Previous article in this series: September 1, 2015, p. 461.
Missions is the work of the church of Jesus Christ. We confess that “the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 54). Because He accomplished the salvation of His church in His cross, and because all power was given Him in heaven and earth, the exalted Lord commissioned His church with this direct command: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” ().
In obedience to Christ’s command, the church calls a man and sends him out. This benefit for the work was driven home for me in my last visit to a mission field. A member of the group noted that it was a good and comforting thing to learn that Missionary Bruinsma is not on his own. He is under the authority of the consistory of Southwest PRC and the Domestic Mission Committee of the PRC. He is not a law unto himself. The mission field is governed by the church. Members of the Protestant Reformed Churches might take it for granted, but this is not the way things are run in many mission endeavors. It is, however, the best way because it is the biblical way.
The missionary is tremendously encouraged by the reality that the work is not his, but the churches’. Acts 13 brings this out. After the Holy Spirit made plain to the church in Antioch that He called Barnabas and Paul to be missionaries, the church responded as follows: “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (). And then what? Did the church of Antioch forget about their missionaries? Absolutely not! They not only continued to pray for Barnabas and Paul, but they looked forward to the reports Paul brought back at the end of every missionary journey. There is the biblical pattern for today. God supplies the missionaries’ needs through the prayers of the churches that send them.
Since mission work is the work of the churches as a whole, performed though her officebearers, clearly it is good that the members of the churches take a vital interest in the work and, if possible, visit the field. The benefits are many, both for the visitors and the mission work. Some of the benefits were set forth in the last editorial. It concluded, however, with a caution. Visiting a mission field must be done with wisdom, for it is quite possible for visitors unwittingly to harm the work. To that we turn in this editorial.
Members of the churches who decide to visit a mission work may have to fight a certain feeling of superiority over the members of the mission. In any dealings these members may have with others, this can be an issue. This is especially true for Reformed people who are born and raised in the sphere of the covenant. They have had the privilege of believing parents who taught them the Bible from infancy, and gave Reformed guidance for twenty years. They have had the benefit of years of catechism, preaching, and instruction in the Christian day schools. They have knowledge of the Reformed faith and assurance in it. They have confidence in the Reformed truth because they have tested it, and applied it to their lives. The Reformed truth (and by that I mean the truth as God has given it to the Protestant Reformed Churches) has permeated their thinking, speech, and life.
Such people come to a mission field and come into contact with people who are in various stages of spiritual growth and development. But few have that rich background in the Reformed faith. It could be easy to feel quite superior.
For most people, however, that usually does not last very long. First of all, God gives grace to fight this sin of pride. Second, it is deflated by the genuine love that the members of the mission demonstrate. One can see that these believers are in their first love for the Reformed faith. It is new, exciting, and beautiful to them. Visitors realize that though they love the Reformed faith, it is not something that stirs their souls as deeply or as often as it ought. Humility replaces the pride.
However, pride is a devil in one’s soul that will only be laid to rest when we are. Visitors need to be wary of a superior attitude that makes them think they have the right or ability to pronounce approval or disapproval on what they see and hear at the mission. Visitors might well be asked questions by people attending the mission—doctrinal, or more often application-to-life questions. One feels quite honored to be asked such a question. He feels the burden that he ought to know the answer and give good advice. So, an answer is given. I have been in this situation many times in both foreign and domestic fields. In my early years in the ministry, I dove right in and gave answers. Gradually, I came to understand that this was not wise. It occurred to me that some members of a mission will ask every visiting minister the same questions concerning some application of the Reformed faith to their situation. And, not surprisingly, the new converts receive different answers. And they hear answers sometimes that are different from the missionary’s recommendation, when the missionary knows the situation far better than any visitor. That has the potential of being damaging to the work.
Thus, when visitors come to the mission, they ought to pray fervently for wisdom. And wisdom must guard the tongue throughout the entire visit. Many questions may arise in a visitor’s mind—about why things are done as they are. Do hold your tongue, and ask these questions of the missionary. Because he lives there, and works with the people, he can give a certain perspective that a visitor needs, as well as answer the questions. Visitors, without realizing it, can cause division and conflict that remain after he departs, and the missionary now must deal with the stray comment, the criticism, “the answer” left by the well-meaning visitor.
Difficulties of Evaluating
Closely related to the above is the difficulty of properly evaluating the activities on the field—both in the lives of the mission members and in the work of missions itself. Consider for a moment a visit to a sister congregation in the denomination. Even there, one looks about and notices any differences from his own church. How people dress; whether the elders and deacons go into the consistory room soon after coming to church, or talk to people; piano or organ accompaniment; the place in the liturgy where Scripture is read; recitation of the Apostles’ Creed (or not); doxology, and such like. With each difference that we notice, we make an evaluation—do we prefer their way, or our way. And after the service, we begin to learn about the lives of the members of the congregation. And yet, within the PRC, very few differences of any substance will exist. There are not differences of principle, but of practice and application.
