The Bible Conference in Birmingham

Now that we have completed our discussion of the missionary preaching of the Apostles we are going to interrupt the series on Missionary Methods in order to report on a Bible Conference in which the undersigned participated. The Conference which took place in May was hosted by Rev. Ronald Van Overloop and our home mission station in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to Pastor Van Overloop and myself, Rev. Steven Houck participated. It was a four-day conference and began on Sunday. Two worship services were held on Sunday. Pastor Houck preached on Sunday morning and Pastor Van Overloop preached on Sunday evening. I preached on Monday evening and again on Tuesday evening. The theme which we developed in the preaching was, “The Christian Marriage.” After the Monday and Tuesday meetings there was opportunity for the audience to ask questions and participate in a bit of discussion. On the basis of God’s promise we believe the preaching bore fruit. Certainly it was a blessing to fellowship with the small band of saints in Birmingham as well as with colleagues in the ministry. The daytime hours were not wasted. Certainly not! In the comfortable study of the Van Overloop home the three of us discussed some of the questions and problems which our home missionaries are facing in their work. Some of these problems make their work painstakingly difficult and even frustrating at times. We are writing this report because we thought our readers might like to know about some of these matters. I might add that we were joined one morning by Rev. Carl Russell, who pastors an independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. Pastor Russell, a native of Birmingham, is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Speaking out of his “deep south” religious and cultural heritage Pastor Russell contributed helpful advice, especially concerning our work in Birmingham. 

One of the observations made (and this recurred throughout our discussions) was that a significant change has occurred in Protestant Reformed mission work. Part of that significant change is the fact that our churches did no foreign work until they became involved in Singapore just a few years ago. Another part of the change is that, for the first fifty years or so of our history, our churches were not really involved in home mission work. The churches considered it their first responsibility (and correctly so) to do church reformation work. The churches worked with people who were dissatisfied in the Christian Reformed Church. Ministers (H. Hoeksema and G.M. Ophoff initially) and later a home missionary would lecture and preach and discuss matters pertaining to the faith with small groups of people who had called for help. These groups often became the nuclei of many of our churches, particularly in the West. These people for the most part were familiar with the Three Forms of Unity, with Reformed Church Polity and Liturgy. They knew the language of the Reformed Faith and they knew their Bibles. Their walk of life was almost identical with that of our people. These people usually agreed with the position of our churches on various issues such as: divorce and remarriage, unionism, dancing, drama, etc. The point is that our churches worked with people who were very much like us. They were hardworking, pious, Reformed Dutchmen. In Colorado and the Dakotas they were the same, except they were Germans. Now that has all changed. Now the churches work with Chinese in Singapore and with others in East Lansing, Michigan and Birmingham, Alabama. Our missionaries meet people constantly who have never heard of the Reformed Faith or the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. These people have no knowledge of the Reformed Creeds. If they do, their knowledge is limited. This is true not only of those outside of the Church but also of those within the Church. Along with all of the apostasy in the Church of our day is the failure of the pulpit to preach the Word. That must be the case, for if the Word of God is no longer believed it cannot be preached. Thus the people of God are gradually starving to death spiritually. The lament of the prophet is applicable to our day: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” Hosea 4:6

This factor has very serious implications for home mission work. The missionary really can assume nothing. He must not preach as he would in the home church. If the missionary were to do that, his hearers would not understand what he was saying. Terminology, that is, doctrinal terminology, familiar to one who has been born and raised and catechized in a Protestant Reformed Church and educated in a Protestant Reformed School is like a foreign language on the home mission field. This does not mean the message must be changed. It certainly does not mean that the truth of the gospel must be compromised. What is preached in the home church and what is preached on the mission field must be the same precious truth of Holy Scripture. But that truth must be carefully and patiently explained, in language the people can understand. The missionary must be at pains to explain and define the terms he uses in his preaching and teaching. Still more, he must speak and preach in such a manner as to make perfectly clear that what he is preaching is taught by Scripture. This also applies to our radio work. The radio preacher cannot simply condense one of his Sunday sermons for broadcasting. Ninety percent or more of the listeners would not understand what he was saying. Here again the message must be simple and clear. Above all else it must be an exposition of the Word of God. It must be plain to the listener that this message is in complete harmony with what the Bible says. 

In this same connection we discussed the content or the nature of the content of the preaching on the mission field. The content of course is Scripture. It is also true that our Protestant Reformed missionaries preach distinctively Protestant Reformed sermons. Butthe question is: what subjects should be preached? In the past (and this was in the very nature of the case) our missionaries engaged in a good bit of polemics and controversy on the home fields. This happened naturally because our missionaries and churches were concerned to show our brothers and sisters in the Christian Reformed and other Reformed Churches the error of Common Grace and other departures from the Reformed truth. In the light of the doctrinal apathy and apostasy of our day it was our consensus that polemics should be avoided at least initially. Rather than to speak out on the law and gospel controversy, for example, in which many of the southern churches are engaged, it is better just to preach the gospel. Later, when the hearers become more mature spiritually, these matters can be more profitably considered.

Almost immediately upon arriving at the parsonage in Birmingham early Saturday afternoon, we began discussing goals. What is or what ought to be the goals of our home mission work? What ends are we trying to reach? What does Scripture have to say to this point? With these questions we were busy that warm, sunny, spring afternoon. The immediate goal, as is plain from Scripture, especially the record in Acts, must be the gathering of the elect by means of the preaching of the gospel. It makes no difference from where these come: out of apostatizing Reformed or Presbyterian Churches, Arminian churches, or no churches at all (unconverted). These must be gathered with a view to the organization of a Protestant Reformed congregation. The newly-established church can then continue to evangelize in its locale while the missionary is freed to begin work in another area. The second goal (and, remember, these two cannot be separated) is to leave a witness to the truth of the Word of God. The Word of the Gospel must be proclaimed, together with the command to repent and believe, throughout the area with a view to the coming of the Kingdom of Christ. The Word never returns void. It is a savor of life unto life, but also of death unto death. Especially with regard to this latter goal, growth in numbers is not necessary. In fact, we agreed, it is possible to see no growth at all for a time and still meet the goals. That these ends may be reached is the prayer of the missionary and the church which sends him. 

Another related question and one which is extremely difficult to answer is: when may the missionary leave an area? This is not a problem when there is ample positive fruit upon the missionary’s preaching and teaching. When a congregation is organized the missionary’s work is finished and he must go elsewhere. But when there is little positive fruit and the missionary is working with only a very few families, the question of when to terminate the work becomes difficult. We all agreed that certainly a missionary ought not leave an area before a rather high percentage of the population had been reached in one way or another. This can be done by publicizing the worship services, conducting well-publicized Bible classes or lectures or midweek preaching services. Another method is to divide the area into sections and then mail tracts or pamphlets to each address, section by section. These tracts would contain information about our churches and the services and missionary pastor. This method was dubbed, “blitz.” Whatever the method, it was felt that the missionary could not in good conscience end his work in a given locale without making every effort to reach as many as possible and thus leaving a witness. To put this in terms of months or years is impossible. Much depends upon the area itself and the particular circumstances the missionary might encounter. 

More was discussed, but these were the main topics of concern. The undersigned left the conference with more insight into the problems and difficulties of the work. He also left with a deeper appreciation for our missionaries, and for their wives and children. All labor and live at personal sacrifice. Let us be diligent in prayer for them. May God prosper their work and make it fruitful unto the gathering of His Church and the coming of His Kingdom in Jesus Christ.