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The Gospel-Forward Church

Putting the mission in mission works

A friend once told me about the time he visited his old seminary in Philadelphia. One professor, long retired, had helped to shape his ministry, and he enquired where he might find him. He was given directions to his nearby home, but as he turned onto the street, he stopped short. There, sitting on the sidewalk, surrounded by neighborhood children, sat the venerable Cornelius Van Til, telling Bible stories about Jesus.

What has that got to do with Reformed missions? Everything.

I say that because missions are about the gospel, and if they are not, they will fail. Indeed, the sooner they fail, the better. When the Philippian jailor asked Paul “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul did not explain the doctrine of election, or enter into a discussion about how his ideas about church were superior to those of some of those folks back in Jerusalem. Paul wasn’t there to make sectarian proselytes, he was there to bring the good news. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).

I think the picture of the esteemed professor of Apologetics, down on the sidewalk telling children about Jesus is an excellent reminder about staying on mission. I can’t count the times I have failed miserably to present the gospel, and instead got sidetracked into presenting the superiority of Reformed theology and practice.

Don’t get me wrong. Reformed theology and practice is superior. It can, and should guide our discipleship of new converts, but first there must be new converts. Too often, what we call missions is simply an attempt to attract people who are already converted and, preferably, already Reformed. We are gleaners in the field, not sowers and reapers. So, how do we change that? How do we bring people, not merely to an institution with rules and traditions, but to Christ? Can we really plant Reformed churches this way?

We can, and we must. It starts by being gospel-forward. That means, we stop trying to convert people to the church, and focus, instead, on the conversion of the lost to Christ. There will be a lifetime of discipleship to deal with everything else. Also, unlike the disgruntled visitors from the church down the street, they will have the new convert’s eagerness to submit to Word and Sacraments.

If we would be gospel-forward, that means bringing the good news to the unconverted. How will this change what our mission works look like? Obviously, we will spend less time trying to find that new Reformed family that just moved to town, and a lot more time talking to everyone else. But how, exactly, do we do that? It is obvious that we cannot teach ourselves what we do not know, but we do have sister denominations that are having success planting new churches. We need to study what they are doing, attend their missions conferences, and ask the Lord to open our eyes. I spoke to one missions director who told me they look for church plant opportunities where they can build a congregation of “three to five hundred.” What’s more, “we want that new church to have church-planting DNA,” meaning that church would plant others. It’s obvious that there is more at work here than just gathering in the already-converted. 

But wait, should not our existing churches also be gospel-forward? Are we also just waiting for that new Reformed family in town to find us? Is that how we “grow?” It takes a conscious effort to change our thinking and recognize that the only real church growth is when new souls are won to Christ. So, how do we get there?

Gospel encounters. Just tell them what you know.

“I’ll pray for you” may be the least-kept promise in the church today, but when it comes to our local church becoming a gospel-forward church, it isn’t going to happen unless we pray, individually and collectively, that God will open our eyes, and free up our time. It means we will start planning gospel encounters with the unconverted. What does that look like? You tell me. I think it can begin with asking leading questions of those God puts in front of you daily, the plumber, the hairdresser, the co-worker. Make a list, and then resolve to find out if those people are Christians. (Don’t wait until you get to heaven to find that out. You need to know now.)

Too often, what we call missions is simply an attempt to attract people who are already converted and, preferably, already Reformed. We are gleaners in the field, not sowers and reapers.  So, how do we change that? How do we bring people, not merely to an institution with rules and traditions, but to Christ? 

My opening question is typically “Were you raised going to church growing up?” I have never had anyone resent that question, and it usually leads to a productive conversation. You might just end up encouraging a backslider to return to their home church, or you might have the opportunity to invite an unchurched believer to visit your own church. Ah, but what about the others, those with no church background, those who have walked away from the church, professed unbelievers, or those from other non-Christian religions?

Here’s the good news about that. You don’t have to be a theologian for this next part. You are not called to be a theological wunderkind, you are merely called to be a witness. A witness to an automobile accident doesn’t have to explain how an internal combustion engine works, they just have to tell what happened. And that’s all you’re called to do. Tell what happened.

This next part isn’t about why your church is different from the Catholic or Baptist church down the street. In fact, it isn’t about church, at all. It’s about Jesus. 

Whether you say “I wasn’t raised Christian…” or “I was raised Christian….” the end of that sentence is “….but one day God just convicted me of what an awful sinner I was. The idea that someday I would have to answer to God for every terrible thing I had ever said or done, was weighing down on me. But then I remembered something I had been told. I hope you don’t mind me telling you this. I remember that the whole reason for Christmas, Easter and all that was that God sent His Son Jesus to be born as a real person, but unlike me, He would live a completely sinless life, and then take my place, and my punishment for all my sins and pay for them by dying on the cross – that my sins are forgiven if only I trust in Jesus. That just seems amazing, doesn’t it?”

And there it is. That’s gospel- forward. Jesus took my place, and died for my sins. Isn’t that amazing? And all you did was be a witness to what you experienced. As a believer, you were given a broken and contrite heart over your sin, and God in His mercy had the gospel of reconciliation preached to you, whether in church, by a friend, or at your mother’s knee. God gave you grace to respond in faith, and to trust Christ and His atoning work for your soul’s salvation.

What happens next in that conversation will almost certainly be positive. Either your acquaintance will pick up the conversation at that point, or not. You’re good either way. Why do I say that? Because the Bible says one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase. Whether you were planting or watering, you won’t know, but it’s the Holy Spirit that must work in the heart of the unconverted. If your acquaintance does not seem interested, say “I appreciate your listening, and if you ever want to talk about it, just let me know.” And yes, regardless of how that conversation went, make it a matter of prayer. Ask the Lord to work in their heart, to give them the gift of faith. 

Now, imagine if everyone in your church made a list of ten people they occasionally come in contact with, but do not know whether they are believers. Let’s see, a church of just 50 believers X 10 = 500 people hearing the gospel from someone they know. Imagine if that happened over a 1-2 month period. Spend time as a church family praying that God will present opportunities to be gospel-forward with these people. Now, imagine a church of 100, or 150 doing that.

And now, imagine if you just do this by yourself. 

Would it be so bad if a month from now you see the grace of God working in someone’s life, calling them to repentance and faith? The Bible says there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels in heaven at the conversion of one lost soul. That should be a good enough audience for any of us.  

Wayne Johnson
Covenant Reformed Church, Sacramento, CA

It’s All About THE Story | Missions

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