For Missions Monday this week, I want to direct your attention to this timely article by my fellow URC pastor and Synodical Study Committee on Missions member, Rev. Bill Boekestein. Bill really nails it. I highly recommend it to all who are concerned about missions and church planting in the URCNA. (A link to Bill's personal blog, where this article appears, is below) ANSWERING THE CHALLENGES OF HOME MISSIONS
This article is adapted from an address delivered at Classis Michigan’s 2012 Missions Rally. Rev. Boekestein was asked to speak to the challenges the URCNA faces in the area of home missions.
After the United States declared independence they agreed to submit to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to help them in their mission to develop into a strong nation and eventually spread across the continent. The problem was that until the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, Congress was paralyzed and every state was doing what it thought best regardless of the common good. There was no mechanism for garnering funding. Congress could do nothing significant without the approval of most or all of the states. Individual states independently laid embargoes, negotiated directly with foreigners, raised armies and made war, all violating the letter and the spirit of the Articles of Confederation. In the words of James Madison: “The radical infirmity of the ‘Articles of Confederation’ was the dependence of Congress on the voluntary and simultaneous compliance with its requisitions by so many independent communities, each consulting more or less its particular interest and convenience and distrusting the compliance of the others.”[i]
Perhaps this scenario sheds some light on some of the challenges we as United Reformed Churches face in fulfilling the Great Commission together.
The Challenge of Collaboration
Synod London adopted an overture received from Classis Michigan to evaluate how the URCNA might facilitate greater cooperation and collaboration in missions. The grounds for this overture were as follows: “While the URCNA stands as one in spirit and truth, there exists among many of our member congregations, missionaries, and church planters a sense of standing alone.” The wording might be overly tactful. Do our congregations, missionaries and church planters merely “have a sense of standing alone” or do they too often “stand alone.” Are we doing missions together? Behind this question is a more basic question. What does it mean to federate or covenant together? As that question relates to missions we could rephrase it to read, “Would our practice of home missions look any different if we were independent Congregationalists?
In principal we stand together. The introductory paragraph of our church order says that “the churches of the federation cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another.” This thought is echoed by several of the foundational principles of reformed church government appended to the Church Order. The seventh principle reads, “…Even though churches stand distinctly next to one another, they do not…stand disconnectedly alongside one another.” The tenth principle reminds us that “In order to manifest our spiritual unity, local churches should seek the broadest possible contact with other like-minded churches for their mutual edification and as an effective witness to the world.” Churches must work together with the “broadest possible,” as the next principle reads, “to exercise its ministry of reconciliation by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
Church Order Article 47 similarly states that “the Churches should assist each other in the support of their missionaries.” Considering that the introductory paragraph to the church order says that “we order our ecclesiastical relations and activities in the following articles” the word “should” is curious. Is it a suggestion? Is it a strong suggestion? Is it a requirement? Perhaps this wording needs to be tightened up a bit. Regardless, we have a divine imperative to cooperate in missions. Biblical church government doesn’t just tell us how to run meetings. It also tells us how to do missions. Throughout his epistles Paul demonstrates his concern for “all the churches.” If our concern is for all the churches then we will cooperate in missions.
What does it mean to do missions as a body of churches? First, it means developing closer ties as congregations. Classis Eastern U.S. has added an extra day to its fall meeting for the purpose of instruction and fellowship. During the first such meeting Rev. Strange, professor at Mid America, reminded the delegates that a Classis is a body and should function like a body. Things like pulpit exchanges and fellowship gatherings would knit our churches together in a way that could greatly facilitate cooperation in missions. So would joint classical services on Reformation Day, Ascension Day, and Prayer Day.
Doing missions collaboratively also means involving other churches in outreach. If we agree that the Great Commission is, among other things, a church planting commission, then church planting should be one of our primary collaborative goals as churches of our respective classes. Congregations shouldn’t consider planting a church without seeking meaningful cooperation from the other churches in their classis.
This brings up the challenges of funding.
The Challenge of Funding
The problem with the United Statesgovernment under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington, “No money.” No state paid all their federal taxes and some paid none. In Massachusetts during Shays’ Rebellion, Congress had no money to defend the state.Boston merchants were forced to pool funds to pay for a volunteer army.
In our case, the money is there. But unlike every single other NAPARC denomination we have no mechanism to mandate financial cooperation. The result is that ordained, church-planting ministers are forced to hold fundraising events like church youth groups. We are surrounded by opportunities to collaboratively engage in missions but we struggle to know how to pay for them. Perhaps I should have saved this point till last. But until we deal with the funding question, the goal of collaboration will remain a pipe dream.
Let me suggest that the texts to which we often appeal to encourage tithing within a congregation, are better suited to mandate giving between congregations. Paul’s appeal (in 2 Cor. 8-9) was for the churches of Corinth to assist the churches elsewhere. The word “quotas” isn’t used. But the word twice translated “equality” in 8:14 is synonymous with the idea behind a quota system. Clearly Paul is not advancing a system of “askings.” Spoken, as it was by Paul the Apostle, this appeal for funds had teeth! He suggests that this giving was an obligation. But he pleads with the Corinthians to “prepare your generous gift beforehand…that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation” (2 Cor. 9:5). Funding beyond our churches is obligatory but should be done cheerfully.
