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The Gospel-Forward Church, Part 2

The Gospel-forward Church, Part 2

In our first look at the gospel forward church, we talked about how to talk to neighbors, friends and family about Jesus.  As you may recall, we are not all called to be theology professors, but we are all called to be witnesses – to just tell people what happened.

Today, however, we are going to talk about what those you invite to church are going to experience.  Most of us think of our local church as a warm and friendly place. In fact, as soon as the service is over, groups of friends seek one another out and do, in fact, enjoy warm and friendly fellowship.  But seen through the eyes of a visitor, it’s not warm and friendly, at all. In fact, it can feel downright cliquish. The fact that we do not intend that to be the case doesn’t change the fact that it is.

Such deeply ingrained habits do not change by themselves, it takes a conscious church- wide effort to change them. Ideally, it starts with the leadership, but wherever it starts, it just needs to start, and it needs to continue, week after week.  If you go to church, week after week, and never talk to a visitor, you’re the problem. So, let’s talk about the solution. It’s easy, and everyone can do it.

FOR MEMBERS

When a visitor shows up at church, walk up, introduce yourself, and  say “I just wanted to welcome you to church this morning.” That’s it. If that happens three or more times, the visitor’s experience changes from “cold and cliqueish” to friendly. Some of those introductions will lead to conversations. One member points the way to the coffee, another points out the Sunday school rooms. One might even ask “How did you find us this morning?”  

I really don’t need to tell you how to have a conversation, you have them everyday. This is simply about taking the first step. And yes, anyone can do it. Does your church have official “greeters?”  Great, but it’s really everyone’s job. And the moment the service ends – and this is where a slight change in behavior makes all the difference – make a point to speak to at least one visitor before getting into an extended conversation with friends.

What you don’t need to do is get involved in a theological argument, which can happen if the visitor is a Christian. If you find out their previous church was Baptist, for example, the correct response is to find a point of agreement, not disagreement. “Well, what’s important is that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and knowing that Jesus is our that Jesus is our Savior.”

Wait. What? Nothing about the doctrine of election, and the ordo salutis? Sure, if they ask, but faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. You want them to come back, where the Holy Spirit can apply the preached Word. Coming to the Reformed faith doesn’t happen in a single conversation, it happens as the Lord brings us to a knowledge of the truth, over time. 

But what if they are not Christians? 

Surprisingly, the initial goal is the same. You want them to come back, to hear the Word of God, again and again. As a “mission brat,” I grew up in and around rescue missions. A lot of the sin on skid row is on the outside where you can see it, but you learn quickly that cleaning up the outside with moralizing rules is a dead end. Only the Holy Spirit changes hearts. That’s where the issue is with every unbeliever, every time, in every circumstance.   

During my 38 years serving as an RCUS elder, I made more mistakes than I can count. Being more eager to win an argument than to win people to Christ was chief among them. Jesus could have saved people immediately, and left us entirely out of the equation, that’s not what He did. Instead, He chose to use instruments (us) to tell them about Him.

FOR LEADERS

In Reformed circles, we talk about the means of grace, which we define as Word and Sacraments.  (Our Presbyterian brothers add prayer to that list, but for now, let’s stick to our own confessional standards.) 

Word

Most of the time, we Reformed folks are talking about preaching here, but wherever the Bible is preached, spoken or read, from the pulpit, in a Bible study, or in private devotion, it is the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God that convicts, that calls, that heals. Don’t let your politics, your opinions, or your ego get in the way. You should actually assume that the visitor walking through the door is going to have a worldview entirely different than your own. They will most likely have a whole laundry list of different opinions than you do, whether about abortion, gender, Ukraine, Palestine, public schools, immigration, or the weather.  Just remember, the rich young ruler had all the right opinions, but Jesus sent him away. 

There are millions of people out there walking around with opinions shaped by the last vestiges of Christian culture in our country. But having all the right opinions, without Christ, puts them in the same place as that rich, young ruler. Confronted with Christ, and the message that his own righteousness wasn’t enough, left him not excited, but deeply disappointed. Jesus came to save sinners, so don’t be surprised when He sends them through your church door.  Recognize that you have been given an amazing opportunity to welcome someone to the place where they will hear a message that will, quite literally, save their life. Trust the Word to do its job. As pastors and elders, your job is to ensure that the gospel is preached in purity and truth.

The Sacraments – Baptism

Since the Sacraments are means of grace for believers, it may seem odd to include them in a discussion about witnessing to the lost.  It is not. In fact, it is vitally important that we understand why they are public, and the role they play in the life of the new believer.

Let’s begin with baptism. In Acts, Chapter 2, we read of 3000 being baptized, men whom Peter says were among those that seven weeks earlier called for the crucifixion of Jesus. They hear the gospel, repent, are immediately baptized, and we are told “were added to the church that day.” In fact, the other public examples of New Testament baptism immediately followed a profession of faith. Think Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia, Philippian jailor, etc. Even Simon who would later prove to be a wolf in the flock, is baptized.  Phillip, as well as the apostles, were pretty good judges, but none could see the heart. That’s true with us today.

