Evangelism: The church's missionary task in the world (3) - Rev. J.L. Van Popta

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


Part 3 of 4

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1. An integrated vision

It is time that the Canadian Reformed Churches begin seriously thinking of calling evangelist missionaries for our cities. We no longer need to go to the jungle to find pagans; we need not go to the mid east to find Muslims; nor need we go 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. We need to evangelize our middle class neighbours. In a previous article we identified three aspects of evangelistic effort: Church, committee, and the individual 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 find ways to integrate evangelism programs based on these three sources. 

2. What are we missing?

It seems, though, that this is not happening. What are we missing? I believe that we are missing three things in our evangelistic vision. This is likely the greatest cause of our failure in both participation and in numbers brought to faith. We will briefly examine these three areas and then come back to them as we evaluate our current evangelistic efforts.

2.1. Confessional basis

We are missing a confessional basis for our outreach. It seems that the confessions of the church are a bit of an embarrassment for any outreach efforts mounted by Reformed churches, committees or individuals. We might introduce ourselves in a brochure or tract as a church that finds its roots in the great Reformation of the 1 6th century and that we hold to the Three Forms of Unity. Yet, when someone comes to learn more about the Bible and the Lord Jesus, we say little about the confessions for quite a while. In Lord's Day 21, in the confession about the church, we say that Jesus Christ gathers, defends and preserves a church. The confessions can be used for exactly those purposes. We use them primarily to preserve the church. We teach the doctrine of Scripture as outlined in the confessions to the young people and so preserve the truth. We often will use the confessions to defend the truth against heresy and false teaching. We will use them to test the spirits to see if they are from God. However, we shy away from using them in the gathering work. We should make the Three Forms of Unity part of our evangelistic tool box. Of course we want to bring the Bible first of all. That is where the Gospel is found, first. However, we should not create false dilemmas between Scripture and confessions, as if the use of the confessions undermines the Scripture.

2.1.1. Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession is one of the most beautiful concise booklets of the gospel that has ever been produced. It was written as a testimony to others. It was an explanation of what the Reformed church believed. It lays out the basic doctrine of God, Scripture, sin, redemption, and church. We need not be afraid of using this booklet to explain to others what the gospel is about and what the Scripture teaches and what the church confesses.

2.1.2. Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism, on the other hand, was written first of all to teach those coming into the church the riches of God's grace in Christ. It was used to teach the comfort and the joy of the gospel of salvation. It was used to teach not just young people but also new members of the comfort and the joy of belonging to Christ. Why do we not do the same now? It seems as if the Heidelberg Catechism is only used for evangelistic purposes when someone swiftly needs to be admitted into the church via public profession of faith.

2.1.3. Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort of course are somewhat more difficult to use in evangelistic endeavors. They do, however, as we have already seen in an earlier article, provide a Reformed basis and argument for evangelism and mission work. If one were to confront someone with an Arminian understanding of the gospel, however, then the Canons of Dort clearly lay out the truth of Scripture about the way of salvation. (Though the doctrine of election and reprobation likely is not the first doctrine with which to confront the unbeliever.)

2.2. Church directed

A second thing that we are missing, besides a confessional background is the lack of a church direction. I believe that our evangelistic efforts are not church directed enough. We do not speak to our neighbours, evangelize our co-workers and acquaintances, with the intent of them joining the church, the Reformed Church. We do not direct our evangelistic efforts with the intent of directing new believers and honest seekers to the church. We take the attitude (I have heard it so often), "Well, we need to spread the seed! Who knows what God will do with it in the future? Perhaps someday the hearer will think on it and it will have some effect in his life. Who knows?" Yes, who knows!?

Those who know, however, and have heard the gospel and yet do not accept it, those who do not believe it, are then accountable. We should not be simply casting some seed upon the ground and then say, "Who knows what will happen?" No, we should evangelize with the intent of being an instrument in God's hand in changing the hearts and lives of those who hear the gospel! It is the Holy Spirit working with the Word first of all that changes the hearts I of men and women. A preacher does not carelessly cast out some seeds on Sunday morning thinking, "Well, who knows what God will do with it? Perhaps someday the congregation will remember what I said and the Word proclaimed will have some effect." No, not at all! The preacher preaches urgently and with authority: "Repent and believe!" The good news comes to all men. "Believe and be baptized and be joined in faith to the body of Christ!" All evangelism must have as its goal, not just the potential conversion of the hearer, but the actual obedient response of being joined by faith to the body of Christ, the church'

2.3. Covenantal theology

Not only are we missing that confessional basis and a church direction for our evangelism, I think we are missing a covenantal theology of missions or evangelism. Perhaps not in some professor's text-book but in the church members' lives the covenantal vision is missing. We will expand on this below, when we deal with some practical applications.

3. What are we doing and are we doing it correctly?

So what are we doing? What are we doing right and what could we do better? The following is not the product of a scientific study or survey. It is rather the result of personal observation and conversation. I hope that what I say is useful. If my judgment is wrong for your church I still hope my observations will be helpful.

We can identify quite a few different types of work that we do through committees. These programs often need the efforts of many individuals. i do not want in any way to take away from the work done by these people. Many church members are deeply dedicated to the work they do for the Lord in this respect. They should be held in honour by all in the church. They are striving to live as lights in the world, as bright stars in the dark universe. And yet, I still have some serious criticisms about our standard evangelistic efforts.

3.1. Tracts

Many churches print tracts and brochures identifying and introducing the church. But where are these brochures found? In the back of the church, to be handed to those who already have come through the door!

