URCNA Missions: Funding Our Own Family First

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!

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God is the Missionary

Why should the churches of the URCNA be concerned about missions? First of all, because God is a missionary God. Providing a biblical and confessional basis for doing missions, the Report of the Synodical Study Committee on Missions (coming to the URCNA's Synod this June) summarizes how God has revealed this about himself: "From beginning to end, the scriptures reveal clearly the heart that God has for his lost children, and his purpose to save sinners throughout the whole earth. In Genesis 3:9, immediately after Adam’s fall into sin, God called out, 'Where are you?' not only to judge man but also to make the covenant of grace with him, promising to send a savior, the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins in order to cover their shame (Gen 3:21), so also he would cover all of his sinful people in the perfect righteousness of our Savior who would die for our sins (2 Cor 5:21).

"The Lord later called Abraham, made the covenant of grace with him, and promised to bless Abraham and give him and his descendents the land of Canaan. From the very start, God revealed his purpose to use Abraham to bring salvation to people throughout the whole world: 'in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (Gen 12:3; cf. Gen 22:18).

"Many generations later, fulfilling his covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord God graciously delivered the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex 6:2-8). Out of all peoples, God made them his treasured possession, 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex 19:5-6). God’s purposes of salvation seemed for a time to become far narrower with Israel, as Moses reminded them: 'Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day' (Deut 10:14-15). Still, in his very next breath, God called them to share his love with strangers: 'He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt' (Deut 10:18-19). This love of God for sojourners from other nations was demonstrated in a noteworthy manner in the inclusion of Rahab and her Canaanite family within the covenant people of Israel (Josh 6:22-25), and in the inclusion of Ruth the Moabite – both women being ancestors of Christ Jesus, our Savior (Mt 1:5).

"Of course, God’s plan to bring salvation to the ends of the earth through the seed of the woman, who would also be the seed of Abraham, took on greater clarity in his covenant promises to King David, to whom God said, 'I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever' (2 Sam 7:12). The nations would have to bow down to this royal son of God, or else be broken with a rod of iron, and dashed into pieces through his just judgment (Ps 2:9). But in becoming the possession of this Davidic King through the redemptive grace of God, the nations would be blessed in him (Ps 72:17), for he would be their Savior, 'a covenant for the people, a light for the nations' (Isa 42:6). To the Christ, God the Father says, 'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth' (Isa 49:6).

"In the fullness of time, God the Father sent his eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be born of woman, to become a true man – the seed of the woman, of Abraham, and of David – that he might live, die, and rise again for our salvation (Gal 4:4ff). But he was slain in order to ransom people for God 'from every tribe and language and people and nation,' and he has made them 'a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth' (Rev 5:9-10). Throughout redemptive history, God has repeatedly shown that he would not abandon us in our sin but would provide for us a Savior. He has sought out sinners, repeatedly making promises of redemption by grace, which promises he has fulfilled in the person and work of Christ his Son."

Clearly, God is the Missionary in redemptive-history. And yet he graciously calls and equips his church to continue building his global temple through the ordinary planting of congregations. Next Monday, I'll post the subsequent section of the report, which summarizes how the New Testament reveals that God's missionary work is done primarily through the planting and nurturing of churches. The Missionary God uses ordinary means to make disciples of Christ and establish his kingdom. With such an awesome responsibility, how can we as a federation of Reformed churches not seek to improve our missionary efforts? How can we not do all we can to be both aggressive and organized in our approach to plant churches on domestic and foreign soil?

