A covenantal culture for missions?
Since the dawn of the new dispensation, God has been drawing His elect church into the covenant of grace in two ways, from two sources, and through two tasks. First, through the Spirit-powered gospel preaching and witness of the church in the world, declaring to the nations the salvation of the Lord and saying among the heathen that the Lord reigns, God graciously seeks and saves His lost sheep out of the hell-bound hopelessness of their false religions into the blessed eternal life of His covenant (Ps. 96, Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8). Then, through the Spirit-powered gospel preaching and discipling of believers and their seed within the church, as well as the pious and religious education of those children by their parents in home and school, God continues His covenant with their seed after them in their generations (Deut. 6:7; Ps. 78; Matt. 28:19; Eph. 6:4).
Is there any connection between these two ways whereby God is pleased to extend His covenant in this present age?
On the one hand, they are and must be kept separate and distinct. There are wrong ways of relating and mixing these two tasks. For example, in the home we are to raise the children of the covenant in the knowledge of God their Savior and in the love of their God in Christ. But we do not send them into the neighborhood as little missionaries in the hope that God will use their witness to draw the children of unbelievers into the covenant. As we live in our neighborhoods, we most certainly teach our children to walk and talk as children of the light; we tell them that we are witnesses in the world who must let our light shine before men when playing outside or going for a walk in the park. But we do not send them to speak about Christ or share the gospel with the children of the world. Rather, we shelter them from the ungodly influences of those children in the safe haven of our homes, including the worldly influences that can creep into our homes through the television.
One of the most glaring and spiritually catastrophic attempts to relate the two tasks mentioned above is the view that was always prevalent in the Reformed Church in America (RCA), namely, that we do not need to establish private Christian schools to educate the children of the covenant, but we may and ought to send them to the public schools so that they can witness to the children of unbelievers. We are thoroughly convinced that it is a grievous mistake for believing parents to send their children to the public schools. First of all, the task of educating our children does not belong to the state but to us as Christian parents in the covenant. Further, we must never forget the spiritual and religious nature of the whole educational enterprise. A school does not simply teach the observable facts of nature and history. Schools teach worldviews too. Worldviews are religious in nature. Worldviews set forth what to believe about the universe, its origin, development, and end, and how to behave toward other men. The public schools teach a secular and godless worldview and a perverse and wicked ethics. Part of our calling to come out from among them and be separate (II Cor. 6:17) is that we educate our children separately in good Christian schools. Only in that way can we diligently teach and faithfully nurture our children in the knowledge of the Lord their God and their Savior Jesus Christ, as we promised to do at baptism, so that they will serve and love Him in their whole lives.
Nevertheless, part of the biblical worldview that we must diligently teach our children is that God wills to establish His covenant with the elect in all nations through missions.
I will never forget what I heard Rev. Jason Kortering say at a missions conference back in 2008.1 I took notes on all the excellent speeches given at that conference. In my notes, I wrote this from Rev. Kortering’s speech: “Missionaries come from Jesus Christ. They are His gift to the church (Eph. 4:11). How does He do this? They come from the life of the church. Christian schoolteachers must inculcate the truth and love of it in our youth. God has given us great truths of the covenant. Our youth are raised on this truth. We must create a ‘culture for missions’ in our churches. This will be like the early church. Our youth must come to appreciate missions. They must understand its importance. It must live in their hearts.”
A culture for missions….
A culture in the churches at all levels in which there is a zeal for the work of God extending His covenant both inside and outside the church, both with the children of believers and with the elect who are yet lost in the nations….
