Evangelism: The church's missionary task in the world (2) - Rev. J.L. Van Popta

Taken from the Clarion (1997) Vol.46, No 14-18

Part 2 of 4

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1. The Gospel comes by the human voice

The promise of the Gospel is to be announced and proclaimed universally to all peoples and to ail men. To nations and races-all peoples. To individuals- men. The promise comes: those who believe shall not perish. The command comes: you must repent from sin and believe. That is the heart of the gospel. A promise and demand that must go out to all and everyone, collectively and individually, without discrimination. The Canons of Dort highlight this evangelistic calling of the church and the task of God's people.

Calvin points out in his commentary on Isaiah 2:3 that it is a deadness which would cause believers to be silent about the gospel in the midst of their neighbours. The Canons of Dort set out the biblical doctrine that the gospel must be proclaimed universally to all men. As Reformed confessors we note that it is Christ who gathers His church. With the Canons and Calvin, however, we remember that Christ uses primarily the human voice and the agency of men to do that gathering work.

2. Three aspects of evangelism

In an earlier article we noted that many distinctions have been made when discussing evangelism. These distinctions have often been used to excuse the individual from involvement in evangelism. I propose that we restructure our thought. We should not be making distinctions by which we limit the work of evangelism that can be done. Rather we should distinguish various aspects and types of evangelism and see how they can all work together. We should not set up dilemmas: either foreign or local; organized or unorganized; intentional or unintentional; church or individual. Rather, we should see that there are various aspects of evangelism that augment and complement each other. Each is important in its own way. I suggest that there are three aspects with which we need to work. In this article we will examine these three aspects and then see how they can work together.

2.1. Church

As noted earlier, the church has a crucial role in evangelism. The church is not just a congregation of individual believers. It is also the body of Christ through whom the good news of salvation reaches the world. It is the church's duty to call and ordain qualified men to be preachers. These preachers and pastors work within the church, but there must also be preachers working outside the church. In the "Form for Ordination of Missionaries" as found in the Book of Praise we read, "It is the calling of the church, through the testimony of the Apostles, to move people to believe in Christ crucified. From the time of the apostles, the Holy Spirit has commanded the church to set men apart for the work to which He has called them."'[1] 

Those missionaries are to preach first to those who are without Christ. Thus they bring hope to those who have no hope and who are without God in the world, that they, being far off, may come near through the blood of Christ (Eph. 2 :12,13). They are to give instruction in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). They are to baptize believers and their children, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that the Lord Jesus Christ commanded the church (Matt. 28:19). This work can be done far away overseas, in all places of the world and has been done by CndRCs in Irian Jaya and in Brazil. The Reformed churches historically have sent missionaries all over the world. As we noted in an earlier article, the Reformed confessions give great impetus to foreign missions. However, there is also room for this kind of work to be done locally. The church must set aside and ordain men to preach to those who are strangers to the gospel, at home and abroad.

2.2. Committees

There is also an evangelistic task that we can address with a committee in the congregation. A committee can coordinate the efforts of the church community, of the congregation. This might be with the systematic distribution of literature. Evangel magazine and other tracts or literature introducing your church to your neighbourhood is a worthwhile project. A committee can host evenings with topics and speeches that high-light and discuss the evangelistic task of the local church. It can also organize various outreach projects by which the Reformed faith is set forth for those in our community. We can point to Vacation Bible School, Coffee Break, Gift From Heaven study course, the Voice of the Church Radio Broadcast, and even local cable television. Perhaps there are others.

The committee should not, however, become the sum of the evangelistic work done by the church community. The committee should, indeed must, have a minor role. Often it is said that the committee should be mandated to encourage others to evangelize. That however, is the task of the office bearers. We shouId not shuffle off to a committee the task of teaching the congregation its responsibility in this matter, as if it were too little a thing for the elders to be doing. The committee should only do things that you need a committee to do. Radio or TV broadcasting needs equipment, sound engineers, distribution, and it needs to be organized - so you need a committee. We need committees for translation work, for running an outreach Bible Study. You need someone to co-ordinate things. But to encourage the congregation to reach out, that is the task of the preacher and elders. As Calvin said, "Nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren, and keep the light of knowledge choked up within his own breast." Calvin implies that silence about the light of knowledge is a matter of deadness of faith - of unbelief, of disobedience. That should not be the concern of a committee but of the elders. Of course the committee can organize educational and encouraging evenings and workshops, thereby equipping the saints for service.

2.3. Christian

The Christian also has a task in evangelism. Some will say that it is the duty of others. "I cannot do this. I don't know enough. Call a missionary. Send an evangelist. I am not competent." Though humility is a quality of which Christians often have too little, in this matter they seem to have too much. Humility becomes the excuse for evading responsibility. We can find all sorts of proof in the Scripture that it is everyone's duty to speak of the gospel to others.

Think of 1 Peter 2:5,9. The apostle says that God's people have a double mandate. In verse five the Apostle Peter exhorts us, his readers, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. We could say, "This is our call to worship." Sunday worship. But in verse nine Peter repeats those wonderful names: "You are chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." Then he gives the reason why: "That you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." The word in Greek for declare is literally "to announce outwardly." Peter is not speaking to ministers or theological students. He is writing to the members of the church who were scattered by persecution throughout the world.