Machen on Missions: What the URCNA can learn from the OPC

In order to fulfill its mandate from Synod 2010, the Synodical Study Committee on Missions researched the mission policies of our fellow NAPARC denominations, namely, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CanRC), the Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), and Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The Committee made evaluations of these policies in light of the URCNA mission report of 2001, known as the Biblical and Confessional View of Missions (BCVM), the polity of the URCNA, and the present challenges and deficiencies we are experiencing in our federation in our attempt to do missions and fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission. We recognized that most of these denominations had well thought-out mission policies and highly structured denominational mission committees. For example, the PCA has a denominational mission committee composed of fifteen elders: eight teaching (ministers) and seven ruling. They are elected by the PCA’s General Assembly to serve for five years, and serve as an “enabling” committee to encourage and enable the PCA at every level to function as a missionary church. Their primary task is to assist in the planting of confessional churches. They also assist in recruiting candidates for mission service, oversee missionary training, and keep the home church aware and supportive of their missionaries.

Likewise, smaller denominations in NAPARC, such as the RCUS and HRC, have established denominational missions committees made up of ministers and elders. The Foreign Mission Committee of the RCUS is responsible to provide reports and recommendations to each annual synod, and then to carry out the program and budget approved by that synod. Membership on the committee is for three-year terms, staggered in order to maintain stability.

As our Committee researched the various approaches to missions taken by NAPARC denominations, it became clear that we could learn a great deal from the missions work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While the OPC has a slightly different church polity from the URCNA, their coordination and cooperation in missions have so impressed us that we thought it would be important to provide at least a glimpse of their denominational infrastructure for missions.

The work of the OPC in missions is especially striking when one considers the origin of their denomination. In the early twentieth century, the corruption of foreign missions within the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) led J. Gresham Machen to establish an independent board for foreign missions. This culminated not only in his being deposed from the liberal denomination, but also in the eventual formation of the OPC, which has always maintained a vigorous witness to the world – and one that has not been hindered in the least but rather helped greatly by their denominational coordination. In other words, the OPC did not overreact against particular abuses in the PCUSA by ruling out or minimizing the importance of denominational missions committees. On the contrary, they have established denominational missions committees that have proven to be highly effective and efficient in the planting of churches at home and abroad.

The OPC has a plan for “Worldwide Outreach” that involves the work of three committees – the Committee on Christian Education, the Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension, and the Committee on Foreign Missions. For our purposes here we will take a look at the latter two committees. Both missions committees are composed of fifteen men (ruling and teaching elders) who are elected by the OPC General Assembly (akin to our synod), and accountable to that body for the work that they do. Committee members are elected to a term of three years and eligible for re-election indefinitely. Serving each of these two missions committees is a general secretary and an associate general secretary; all four men are ordained officers (teaching or ruling elders) and paid for full-time employment. The secretaries have no vote on their respective committees, are directly accountable to their committees, and serve at their committee’s pleasure. It is noteworthy that the OPC hopes to get about twenty years of service from these four secretaries.

The Committee on Foreign Missions has some oversight of all missionaries in their nine active mission fields (China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Japan, Quebec, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uruguay), but this oversight is very general and administrative – setting goals for the missions, providing financial support, encouraging missionaries on furlough, and visiting missionaries on the field. All pastoral/disciplinary oversight, however, is in the hands of a missionary’s presbytery. The Foreign Missions committee also gives instruction to the denomination in biblical missionary principles, formulates mission policy, and encourages each presbytery to develop their own foreign missions committee (most presbyteries have one).

The Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension has partial oversight of those church plants to which it gives financial aid. Church plants that are not financially aided by this committee rely on the local giving of their attendees and of the presbytery to which they belong. Each OPC presbytery (akin to our classis) has its own home missions committee as well, which coordinates with the Committee on Home Missions for the work of church plants.

Funds for the support of all foreign missionaries and numerous domestic church plants, for the remuneration of the secretaries and administrative personnel who serve the two missions committees, and for the support of the Committee on Christian Education are provided by the regular monthly giving of OPC congregations to Worldwide Outreach. To meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach, most congregations simply make their contribution a line item in their own budget based on Worldwide Outreach’s suggested yearly amount for each communicant member. For 2012, the 3.5 million dollar budget of Worldwide Outreach translates to a suggested amount of $162.66 per communicant member for the year. Each congregation also takes an annual Thank-Offering (usually around Thanksgiving) which also helps meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach. Again, these funds support all three committees of Worldwide Outreach, but about eighty percent of funds collected for OPC missions go directly to the mission field. This is a denomination that makes it a priority to ensure that its missionaries and church planters are fully funded.