Is there such a culture for missions in our covenant homes? Envision a Reformed home in which believers are raising their children in such a way that they are coming to see the importance of God’s mission in the whole world. They eagerly talk about the work of the schools, yes, but also of missions and evangelism. In the living room, fathers and mothers not only devour literature that pertains to the covenant with us and our children but also concerning the promise to the elect afar off who have not yet heard the gospel. They are keen to read biographies of great theologians but also of great missionaries. They want to learn about the progress of the gospel in the nations in the past as well as in the present. They want to learn: Where has the gospel gone? Where must it still go? How can we promote its progress? They read the mission field newsletters and attend the mission field presentations. They pray for the missionaries. They pray not only for more pastors in the churches and teachers in the schools but also for more missionaries and open doors to new fields. Such fathers and mothers would rejoice if God would call one of their sons to be a fisher of men in the sea of nations, a sower of seed in the field of the world. They would count it an honor if one of their daughters would be a missionary’s wife. Such believers love to talk about God to other believers, but also to people in their neighborhood and workplace. They tell their children at the dinner table about those witnessing experiences. They teach their children not only that we must come out of the world, be spiritually separate from the ungodly, and avoid close fellowship with them, since they are the enemies of the church (II Cor. 6:17; Eph. 5:11; LD 52); but they also teach their children that we must be physically in the world, have contact with the people of the world, and confess Christ before that world as prophets anointed with the Holy Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 12; Matt. 10:32). In such a home, the children of the covenant grow in their understanding of the supreme importance of the work of God within and outside the church. So I ask you, do you have a culture for missions in your home, at your dinner table, in your living room?
What about in our covenant schools? We educate our children separately from the world on the basis of the biblical principles of the covenant and the antithesis. But in our isolation from the world, there is a temptation to be selfish, to develop a world-fleeing and self-centered mentality, to lose sight of the truth that God not only wills to establish His covenant with us and our children in our generations but also with men of all nations, tribes, and tongues. In his book Reformed Education, Prof. David Engelsma warns against the danger of world-flight in his defense of giving a liberal arts education to our children to prepare them “to live in this world, really in this world, in all its different spheres.”2 I agree with that warning, for Jesus prayed to His Father “not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15). I also issue the warning against world-flight but in a slightly different connection, namely, that we might impress upon our children that we as the church have a mission to the world and every Christian is a witness that God is God (Is. 43:10-12). We must not be so focused on ourselves and our children that we have no interest in the mission of God to save His beloved people who are still lost in darkness and to draw them into His covenant. If our children grow up with little or no interest in the extension of the covenant to others outside our circles through missions and evangelism, the problem is not that we isolated them from the world and educated them in private schools. But the problem is that in our schools we allowed a self-centered mentality to rule. The problem is that each of us has an old man of sin in us who does not love the next-door neighbor or desire the salvation of our co-worker. By nature, we are no different than the ungodly. We are prone to hate God and our neighbor, to selfishly seek our own happiness and the worldly success of our own children. By grace, we are different from the world in that we also desire to raise our children in the faith, we seek their salvation, and we teach them to serve God. But if we only love our children who love us, what reward have we? Do not even the publicans the same? (Matt. 5:46).
Some time ago, when researching the history of missions in the Christian Reformed Church, I was amazed to discover that one of the motives of our Dutch Reformed fathers in the nineteenth century to establish Christian schools in America was to educate the children of the covenant in such a way that they would be prepared to live in the world as witnesses of Christ.3
What does a culture for missions look like in one of our schools? I think of a school where there is an obvious effort from parents, boards, principals, and teachers alike to instill in the children of the covenant an appreciation for God’s mission to the whole world. I envision teachers emphasizing that the goal of their instruction is not just to help the students get a good job and a lucrative career in this life but to serve the Lord their God in the world. These teachers do not aim at the goal of training the children of believers to become social and political activists who pursue the dream of establishing a kingdom of God on earth in a Christianized society.4 Rather, they aim at the goal of training the children of the covenant to live as citizens of the kingdom of Christ in all spheres of life in the world and to let their light shine before men in all those places (Matt. 5-7). In the classroom, teachers of the Christian and Reformed worldview not only teach the children what the Bible says but also train them to defend what the Bible says in future witnessing encounters with their neighbors. From time to time, when teaching biology or astronomy, history or literature, government or business, the teacher might challenge the students to ask how they would explain the Christian view on a certain topic to an unbeliever. In a high school class, the teacher might require the students to give a speech or practice dialogues to learn how to witness to the unchurched young people they might meet at college. In chapel, the minister or teacher who has been asked to speak might set before the boys and young men the absolute wonder of what God has done for us in Christ, the great need for pastors and missionaries, and the calling of the church to go into all the world and to shine as lights in the midst of the world.
