Mr. Doezema is secretary of the Domestic Mission Committee.
The truth of Jesus’ words that laborers are “few,” in the face of a “plenteous” harvest, is driven home to the Mission Committee by nearly every report it receives from ministers who have been released by their consistories for a couple of weeks of service in one of our mission fields. Nearly every attempt on their part to evaluate the state of affairs in those fields, as they perceived it, would end in a common refrain: “The simple fact is, there is a crying need for a full-time missionary in . . . .”
It happens that that quote came from the report of a minister who had just returned from a three-week classical appointment to Larne, Northern Ireland. During the two years since Larne was declared a field, Hudsonville has extended ten calls, all of which have been declined. The three-week appointments by Classis East have made it possible for Hudsonville, during that time, to provide at least for the pulpit of the Covenant Reformed Fellowship, on an approximately half-time basis. On Sundays when no minister is present, the Fellowship makes use of video-taped sermon sent by the calling church.
The Fellowship meets every Sunday in Ballymena, in a small “hall” which has for 150 years been used as a Sunday School room. Since the room has the appearance of a church auditorium, it has served the purposes of the Fellowship very well, and at a reasonable price.
The reports of the men who have gone to Larne have been uniformly positive. It seems that one who visits the CRF cannot help but be impressed by their commitment to the Reformed faith and life as set forth in the Scriptures. “These people,” wrote one minister, “are well-read and solidly grounded. They know the Reformed Faith and are zealous for a Reformed witness in Northern Ireland. The group is spiritually mature.” And he adds, “I was impressed with the godliness of their homes. The marriages seem to be solid marriages. Husbands function responsibly as the heads of their homes. Mothers are devoted to caring for their children. There are regular, family devotions. Home life is well structured. The older young people are serious minded and godly. All these are outstanding commendations of the CRF. All of these also provide a solid basis for a witness in their communities.”
It seems, too, that, with regard to that “witness in their community,” the CRF is as active as can be expected, in the absence of a missionary. Concerning their distribution of literature, one of our ministers noted that, “the last Saturday bf my stay, a large ad was placed in the Belfast Telegraph, the paper with the largest circulation in Northern Ireland, advertising a free sample of the Standard Bearer. The Fellowship requested that 20 sample copies be airmailed to them as soon as I returned so that they could fill requests. Last Friday John Clarke called to tell me that they already had 50 requests. They urgently asked for 50 additional copies of the SB to be mailed to them.”
The members of the Fellowship remain enthusiastic and very interested. “Their one great disappointment,” writes Rev. VanBaren, pastor of the calling church, “is that there is not as yet a missionary to serve them.” And, from another report: “In every home I visited and in numerous conversations this came up. They earnestly want and need a man to labor permanently among them. This, too, is the request oft repeated in their prayers.”
The harvest truly is plenteous, but….
In view of the fact that Rev. Gritters’ account of his four-week effort in Jamaica appears elsewhere in this issue, we need not say much about the work currently being done in this mission field. Perhaps it would be helpful, however, were we to lift from the Mission Committee’s report to Synod a short section giving our perception of Rev. denHartog’s report, submitted after he conducted the one-month conferences in Jamaica last fall.
It would not be overstating the case to say that we awaited Rev. denHartog’s report with bated breath. Rev. denHartog had himself served for a number of years as a missionary in another culture. We were eager therefore to learn what would be his perception of our prospects for continued labors in the Jamaican field. For, there were always those nagging questions: Were First Church and the Mission Committee perhaps too “close” to the work, and therefore unable to be objective in their judging that the Lord still had work for our churches in this place? Should we rather conclude that four years of fruitless calling for a missionary was objective evidence that our work in Jamaica was in fact finished?
We were gratified, however, to learn that Rev. denHartog’s advice was in effect to press on with renewed zeal and confidence. He wrote that he saw “abundant evidence that even though we see many problems in the churches of Jamaica there is a real spirituality in many of the leaders.” And, further, that there is “good evidence of fruit of past work done in Jamaica by our missionaries and our churches. There is a measure of knowledge of the truth of God’s Word to the extent that the men can converse well on the precious doctrines of God’s Word. There were times in the discussions when I was deeply moved by the evident knowledge and love for the Reformed doctrines.” And, again, “There is no evidence at all that people are coming to our churches in Jamaica for carnal reasons or financial gain. . . . If anything it is pretty obvious that, though it might be financially advantageous to belong to some other church in Jamaica, there is nothing to be gained financially from being member of the PR churches.” And he concludes that he is “convinced that we as churches must continue to labor in Jamaica. Without a doubt there are many problems in the Jamaican churches. These problems ought not cause us to give up our work there, but rather we should see that these problems are in themselves more urgent reason for us to continue to work in the churches. They need us. God has sent us to Jamaica to help with their great need. . . . There is a very great need for a missionary on the island of Jamaica. The problems in a field like Jamaica can be overcome only through prolonged, consistent, and patient labor. . . . We ought to keep this need before our churches and pray that the Lord will provide such a missionary. . . . As long as we do not have a missionary we ought at least to continue the conferences. These conferences definitely do some good in maintaining the churches and encouraging the saints there.”
