One of my passions is mission and evangelism. I suppose this makes sense since I started my ministry as a missionary in 2000. In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve emphasized how important it is for believers to be outward looking. I’ve repeatedly shown how God’s Word teaches us to be people who have a heart for the lost around us. At the same time, I’ve always been convinced that none of this is contrary to our Reformed identity — quite the opposite! In fact, the burden of my doctoral dissertation (later revised and published as For the Cause of the Son of God) was to demonstrate that, far from discouraging an outward looking perspective, the Belgic Confession fosters it. Being missional is integral to being Reformed.
In years gone by, there were those who saw a tension between Reformed identity and being outward looking churches. Sadly, today that phenomenon still exists. To address it, I want to put out a number of theses about being missional and Reformed. I’ll divide them into negative and positive theses. I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that far more could be said).
1. To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed confessions
Our Reformed identity is grounded in what we confess from God’s Word in the Three Forms of Unity. These confessions foster an outward looking, missional perspective. In For the Cause of the Son of God, I pointed out how the Belgic Confession was originally written as “the church’s witness to the world” (to use the brilliant title of P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Confession). In a follow-up book, To Win Our Neighbours for Christ, I argued that also the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort foster a missionary-mindedness in our churches. Our confessional heritage is decidedly NOT a liability when it comes to being outward looking.
2. To be missional, there is no need to give up Reformed worship
Being Reformed means worshipping in a Reformed fashion. By that, I mean that we do not worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96). It’s what we call the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Because it is grounded in Scripture, the RPW ought to be non-negotiable for Reformed churches. A Reformed worship service ought always to have the same basic elements — the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, offerings, and sacraments. The circumstantial aspects of worship are negotiable and can differ from church to church. A missional Reformed church can and should maintain Reformed worship, but it will often be necessary to provide instruction to visitors and new believers concerning that Reformed worship. Such instruction, offered inside and outside the worship context, will also benefit those who have been longtime members. For more on this, see chapter 18 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship.
3. To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed name
It should be obvious that your name is part of your identity. In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer insists that it is a myth that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name” (p.38). In research for this book, Rainer discovered that over 80% of the formerly unchurched people he surveyed said that “the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church” (p.39). Further, Rainer points out that of those who said that the church name did have an influence, nearly two-thirds said that it was a positive influence. There is no reason to believe things would be different with Reformed churches. Giving up your Reformed name serves no missional purpose — so why do it? Moreover, why not be upfront and honest about what kind of church you are?
4. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed local church community
Sometimes Reformed believers resist efforts to become more outward looking by arguing that our priority has to be the local communion of saints. First we need to work on a stronger bond between brothers and sisters in our church family, and then once we have that, then maybe we can start thinking about (and maybe even doing!) evangelism. This is a false dilemma. The church exists ultimately for the glory of God, but it exists for his glory through human beings. The church exists for God’s glory through human beings loving one another both inside and outside the church. Scripture does not prioritize one over the other and neither should we. We are to love our brothers and sisters in our church family, but also love all those whom God places on our path — and show that love by sharing the gospel with them when God gives the opportunity.
5. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed connections
Here we’re thinking of the broader Reformed church community, i.e. on the federational level. Here we’re thinking of connections through things like Reformed church polity. Reformed churches differ from one another, even in the same federation. They each have a different history and sometimes even a different church culture. Different is not bad, so long as these differences are within the bounds of what we confess and what we have agreed upon in our church order. Churches that are less missionally-minded need contact with more missionally-minded churches in minor assemblies and other such contexts. All churches, however much missionally-minded, benefit from the accountability and encouragement that comes from living together in a federation.
1. Being missional involves putting Jesus and the gospel at the center of everything
This one is first because it is of primary importance. Since we recognize the pressing urgency of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Reformed churches must be always self-consciously putting the gospel out there. By “gospel” I mean the good news of everything Jesus Christ has done and will do for sinners. That gospel message has to resound not only in our preaching, but in every aspect of church life. We ought to be known as churches that just can’t stop talking about Jesus.
2. Being missional involves intentional discipleship into an outward-looking mindset and practices
It is odd to me that the idea of discipleship is not more strongly emphasized in many of our Reformed churches — because Scripture teaches that one of the key things that defines a Christian is being a disciple of Jesus. Being a disciple means being a student, not only in the sense of learning information from the Master, but learning to follow and imitate the Master’s way of life. Our Teacher’s way of life was always outward-looking — he seeks and saves the lost. So as Reformed churches, we ought to be discipling existing and prospective church members to do likewise. Catechism classes should include discipling our younger members in how to reach out. New member classes should be so bold as to teach new disciples how to start right away at making more disciples — we need to harness their excitement and enthusiasm for the gospel to spread the gospel further!
3. Being missional involves an attitude shift
Sometimes people have the idea that becoming more missional means radically changing everything we do as Reformed churches, dropping some things and adding others. Not so. Instead, at its heart, missionality involves a shift in perspective. We go from having a church which exists as an end unto itself, to being a church oriented outwards and inwards. We beginning thinking about the lost, we talk about the lost, and we pray about the lost. This shift in perspective/attitude, also means adjusting existing programs to incorporate an outward looking perspective. I give one such example here.
4. Being missional involves a cultural shift
Most, if not all, of our Reformed churches are what we call “high-context cultures.” There are many unspoken assumptions embedded in our local church cultures. For example, in the Free Reformed and Canadian Reformed churches, we usually expect everyone to know there is a section of Psalms in the Book of Praise, followed by a section of hymns. In some of our churches, you are expected to look at the church bulletin and know that the women’s society meets at the church at such and such a day and time — no one will tell you, you just ought to know. In other churches, strangely and sadly, you are expected to know that there is assigned seating. Many more examples could be given. Being missional means shifting to a low(-er) context culture where we don’t assume newcomers will automatically understand everything we do and say. An excellent place to begin putting this into practice is the church website. Ask an unbeliever to look at your church website and point out the Reformed jargon or anything unclear. You might be surprised.
5. Being missional involves awareness that on any given Sunday we could have guests worshipping with us
We ought to pray about guests — that God would bring them and that God would bless them. We expect to see guests and when they arrive, we want to be aware that they’re there. For some years, I have greeted our members and guests before the worship service. Part of the reason I do this is to be aware of who is worshipping with us, whether we have guests or not. But congregation members should also be attuned to this. In some of our churches, there are Bibles and Books of Praise in the pew (good missional practice, in my view), in others not. For those who don’t, the members of the church should be observing newcomers and whether they have a Bible and Book of Praise, or not. If they don’t, offer them one of yours, or help them to access the books from the ushers or whatever. When there are guests, warmly welcome them — introduce yourself, offer hospitality, etc. We do this because of who we represent — we represent our King. He has a warm, friendly heart and so should we.
With these five negative and positive theses, I don’t claim to have exhausted what could be said on this topic. I also don’t claim that all of these are implemented in the church I serve or by me personally. However, I believe they are goals for which we ought to strive. I commend them for your serious consideration. The world around us is perishing and the church is the means by which Christ will bring rescue. Therefore, it behooves us to look outward and care deeply about the lost, while at the same time continuing to stand on the biblical teachings and practices which define us as Reformed churches.