaching, which preaching is incumbent on every faithful minister of the Word of God on a regular basis.
The place of such gospel services is limited and special.
The only way that we can appreciate the need for such servicesis by maintaining a focus as a congregation on non-Christians that surround us. If our only focus is upon “other Christians,” then our only special service will be one that sets forth our Reformed distinctives. Though it is very right and proper for a Reformed church to do that, we need more, and that is that we also direct our attention to non-Christians who are upon our pathway. Christ, the Lord of the church, commissions us to include a ministry for them.
This forces us to examine a deeper issue, whether we as an established church have this focus in our ministry? It is obvious that the churches in Singapore have such a focus of ministry. The members of the congregation have a great interest in reaching out with the gospel to their non-Christian family members, colleagues, schoolmates, and neighbors. They carry this burden in their heart and expect the church to include in the church calendar special opportunities for them to take their acquaintances along so they can hear the gospel. There are other ways in which opportunity is given, some more informal, some even social, allowing non-Christians to come to fellowship in a less formal and less “intimidating” setting. It takes a great deal of courage and spiritual willingness for a non-Christian to come to church and be involved in the worship service. Usually this follows other efforts, which have been accepted, and the person is “comfortable” to enter into a Christian house of worship.
Now we are speaking of the established church in America. Do our congregations have some focus upon non-Christians? Is this only in other countries and not here in the USA?
The purpose of this article is not to belabor a point or try to prove that our congregations ought to include in their outreach ministry one for non-Christians. We can understand clearly that America is not Singapore, nor are we blind to the differences. We understand clearly our history and the different circumstances of the Reformed churches in America today. We appreciate our place in the development of the truths of the gospel and our Reformed distinctives. All of this is reason for thanksgiving to God. The bottom line before God is that our outreach ministry must always include those who are outside the kingdom and who know not the Lord Jesus as their Savior and Lord. This might lead us to a futile debate whether Arminians are lost or saved, a judgment that is not ours to make. We must only discern whether Arminianism is the lie or not, and we must do that without compromise. Our purpose here, however, is to address the question, are there around us those who openly and without any reservation show no interest in the gospel of grace and are deluded in their unbelief? These people are unchurched, adhere to cults, or hold to strange religions. Such people are non-Christians, clear and simple. There are plenty of these people around us here in America.
Mission work has these people in view. They are without Christ. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (I John 5:12). Our evangelism work must be directed to such as well. Our members must know how to relate to non-Christians. This is not a matter of choice; this comes under the divine mandate of Christ to His church. No matter how we may judge the ecclesiastical world today, no matter how we view our place in the church world today, we must include in our mission or evangelism work, whatever we call it, outreach to the non-Christian. This relates to the outreach ministry in our local congregations. It also relates to our domestic and foreign mission work. The real burden of every one of us is to bring the gospel to those who are without Christ and without God in the world.
Understanding this, we also appreciate the need for gospel services from time to time.
The advantages of such services can be identified.
First, the scheduling of such services will help the entire congregation to focus on the importance of bringing the gospel to those who are lost in sin and unbelief. Obviously, the success of such efforts will depend on the members of the congregation taking such persons to the service. Hardly ever do non-Christians walk into the church service apart from honest effort and invitations by the members themselves. The same is true for any effort to advertise our existence and the gospel we represent by radio, TV, or literature. It is understandable that these media hardly ever draw guests into the church worship service. Much preparatory work has to be done before a member of the congregation can even give such an invitation and reasonably expect a positive answer. When the members know that such a gospel service is going to be forthcoming, they are encouraged to pursue their efforts to prepare a family member, a colleague, a schoolmate, a neighbor, or anyone with whom they come into contact, for such an invitation. Just knowing that the church is interested in such persons encourages every member to be sensitive to the opportunities to take them along to church. It stimulates this activity. In this way we are faithful to Christ’s mandate to do it.
Second, as the members respond to their duty to reach out to non-Christians and actually put forth such efforts, they are much encouraged when a special gospel service is held. True enough, they are able to take such a person to any service and be assured that they will hear “mission preaching,” the gospel which is so necessary for this non-Christian to hear. But it does not take much awareness to appreciate that a special gospel service can meet this need in a better way. Part of the planning for such a gospel service is that the pastor will choose a text that is appropriate. It does no good to say, the entire Bible is the gospel, so why make such a distinction. There is truth to that, of course, but if the purpose of the message is to be certain that the listener will hear God’s call to repent and believe in the God of the Bible and to understand why he ought to give serious consideration to becoming a Christian, certain specific texts of the Bible are very helpful in this regard. Anyone who has put forth effort to speak of the gospel to a non-Christian is well aware that he has to know his Bible and be ready to make use of certain passages as they are helpful in teaching what it means to become a Christian. Non-Christians ask certain questions and have certain problems with Christianity, and these have to be addressed to some extent in such a gospel message.
Thirdly, as we mentioned before, the blessing of a special gospel service is that the message can be simplified to make it especially adaptable to those who do not know the Bible or Reformed doctrine. This means that the pastor will put forth effort to present the gospel message in as clear and forthright a manner as he is gifted to do. This takes practice and much effort. I quickly learned when we were requested to conduct such gospel services in Singapore that it took the most effort and longest amount of time just to get that message ready. Pastors probably get some experience with this when they have to prepare chapel talks for children in grade school. To be effective in such an endeavor, we have to forsake much of our “pastoral posture” and prepare a message geared for children. This also includes doing it in a shorter time than a sermon. Preparing gospel messages is even more difficult because you cannot assume that the listener knows anything about the Bible or theological terms. Concepts must be presented clearly, and complete thoughts must be expressed in as succinct a manner as possible. All pastors benefit from such exercise, and if we have special gospel services from time to time, it would give them opportunity to develop this skill.
Fourthly, as we indicated in previous articles, there are among our own members those who are not truly converted to God for various reasons. Holding such gospel services will give the pastor opportunity to speak directly to them and bring the gospel to them. Yes, this is done throughout the preaching in a regular manner, yet the message at a gospel service may be helpful and be used by God to bring the call of the gospel to such persons with greater force and emphasis.
Finally, you might ask, what if no non-Christians come to such a church service, is it then a failure, and should the effort then be abandoned? This is an important point to address because it is not certain that even with the best efforts God may work sufficiently in a non-Christian’s heart that he is willing to accompany one of our members to the worship service. You may discover that if you are able to instruct your congregation in this important and necessary work, the response will be very small. Suppose that happens, should we then abandon the scheduling of gospel services and settle for other means to minister to the unchurched? Let me answer that question this way: in addition to holding before the congregation the necessity of their daily awareness to reach out to non-Christians, by conducting gospel services, there is the advantage that the congregation learns from the pastor how to speak to non-Christians. The gospel service is an excellent opportunity to teach the congregation how to speak to non-Christians. The cumulative effect of such services is that the congregation learns how to witness to those who are without. This is very important and a great blessing.
If these articles may accomplish something positive among us, my prayer is that they will help us focus on the object of missions. All too readily we look about us and decide to build the church by those who are already Christians and, even more pointedly, those who are closest to us in their faith and practice. This is relevant and important for our outreach. But if we do not get beyond this viewpoint, we fail our Lord really to carry out His mandate to us to make disciples of all nations. Jesus had in mind lost souls, those who were without the church, non-Christians. We ought also to have such souls in view as we seek to be obedient to our Master in the established church.