What about in our churches? Do we have a culture for missions? In such a culture, the church is active in sending, training, and supporting ordained missionaries to foreign and domestic fields to the best of its ability. Pastors of local churches, who regularly baptize the infants of believers and preach sermons on the responsibilities of parents in the covenant, also regularly preach about the idea and calling of missions (there are many texts on missions in the Bible, Old and New Testaments). They proclaim the gospel of Christ crucified and risen that gives us hope for salvation, and they exhort believers to show forth that salvation from day to day as witnesses. They practice what they preach by attending evangelism committee meetings and seeking to practice biblical methods of outreach in the area around the church. While explaining that the office of evangelist has ceased (Eph. 4:11), such churches also maintain that the office of pastor includes the work of an evangelist (II Tim. 4:5). The pastors in such churches, with the support of their elders, are zealous not only to teach catechism to the children and youth of the covenant but also to reach out to lost men and women in their neighborhood. When teaching catechism, too, they seek opportunities to impress on the children not only God’s promises to us but also to all those who are afar off whom the Lord our God shall call.
Do we have such a culture for missions in our circles? In my experience, there is a growing culture for missions, but it is still a tender plant. I do not recall that there was such a culture in our circles in my younger years (1980s and 1990s). There were mission fields and faithful missionaries, to be sure. But in my memory, there was little emphasis on or promotion of the Great Commission. This I know: I myself did not care much about it until my seminary years. But through conferences like the one mentioned above and the good instruction of our missions professor in the seminary, the Lord caused me to see more and more the importance of missions. In the last decade or two, I observe a growing interest in missions, and I am very encouraged by it. I pray that it will continue to grow.
In my humble opinion, we who understand the truth of the covenant as it is with us and our seed, with all its implications for life, must continue to grow in our understanding of God’s purpose to extend His covenant to the elect out in the nations, with all its implications for life. Our Protestant Reformed forefathers built our good Christian schools. Some believing parents in the denomination are still building schools. Much time and energy are spent on the maintenance, governance, and improvement of our schools. But let us grow in seeing that the building of the spiritual house of the Lord in this present age is a two-pronged endeavor. May there be among us not only a culture for the Christian home and school but also a culture for missions.
1 The Domestic Mission Committee of the PRCA sponsored the conference which was held at Southwest PRC. The speakers were Rev. Arie denHartog (former missionary of the PRCA in Singapore), Prof. Barry Gritters (professor of practical theology and missions at the PRCA seminary), Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma (former missionary of the PRCA in Jamaica and Pittsburgh), and the late Rev. Jason Kortering (former minister-on-loan to sister churches of the PRCA in Singapore who was also very involved in mission work in various parts of Asia).
2 Chapter 3, “Reformed Education and Culture,” (Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2000) 41 (author’s own emphasis). He warns against the two dangers of world conformity and world flight. In regard to the latter, he writes, “We are not free altogether from the temptation of the world-flight mentality” (p. 42). He defines this mentality: “It considers the physical world and its institutions an evil and concludes that a Christian must get out of the world as much as possible. It advocates physical separation from the world, shunning normal earthly life” (p. 49). Some who have this mentality esteem “the Christian school mainly because it keeps the children separate from the public school children” (pp. 49-50). The concern of Prof. Engelsma is to defend the teaching of a liberal arts education in our schools from a Reformed viewpoint with the goal of preparing the child of God to live in the world “in every area of life with all his powers as God’s friend-servant, loving God and serving God in all of his earthly life with all his abilities, and who lives in the world to come as a king under Christ, ruling creation to the praise of God, his Maker and Redeemer” (p. 84).
3 See John H. Bratt, The Missionary Enterprise of the Christian Reformed Church in America, (unpublished dissertation, 1955), 11.
4 Engelsma, Reformed Education, 89-91.