Why not find a better place to distribute them? The young people of Edmonton have launched what they call "The Areopagus Project." I like that name. The Areopagus was the place where the Apostle Paul preached his sermon to the University professors in Athens. The Areopagus Project is an outreach program on the University of Alberta campus. They hand out Christian literature, information about the church, information about the creeds, organize Bible Studies on campus. It is a great idea.

This too has its limitations. You cannot just button-hole people and tell them to become Christians. You cannot just stuff reading material in their faces and think that their lives will be changed. Handing out tracts and distributing reading material has a place but it should be a very limited place in the church's missionary work and evangelistic work. It is then the follow up, the Bible studies, the continued contact, that works the best. Just handing out tracts at the local fair is good, but it should not be the primary way of evangelizing your neighbour.

3.2. VBS

I have a difficulty with Vacation Bible Schools as they are now organized. Well intentioned mothers and teachers, volunteers everyone of them, exert an amazing amount of effort and hold VBS for one or two weeks in the summer. Church budgets reflect the growing trend. Ads are run in local papers. Signs and billboards adorn the front of churches. And the kids do come. But I have heard that for many of the kids, this is just one of many VBSs that they attend during the summer. Often the children are members of church going families and the mothers enroll them first in the Baptist VBS, then in the CRC VBS, then in the Mennonite VBS, then in the CndR VBS. The children receive 4 6 weeks of free summer activities. Now as a social service this is a great contribution. I do not deny that the church community can do good things in the neighbourhood.

Here I want to get back to my critique about a lack of covenantal theology. If VBS is the cornerstone of our evangelistic outreach how does that square with covenant teaching? We believe that God made His covenant with believers and their children, not with children and their parents. Making VBS as the mainstay effort of church evangelism means that we put the teaching of the covenant aside. No longer do we come with the promise and demand of the gospel: "Repent and believe!" Those are commands, not optional alternatives. How can you tell a 4 year old, "Repent and believe?" No, you are left with either telling Bible stories, and saying, "Who knows, maybe it will affect him in his later years." Or you change the gospel and say to the child of unbelieving parents, "Jesus loves you and died for you." It does not add up in a Reformed Church.

3.3. Coffee Break

The other mainstay of evangelistic outreach is often what is known as "Coffee Break." Here women of the church bring their friends and neighbours. The children often come and one of the women of the church teaches them a Bible story or does some arts and crafts. The other women engage in a Bible Study. Though here the covenantal aspect is stronger (often the mother is a single mother, head of her household), the confessional aspect and the church directed aspect is often missing. I understand that often the women who come have little or no understanding of Scripture and so an inductive Bible study is used. A Bible book is chosen and discussed. The participants use a question and answer format and search the Scriptures for answers. It is hard to lay a charge against that. Yet, what is often lacking is systematic instruction about the gospel. There is a need for instruction, not just exploration. Again the church and the women contribute to society by helping and befriending and listening to these women, but too often I think the command and demand of the covenant gospel is lacking. We need to develop truly Reformed confessional, covenantal material for Coffee Break. We need study material that has as its goal to bring sinners to repentance and faith and so lead them to obedient thankful response within the church of Christ.

3.4. Evangel/Outreach magazines

I wonder how many people read Evange/ and Outreach magazines. Some months ago I spoke to a prominent leader in the churches, a man with a zeal for the Lord and for evangelism, who had never even heard of Outreach magazine. It is a magazine written to equip the saints for ministry. If it is not read, however, those articles will benefit absolutely nothing.

I believe that Evangel magazine has a role. But if all you do is stuff it in the mail slots or mail boxes in your community and you think you have done your job, you are mistaken. Here again is one of the great failures of our evangelistic efforts. We think that we are done when we take a brochure and stuff it in a mail box. That is what I call, "No strings attached evangelism." Just a broad-sheet paper in the mailbox. "The choice is yours." But since when has it been a choice? The gospel must come with the commend to repent and believe.

3.5. Gift From Heaven Bible Course

This Bible course has been developed in Holland and translated by the Reformed Evangelism Task Force, the same committee that is behind Evangel and Outreach magazines. The course is a good one, but once again it is as sort of "no-strings-attached" evangelistic effort. The course is advertised with the disclaimer that no personal contact need to be made. The only follow up is the marking of the course. If follow up is desired then that can be arranged. Is our intent to simply cast seeds about?

3.6. Radio broadcast

The Voice of the Church radio broadcasts have been on the air for decades. There is a place for this kind of witness and testimony but again it is evangelism with no strings attached. The invitation is to listen but there is no real direction to church. It seems that, here too, as Reformed churches we do not consider it very important or necessary or even possible to get the listener to church. Though some are brought to the church through this work, its work is too unfocused.

3.7. Prison Ministry [M2/W2 Open Circle]

Over the years, more and more men are visiting as Christian volunteers in prisons. Here effective evangelism can occur. Often long term relationships are built up. The Bible can be opened and read. The confessions can be taught. In prisons we find many men who are in desperate need of the gospel and who are ready and willing to hear the good news of salvation. Various Christian organizations have been set up to make access to the prison population possible. Much more work could be done in this field.[1] 

4. Conclusion

There is a need for Reformed people to develop scriptural, confessional and church directed material for evangelistic outreach programs. The programs that we use are a good ground work but should be molded and adapted to a more confessionally based and church directed format which is rooted in a clear understanding of God's covenant of grace. There is however, one more missing piece. We will deal with that in the next article.

Foot notes

1The 1996-1997 Annual Report of M2/W2 Christian Volunteers in Correction, based in Clearbrook BC, notes that there are 331 men in federal and provincial prisons who would welcome a Christian friend but for whom M2/W2 is unable to find a volunteer. Think of it! 331 male prisoners seeking a Christian friend in BC prisons alone. Where are the volunteers?


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