What prohibits the URCNA from adopting a similar structure for missions? With our close ecumenical ties to and warm fellowship with the OPC, why can't we learn from our brothers a better way of fulfilling the Great Commission? Is there any good reason for maintaining our present approach of applying consistorialism (if not congregationalism) to missions?

Missions Monday: Do we care about church-planting in the URCNA?

Monday is for missions here at the CURC blog. Check here each Monday for posts about Reformed church-planting and missions, particularly in connection with the URCNA. This may prove to be especially timely in light of the upcoming Synod meeting June 11-15 in Nyack, New York. On the Synod’s agenda is the report of the Synodical Study Committee on Missions, which I have had the privilege of chairing. At its meeting in London, Ontario in July 2010, Synod London adopted the following recommendation:

That Synod 2010 [of the United Reformed Churches in North America] accede to overture 8 to evaluate the need for a full time / part time or volunteer position of URCNA coordinator of missions with this position functioning under the authority and oversight of a specific Consistory. One of his responsibilities would be to edit and publish the federation’s mission newsletter.

1. That Synod 2010 appoint a study committee to evaluate the need for a missions coordinator.

2. Mandate:

a) That Synod 2010 mandate this study committee, in evaluating the need for a missions coordinator, to make inquiries of NAPARC churches regarding their policies on missions.

b) That Synod 2010 mandate this study committee to develop a proposed set of federational mission policies and guidelines.

(1) This report should include the possibility of developing a missions coordinator position.

(2) This report should include recommendations regarding:

(a) How to encourage communication between URCNA missionaries, church planters, councils and congregations. (b) How to obtain updates from the missionaries and church planters for publication in the missions newsletter. (c) How to maintain the “missionsURC.org” website and utilize it to post prayer requests and other matters relevant to URCNA membership – e.g., when and where missionaries are “home” and available for speaking. (d) How to ascertain and remain abreast of the disparate financial needs of missionaries and disseminate pertinent information to URCNA councils (e.g., location, family, nature & needs of a particular ministry).

3. The grounds for this mandate were stated as follows:

a) The URCNA has realized substantial growth in the scope of domestic and foreign mission activities of its member congregations and classes.

b) 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.

As a relatively young denomination, the URCNA is still getting its legs regarding its approach to church-planting and missions. Unlike most Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in NAPARC (the North American Presbyerian and Reformed Council, a coalition of confessional denominations), we do not have a denominational missions committee or even official missions policies. While a laudable study report on missions was recommended to the churches at Synod 2001 offering a model for planting churches, it was not adopted by the churches as policy but only received as advice. Churches were left free to take it or leave it. More then ten years later, the result has been a lack of structure that has had a disabling effect on our ability to fulfill the Great Commission.

To this day, we have no shared strategy as a federation of churches for missions beyond Article 47 of our Church Order which states:

The church’s missionary task is to preach the Word of God to the unconverted. When this is to be performed beyond the field of an organized church, it is to be carried out by ministers of the Word set apart to this labor, who are called, supported and supervised by their Consistories. The churches should assist each other in the support of their missionaries.

The problem is that not all churches are assisting each other in the support of their (read: URCNA) missionaries. In too many cases, URCNA missionaries and church plants are under-funded while para-church organizations (many of which are not even Reformed) continue to receive support. Moreover, there exists among many of our missionaries and church-planters an unfortunate sense of standing alone.

Next week I will explore some of the missions report on the agenda for Synod 2012. But until then, I’d like to hear your thoughts: How do we remedy this problem as a denomination? How can we reprioritize our missions support in such a way that we more responsibly follow Church Order Article 47? Do we truly have a passion for church planting in North America and abroad?