What Was the Reformer’s View on Evangelism?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002
To quote Stephen Neill, “In the Protestant world, during the period of the Reformation, there was little time for thought of missions. Until 1648 the Protestants were fighting for their lives.” The Reformers could hardly be blamed for this.
However, discomfort begins when we consider the truth in Neill’s charge that even late in the seventeenth century, “Protestants everywhere wasted their strength, with honourable but blind and reckless zeal, in endless divisions and controversies.” We are uncomfortable because this waste of strength and misdirected zeal has become something of a prized legacy for many of us. The Reformed, sadly, display an especial tendency to shoot at those who are most like themselves but who remain ever-so-slightly different. Some Reformed seem to believe that we are called to nit-pick our way into the Kingdom.
Seeing how difficult we find it to get along with our theological neighbors, it is not surprising to find a virtual dismissal of nearly everyone else as simply beyond reach. Adding to the predicament you described are several factors which must be honestly confronted. Because this is only a column and not a book, I will survey a few, and then offer positive suggestions.
Reformed people are human, and humans everywhere are comfortable with the familiar and fearful of the strange. “Strange” includes “strangers.” Though this is “natural,” it is certainly not helpful in the evangelistic enterprise. You will recall that though our Lord commanded the disciples to begin preaching in Jerusalem, they were told to progress to Judea and Samaria (Acts 1:8). However, it wasn’t until a violent persecution broke out years later that the church was made “willing” to leave its familiar surroundings and fulfill His word (Acts 8).
Ethnocentrism, too, is a fact which must be faced honestly. The Bible certainly treats this subject frankly. The first internal division in the post-Pentecostal church was between Hellenic and Hebraic Jews (Acts 6). Language, culture and race are strong factors in our self-identity. The solution to overcoming these in the cause of Christ is to ever bear in mind that we may not call anything “unclean” which He has called clean. And He calls people clean from every nation, tongue, tribe, and family. The ethnic and cultural composition of evangelistically faithful churches will be a reflection of the communities where they are planted. That is to say, if a church is in a community made up of one race or language, there is no flaw in the church bearing that same character. But if there are many people groups in an area, the faithful church will reflect that in its membership. What unites us must be grace, not race. That error of substituting race for grace was the undoing of Israel after the flesh.
We also, as humans, are naturally indolent and prefer the path of least resistance. It is just plain easier to pal out with our own than to make the effort to incorporate others into the body. However much we may like the thought of adding newcomers to the church, the actual work this requires challenges us. At some coffee hours, the oft-encountered Reformed mentality which classifies visitors as “outsiders” (what arrogance!) is made physically manifest: cliques abound and newcomers are left to discover new ways to feel awkward and, well—outside. My brothers, this should not be. We should welcome people in our churches as Christ welcomed us.
If we assume a genuine desire on the part of the elders and members of a church, a few pointers may be in order. As one who has been granted by our Lord the privilege of baptizing hundreds of converts over the years, perhaps an ear will be inclined to listen.
First and foremost, the simplest and easiest thing for everyone to do is invite people to a worship service. Fundamentalists can teach us a few things, no doubt, and this might be one of them: Have a “Friends’ Day,” perhaps an evening service, once a year. I say this as a concession. Every member ought to be inviting others to church as a matter of course, but if you need to “program” it, that is do-able. This would give every member the opportunity to tell his acquaintances, “Our church is having a special service, followed by a fellowship dinner, on such-and-such a date. Won’t you please join us?”
Second, whether it is some such “special” service or a “regular” service of worship, never dumb it down, and never direct a worship service toward the goats. This is the most singular disservice you could render your neighbors. On the contrary, let them see Reformed worship in its God-centered glory. However, give as many clues to the meaning of the service, parts and whole, as possible. The bulletin is critically important. It should provide a clear welcome to visitors, it should contain as many explanations of the order and the elements as feasible.
Third, it is highly desirable to have a minister who has something resembling a personality. If you do not, let an elder who has such welcome visitors, and provide insights into the service, prior to the call to worship.
Fourth, don’t do anything to embarrass visitors, like asking them to wear a special tag, or asking them to vacate a pew, as if seats in God’s house can be reserved (James 2:1-4). But be sure to have a guest book they can be asked to sign. Have someone especially gracious be responsible for approaching visitors after worship, inviting them to sign the guest book, and explaining that the minister (or an elder, or another tasked person) will call them to go out for coffee this week (don’t hesitate, don’t delay).
Fifth, keep in mind that we are, like the lepers of 2 Kings 7, merely beggars who have been graciously supplied by God with food. We dare not “keep it to ourselves.” We have lots to be humble about, but we also have lots to tell.
Perhaps we could talk about this again. I pray this has been helpful.