Now go to a mission field. One begins immediately to notice differences. For most of us, we are not so comfortable with changes. And we have a difficult time determining whether a difference is one of principle, or, of preference. Start with a notable difference. Most Protestant Reformed congregations have a ten-minute prelude to each worship service (and a postlude) played by the organ (or piano). Most missions (and indeed, most other churches) do not. I prefer a meditative prelude because I believe it can help my heart and soul prepare for worship. But is this Reformed to have a prelude, and is it unReformed to omit it?
To answer that question will take us off the topic some, but allow me to answer that. All surely count John Calvin in the scope of Reformed. Indeed, his liturgy followed the regulative principle and it determines what is Reformed. John Calvin had no place for a prelude, because in his congregations in Geneva the organs were dismantled and removed, with his full approval. The churches in the Netherlands followed suit, refusing to use the beautiful pipe organs in the church buildings they had inherited from the Roman Catholics. But while the consistories could determine no musical accompaniment in the worship, they could not have the organs removed, because the magistrates owned the buildings. Whence then the prelude (and postlude)? It came because of pressure from the people. Week after week they looked at those magnificent pipe organs in their churches, silently pleading to be played. The pressure for organ music made one consistory after another agree (or perhaps it was foisted upon them) to allow the organ to be played before the worship services and afterwards. This practice was carried on in the Protestant Reformed Churches and in virtually all Dutch Reformed churches—and almost nowhere else.
So, is it Reformed to have a prelude? Is it a matter of principle? Obviously not. Visitors to a mission field will need to be aware of this important difference. And be charitable in making the judgment.
The same charity is needed when faced with different lifestyles, including Sunday observance, dress, entertainment, and more. The members of the mission are learning and growing—that is the important thing. Not whether they observe the Lord’s Day exactly as the Dutch Reformed in Grand Rapids or Hull. Wisdom and charity will make visitors able to enjoy the visit and establish bonds of Christian friendship with fellow Reformed believers.
Keep in mind that one visits a mission that is comprised of the same kinds of people as in the home congregation—sinners one and all. Both church and mission have strengths and weaknesses. If one approaches a mission with a critical attitude, it is best simply to stay home. Visitors must guard against a critical attitude toward the minister (and his family), the calling church and consistory, and the core group. Do keep in mind that a visit is only that—a time too brief to equip anyone to make serious evaluations accurately.
Foreign Missions: Special Concerns
The greatest concern for visiting a foreign mission is almost always the wealth of the visitor. When a group of Americans comes to a foreign field, the people there see the money that the Americans spend. They are aware that it took a considerable amount of cash even to travel to them. Yet they live in a world where a few dollars are hard to come by. Visitors must be at pains not to exacerbate this difference in economic circumstances.
Visitors, especially the youth, must keep in mind that there is a danger in reporting on a mission visit and giving an evaluation (positive or negative). I refer to the comments and pictures on Facebook, blogs, or email. These reports and comments get back to the mission.
Third, visitors to a foreign field must have an awareness of cultural differences between them and the people of the mission. Do some reading on the country generally, and some mission books on this very important matter of cultural differences. Visitors are strongly urged to contact the missionary and his wife and ask them questions in order not to offend the people unnecessarily.
The final danger is that you are now considered, or consider yourself, an expert on the field you visited. This happens quite easily and naturally. If no one else from your church, or society, or your group has gone to the mission, the others will look to you for an authoritative answer or evaluation on any question that arises concerning the field. This must consciously and verbally be rejected. No one is an expert on a field after a visit. One must live on the field for a long time to know the core group, the area, the kind of people in the area, the difficulties, and so much more, before one is “an expert.”
And lest you think that I, by the fact that I am writing this, consider myself an expert, let me disabuse you of that notion. I know now more than I did after my first visit to a foreign field some twenty-five years ago, but I am no expert. Proof of that is that I discussed these matters with the mission professor in our seminary and with missionaries. Their contribution was invaluable. If you see some value in what I have written, it almost certainly came from them. If you see something with little value, ascribe it to me.
But the theme and the desire came out of my heart. And that desire is to encourage members to visit mission fields. That is not possible for all, obviously. But we all can be informed through reading. We can all support it with gifts, a note of encouragement, and, most importantly, prayers. But if you can, visit, too.
And one last bit of advice—the missionary is busy doing the work God called him to do, and is not running a travel service or a hotel. Do all the arrangements you can on your own. For the rest, they will help as they are able. But visit your mission field.