The Mission Committee tries to be good stewards over the money entrusted to our supervision for the work of missions. And we are surely aware that the cost of two one-month conferences per year in Jamaica is considerable. Rev. denHartog’s report confirmed our belief that we should view our ability to conduct these sessions (with the Lord’s money) as being in fact a gift of God to the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In the past year, First Church has extended four calls to ministers to serve as missionary to Jamaica. “To date,” writes First Church in its report to Synod, “all letters of decline reflect in one way or another the rightful concerns of a father regarding the impact of missionary service (in Jamaica) on his family members. The Council recognizes this as a real problem and their subcommittee has struggled to devise a practical answer, as yet without success. We anticipate that by next year’s mandated evaluation of the ‘Interim Conferences,’ should no missionary be in place, we will have a proposal to address the problem.”
The harvest truly is plenteous, but. . . .
Some mission fields are able to survive, even for a prolonged periled of time, without a missionary pastor. Others cannot. The difference, of course, has to do with the nature of the field, and the background of the members of the “core group.” The CRF’s solid foundation in the Reformed faith has equipped them for a Reformed witness in Northern Ireland. That ability, along with the necessary zeal, has made it possible for the members of the group, not only to maintain the status quo in the absence of a missionary, but even to make commendable progress. The truth is that the mission field in Venice, Florida does not share those advantages. The members of the core group there simply do not have the Reformed background necessary to carry out an effective outreach without guidance. The provision which Kalamazoo was able to make for the pulpit in Venice was identical to that provided by Hudsonville for Larne. But, whereas in the latter case that provision was sufficient to “hold things together” till such a time as a missionary pastor would begin his labors there, in the former it was not. Soon after Synod 1991, in fact, frustrations led to tensions among the members of the group. Kalamazoo’s Council already at that time considered the unrest to be serious enough to warrant their postponing a decision on renewing the lease on the parsonage until such a time as the tensions could be resolved. Subsequent progress in the resolution of the differences led the Mission Committee to commit itself to further labors in the field, but with the understanding that a re-evaluation would take place at the end of four months.
Before the four months were over, three families had withdrawn from the group; and, as a result, Kalamazoo decided to postpone their calling for a missionary to their field. To the Mission Committee it seemed that the disintegrating of the core group (the existence of which was the primary basis for the decision of the Synod of 1990 to declare Venice a mission field) compelled us to consider closing the field. Kalamazoo Consistory, however, in the face of the setback in the field, felt just as obliged not to abandon it, but to make an all-out effort, before Synod 1992, to determine whether or not the potential in the area warranted our continued labors there.
Kalamazoo’s pastor was able to arrange for an absence from his own congregation during the month of April, in order that he might spend the greater part of that month in Venice. A couple of members of the Mission Committee planned to be present for part of that time to help in the evaluation – all with a view to making a recommendation to Synod by way of a supplemental report.
Neither the calling church nor the Mission Committee may make decisions like this lightly. Serious consideration must of course be given to the question of the continued viability of the existing core group. And it may very well be that, in the end, the decision to close or not to close will have to be made on the basis of the answer to that question. But, along with that consideration, there is the haunting question of whether or not the field has yet been “proved” – that is, the question of whether a field such as Venice can be proved by two years of providing “pulpit supply.”
The latter concern has been expressed to the Mission Committee and the calling church both by several of the ministers who have labored there recently, and also by members of what remains of the core group. From the latter, for example, there’s this:
We don’t know how Venice compares as a field to others you have worked before. But we do know that Venice is a growing area, with people moving in all the time. We also know that there are several churches in the Venice area, but not a single church that carries the testimony of the Reformed faith. Many of the churches here are little more than social churches. We desire the Reformed faith to go forth in this area. Above all, we desire a servant of God who will labor among us and give instruction to those who are interested in knowing more about us. We long for a missionary-pastor to serve in our midst, and plead with you that efforts will continue to secure a pastor for us.
The calling church is properly sensitive to such an appeal. The Mission Committee can therefore appreciate Kalamazoo’s request for a little extra time to evaluate the field after Rev. Woudenberg’s return at the end of April, after which they will submit their annual report and recommendations.
May we add just this: People of God, pray for the Mission Committee, for the calling churches, and for Synod, that they might be so guided by the Spirit that decisions made are in harmony with the will of the church’s King and for His glory.
And . . . pray ye the Lord of the harvest, that He will send forth laborers into His harvest.