The question of funding is fairly easy to answer after we have considered the collaborative question. We must prioritize URC missionary funding. Paul says that we need to take care of our own families before supporting others, who might also be worthy causes (1 Tim. 5:8). As a federation we have agreed to function as an extended family. Yet, we fund organizations that have their own families for support and, frankly, operate under different house rules. How can we as churches support organizations, often with enormous funding bases while our own mission efforts struggle (or fail) to make budget? As others have pointed out, if the organizations which many of our churches are funding were individuals they would not be eligible for membership. Quotas worked well in the CRCNA for a century, leading that denomination to engage in missions on a scale hardly suggestive of its small size.
I believe the question of funding leads to a third challenge.
The Challenge of Vision
A very important part of our history is rooted in reaction. I don’t say that negatively. We are grateful to those who had the courage to react to dangerous trends earlier in our history. But we must not become reactionistic. J.I. Packer has defined sectarianism as the attitude in the church which defines identity by exclusion. It is the attitude which says, “We are the people who don’t…” do this, that and the other thing. But we need to be the people who do! We need to be visionary and proactive.
Luke uses a powerful phrase in Acts 19:21 to describe Paul’s vision for ministry. He “purposed in the Spirit.” He “resolved” (ESV) or “strategized” in the Spirit. One phase of Paul’s work had been accomplished inEphesus. He was now planning to expand upon those accomplishments. And he does so in concrete terms. Paul didn’t just say, “I would like to see the ministry grow; I would like to see the church expand.” Paul lays out a plan. He planned to minister inMacedoniaand Achaia toJerusalemtoRome. Since a spiritual purpose also requires action, “He sent intoMacedoniatwo of those who ministered to him.” On a congregational, classical and federational level we need to be willing to brainstorm about new possibilities and then prayerfully plan to implement some of those ideas. Where are reformed churches badly needed? How could we coordinate a ministry to migrant workers in our area? Could we place a denominational chaplain in every prison in the state or on every college campus in our city? Such questions raise the issue of organization.
The Challenge of Organization
One of the great weaknesses of our pre-Constitution government was the lack of any separate executive. There was no person or group of persons having administrative or supervisory authority. To use a phrase from Dr. Brian Lee’s recent column in CR, there was no “executive energy.” During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison strongly questioned whether the loose confederation of states was truly promoting a decent and well-ordered government (Cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). I have tried not to stump for the Synodical Mission’s Committee recommendation for a federational missions coordinator. But I do believe such a coordinator would help us address several of the challenges we face on a denominational level. I believe similarly, if our classical and congregational missions committees would free up an individual to exercise some administrate or supervisory authority we could be more effective in missions.
When important tasks are left up to everyone they are really given to no one. If no one person has a vested interest in a task, with reasonable, authority to do it, it may not get done. Those who have served on committees also know how long simple processes often take. Sometimes that’s good. But in missions timeliness is a big deal. If no one is able to process information and make non-critical decisions in a timely fashion we will miss out on opportunities to implement our vision for missions.
With this in mind, Classis Eastern U.S. has recently approved a part-time, paid church planting coordinator position. The yet-to-be-named coordinator would provide vision and administrative leadership for the church planting committee. He would respond to inquiries from possible church planters as well as from persons and/or core groups interested in finding out more about URC church plants. He would visit the consistories, councils, and/or missions committees of the churches of Classis Eastern U.S. as well as attend all meetings of Classis to answer questions and continue to hold forth the vision for planting churches in our classis. He would visit other classis in the URCNA to report on the progress of church planting in the classis and pursue ways that the different classis might work together. Finally, he would solicit and follow-up on possible sources of financial support for the work of church planting the classis.
This is exactly what our church planting committee has been trying to do for years but has lacked the executive energy to make greater strides in realizing our vision.
The Challenge of the Heart
Jesus’ Great Commission is directed first to our hearts. Yes, we believe it is important to have a proactive vision for missions which should include cooperation even in terms of funding and perhaps in terms of executive organization. It’s also more than possible that there are better solutions than those proposed in this article. But the well-spring of every issue of life is the heart. The hearts that are called to fulfill the Great Commission are filled with both fear and love. We may be fearful of trying new things. We may be fearful of trusting committees or coordinators. We may fear the pushback we might face if we propose restructuring our church’s giving. But have you ever noticed that the Great Commission, in the Gospel of Mark, is given in the context of the fear of God evoked by the resurrected Christ! Apart from the fear of God the Great Commission will remain merely a good suggestion.
The other challenge might be a lack of love. Three times Jesus told Peter, “If you love me feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). Jesus has untold thousands of sheep in our own backyards who are starving. We have the food. Do we love them enough to feed them? Do we love God enough to feed them? This is what God says of believers, “God has poured his love into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5). It is from the overflow of that love that we are called to love those around us.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Where there’s a will there’s a way?” But he does say that the fields are ripe with harvest and that as the Lord of that harvest he will bring it in. He holds out to us the privilege of participating in that great harvest. Let not the challenges we face keep us from joining in that harvest. Instead, let’s face these challenges with great faith in our great God!