In the Reformed Church, pastors and elders are expected to examine a new convert and seek assurance that the convert understands the gospel of salvation. New converts are not expected to become theological experts overnight, but they must understand the gospel. That is reflected in our membership vows. While a new member agrees to submit to the government of the church regarding both doctrine and life, the one doctrine that is singled as absolutely necessary to affirm is that the Bible’s doctrine of salvation as confessed in the creeds of the church is the only perfect and true doctrine of salvation.

That emphasis on understanding salvation is in complete accord with the practice of the apostles in the Book of Acts. For the Philippian jailor, the whole process of hearing the gospel to being baptized at one in the morning took an hour. We’re not Paul, and so in most of our churches, the initial instruction period may occur over a number of weeks. What we do not want to do, however, is to keep the new convert from the means of grace longer than the pastor and elders deem necessary. Remember, the Great Commission tells us to make disciples, baptize them, and then teach them “all things” commanded.

Did Peter make a mistake baptizing Simon? No. Peter could not see his heart, and neither can we when interviewing a new convert. Our vows would have our elders look to “doctrine and life,” i.e. what they profess to believe, and how they live in their daily walk. We will certainly baptize those who later prove to be false converts. Our Baptist friends talk about “believer’s baptism” as though they can discern the matters of the heart, and have a church full of believers only, but they are no better at discerning hearts than we are. It is enough to obey the command to hear a credible profession of faith, and to baptize. Our practice mostly gets that right, but we must guard against the urge to unnecessarily extend the period of instruction.

Baptism is an act that a new believer will remember for life. It is an outward assurance of the washing of regeneration, and a tremendous comfort. It makes the heart ready to learn “all things which I have commanded,” says Jesus. It is the Great Commission writ large.

The Sacraments -The Lord’s Supper

In I Corinthians 11, Paul sweeps away all the superstition and false doctrine that so easily creep into our practices. The Reformers not only sought to dismiss the errors of Rome, but also to fight a rear guard action against undue speculation within the Reformed camp. The Zwinglian Swiss Reformers and Calvin felt the need to compose a statement, called the Tigurinis Consensus, to set out the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper clearly and essentially. 

Recognizing that the Lord’s Supper was a public and visible preaching of the gospel, they affirmed it as a means of grace assuring the believer of their union with Christ, focusing on the Atonement, in contradistinction to those who would make it about the Incarnation. It marked the final break with Lutheranism, and affirmed the real, spiritual presence of Christ. In the 19th Century, the RCUS’s Mercersburg Seminary would promote a view of John Williamson Nevin that changed the Reformed view, instead, referring to the spiritual, real presence.  The “Old Reformed” men saw that for what it was, and rejected it. We stand gratefully in their shadow.

As a means of grace, the Supper is enormously important for the new believer, representing not only real assurance, but great comfort in being included in the body of Christ. Once again, we should not unduly extend the time before the new convert is admitted. 

Church Membership

In the modern era, church membership has become a much more formal affair than in the early church. It typically involves not only profession and vows, but also voting.  For this reason, we tend to be more careful in admitting members than might otherwise be the case. Defining who may vote in congregational meetings is, for the most part, left to the local consistory and church constitution. Most of our churches, for example, set the voting age at 21, and in most of our churches, include only male members. Voting members may not be under the discipline of the church. There are good arguments as to why we need to be this careful. The “safety valve” is that the elders may restrict an erring member through discipline, thus preserving the purity of the voting membership. It should be noted, however, that there are typically only a handful of baptisms of new converts denomination-wide, so the “dilution” factor is truly minimal. 

Obviously, those 3000 converts on the Day of Pentecost weren’t voting at the next congregational meeting in Jerusalem. That’s because decisions were made by the apostles. Today, in the representative system of Reformed government, most decisions are made by the consistory, what J.I. Good described as “democratic Presbyterianism.” The safeguards in such a system are real. We simply need to remember that the means of grace are real, as well, and that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important in strengthening the faith of the new believer, even as they are to us.

Conclusion

Welcoming visitors is important. Our congregations are typically friendly and warm. We just need to make sure we extend that warmth to newcomers. 

We want visitors to come again, so it’s important to avoid theological debates, unless asked. Remember, most visitors made the effort to visit your church because they are a) looking for a church home, or 2) wanting to know more about the Christian faith.  

As elders and pastors, be mindful of how important the sacraments are in assuring and comforting God’s people, and how confirming they can be to the new believer.  

And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:47)

Wayne Johnson served as elder in Sacramento, and currently serves on the synodical Welcoming Committee.

Wayne Johnson
 Sacramento, CA

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