In the New Testament the believers are called witnesses; those who testify (Acts 1:8). Paul tells the Philippian believers to "be blameless in the midst of a perverse generation (Philippians 2:15)." (It sounds as if he were writing to us in the late 20th century.) They were to be separated from the wickedness of the world in which they lived. But not separation as isolation! They were to "shine like stars in the universe" shining like lights in the world as they held forth, (or better) hold out, the word of life. (The NIV is much better here, and much more literal than the RSV. The NIV follows the same translation as the late Prof. S. Greijdanus does in his commentary on this passage). God's people are to shine like stars in the dark universe.

In John 17 the Lord Jesus in His high priestly prayer says, "As you Father sent me, so l send them." The Son did not remain in heaven. He came to earth and then mingled with the sinners. He lived with sinners like you and me. He did not hide in the synagogue either, but he went to the outcasts. He went to the tax collector's home. He preached to the sick, the mad, the unclean, to the Samaritans. Likely he even went to the prostitutes with the good news. Too often Canadian Reformed people are like rabbits. They stick their heads out of their ecclesiastical warrens and then when the coast is clear make a run for it to the next safe hole, and hope no one saw them. This attitude is sometimes cause for conflict between church members. Some want to go out and "do something." Others are quite content with the status quo.

When I first spoke on evangelism in Winnipeg someone pressed me in the discussion period about why this might be. Why are there some who do not want to, or do not see the need for evangelism? Since then I read, in a very different context, something written by Gordon Clark. He writes the following in a discussion about the doctrine sanctification as laid out in the Westminster standards:

The American Christian, influenced by American culture, is on the whole more extrovert, activist, and practical than the European Christian. Our (American) gospel songs verge on jazz; the hymns of the French church are worshipful and majestic. We (Americans) go in for organizations and vigorous evangelism; the European is more devotional and contemplative. We are apt to disparage theory and exalt practice. [2] 

Much of what he writes of Americans is true also of Canadians. (Not to be too political here but) Canadian culture is becoming Americanized. We live in a much more activist culture than our forefathers did in Europe and this influences the church also. Especially the younger generations, the grandsons and granddaughters of the immigrants, have this activist motive in their hearts. As children of immigrants, we are truly children of our culture (I count myself among the younger generation!). What we need to do is live in our culture, work with our culture, work in our culture, without tossing overboard the immigrant ship the good aspects of European worship. We may and must be worshipful, devotional and contemplative. If, however, we are worshipful, devotional and contemplative simply because this is what our fathers did across the Atlantic, then we will be a dying church. We need to learn from the North American activist Christian that there is a task for each member of the church in the spreading of the gospel of Christ.

Scripture teaches that each and every Christian is a witness for Christ and His saving work and that it is his/her duty to speak of it in their daily occupation. In the first Lord's Day on thankfulness (32) we confess we do good deeds to praise God, to assure ourselves that we stand in the salvation obtained for us, and to win our neighbours for Christ. Outsiders to faith are first drawn to Christians, then to Christ. Those who are strangers to the gospel are drawn to faith in Christ by the voice of men and women who testify of the grace of God revealed in scripture and in His Son Jesus Christ.

3 How effective are we?

What can we say now about effectiveness? Are we effective? What is the measure of our effectiveness? Should we even consider effectiveness?

3.1. Christians

We should not measure effectiveness by the number of converts and new Christians in our church. Though, when there are none or few we can and should ask "Why?'' Why are there so few? That could be the topic of another article. There is, however, another question we can pose as a measure of effectiveness. How many members of your congregation are involved in any or all three levels of evangelism outlined above? How many actively speak of the gospel in their daily lives?

3.2. Committees

How many committees actually sponsor some sort of outreach? How effective are the committees of your church? What is their mandate? Too often the committee is saddled with all the evangelism work. As if someone else could fulfill your obligation of thankfulness to the Lord! Too often committee are appointed by consistories. The conistory appoints say, five people: one real enthusiast, two who are sympathetic one who is not too excited and one who thinks that evangelism is not and should not be a priority. This may not be the situation in your church but it has been like this in many churches. The consitory wants to have a balanced committee and in the process appoints a committee that can do next to nothing. I prefer the model in which the consistory invites the congregation members to form a committee and then let them get to work. Assume that the members of that committee will want to encourage and be engaged in Reformed evangelism.

3.3. Churches

How many congregations have called an evangelist? It is time that the Canadian Reformed Churches begin seriously thinking of calling evangelist/missionaries for our own cities. We no longer need to go to the jungle to find pagans; we need not go to the mid east to find Muslims; or to third world countries to find the heathen. Next door is close enough. We do not need to go to the urban poor or downtrodden. Why is it that we think we need to step outside our own social class and community, as if our neighbours do not need the gospel? We need to evangelize our middle class neighbours; those who live right next door.

By these measurements of effectiveness, the work of the individual Christian, the committee, and the church, we generally fail dismally.

4. Conclusion

We have identified three aspects of evangelistic effort: The church's, the committee's and the Christian's efforts. These are not either/or distinctions but complementary sources from which to mount a Christian witness in our communities. I believe we must cease making all sorts of false distinctions and instead find ways to integrate evangelism programs based on these three aspects of evangelistic effort.

Foot notes

 Book of Praise "Form for the Ordination of Missionaries" p. 624.

2 Clark, G. What Presbyterians Believe. Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Philadelphia:
1956. P. 59.

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