John S. Shaw
“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man,” says John Piper.
Human beings were created and designed for worship. More accurately, human beings were created and designed to worship the Creator. Unfortunately, men and women embrace sin and choose to worship created things rather than the one and only Creator (Rom. 1:21–23). That basic fact about the human race calls the church to a lifetime of missions, outreach, and evangelism. “Missions exists because worship doesn’t,” says Piper. He goes on to say, “So worship is the fuel and goal of missions” (Let the Nations Be Glad! 3rd ed., p. 32).
The apostle John records an interaction between Jesus and a Samaritan woman in which Jesus makes a similar point. The Lord masterfully directs the conversation throughout by answering the woman’s questions in surprising ways. When she asks a question about the proper place of worship, he answers, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).
Notice two things in this verse. First, Jesus teaches something about God’s people: we are worshipers. He describes our worship—“in spirit and truth”—but he most basically says that the people of God are worshipers. Second, Jesus teaches something about God the Father: he seeks worshipers. He pursues and gathers worshipers.
These two basic truths should inform our activity as congregations. Because God’s people are worshipers, the ministry and activity of the church should begin with worship in secret, in private families, and in public assemblies (Confession of Faith, 21.6). Yet our commitment to the glory and worship of God does not end with personal experiences of worship. The Father is seeking, pursuing, and gathering other worshipers.
How does the Lord do this work? He sends his church, filled with the Spirit and armed with the Word of God. We don’t simply sit in our buildings every Sunday, waiting for new worshipers to fill the seats. The Lord sends out his church. We serve him in the gathering of worshipers as we participate in missions, outreach, and evangelism (Matt. 28:16–20; Acts 1:8; 2:42–47).
Of course, the big question then becomes: how do we practice outreach and evangelism in our local congregations? Let me describe one approach and then explain how congregations in the OPC have applied it. First, make a list of the talents, gifts, passions, interests, and places of influence among the members of your congregation. Second, make a list of the passions, interests, and gathering places within your local community. Then consider where these circles intersect. These points of intersection provide opportunities to build relationships that open doors of opportunity for witness.
This approach acknowledges the varied gifts the Lord provides for each congregation. He provides exactly the right gifts at the right time for a local body to grow and flourish (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). What a blessing it is to recognize the various talents, gifts, passions, interests, and influences that come from God and see them at work within a congregation.
This approach also acknowledges the unique characteristics of the community in which the church resides—the passions, interests, and gathering places that define the community. These are also gifts from the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). At the points where the interests of a congregation and the interests of a community intersect, we have the opportunity to build relationships with neighbors. And those relationships give opportunity to shine the penetrating light of the gospel through godly actions accompanied with words of truth.
Does this really work, though? Consider some examples.
In the summer of 2006, two retired school teachers from Mission OPC in Saint Paul, Minnesota, came to me with an idea. The Lord had given them opportunities in previous churches to work with Asian internationals who had come to the United States for school or jobs. The teachers had developed a love for these families and learned how to communicate with and serve them. But they also found out that these internationals would like to learn how to sew and quilt. One of these teachers had a passion for quilting, and had recently come across several used sewing machines at an excellent price. Her skills and passions, mixed with opportunity, intersected with their desire to learn.
A plan was born. The skilled seamstress designed a program to teach basic skills of sewing and quilting. The other teacher found materials to teach the Bible at a very basic level, since most of their students would lack even the most basic Bible knowledge and struggle with the English language. I reviewed their materials, the church provided space and help with childcare, and the classes began that same fall. Through some trial and error, they gradually built a program that incorporated basic Bible teaching sandwiched between two sessions of quilting classes.
The International Quilting Circle has spawned all sorts of ministry opportunities and gospel conversations for almost eight years. More than one hundred students have come through the classes. Some students have asked for one-on-one Bible studies, and in one case the study continued for years. Others have asked for more opportunities to learn English through the study of the Bible in groups, so an English Language Learners class was started. Every year, quilting students join the church for fellowship events and also for worship. Most wonderfully, Mission OPC has celebrated four baptisms through the contacts from these classes, while other students have professed faith and been baptized in other local churches.
The Lord has blessed this particular ministry and added to his church. But notice how this ministry started. Members of Mission OPC possessed particular talents, gifts, and passions. Members of the community possessed particular interests that overlapped. These points of intersection provided an opportunity to build relationships, which opened doors to witness.
Consider another example from the same church, but this time focused on gathering places. Mission OPC’s building stands a couple of blocks from Como Park, a large gathering place with trails, picnic areas, and sports fields. Every year the park hosts a large Hmong Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival on the weekend nearest to July Fourth. Thousands upon thousands of people walk past the church building to attend the festival. So members of the church set up a booth in front of the church building and provided cold water for anyone who was thirsty, comfortable seats in the shade for those who needed to rest, a table filled with gospel tracts and literature about the church, and people ready to talk, share the gospel, or pray with anyone who stopped.
When a congregation takes the time to study the local community, many opportunities for outreach and evangelism become evident. Mission OPC hosted the National Night Out neighborhood party the summer after purchasing their building. More than sixty neighbors spent a Tuesday evening eating together in the church parking lot, and the congregation established some new relationships.
Reformation Presbyterian Church in Queens, New York, hosts BBQ&A events in the park at the end of every summer and has significant conversations with its neighbors.
Jeremiah Montgomery, the pastor of Resurrection OPC in State College, Pennsylvania, gives open-air gospel presentations every week at a major gathering point on Penn State University’s campus, and the Lord has used those presentations to open doors for ongoing gospel conversations.
Brandon Wilkins, the pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois, volunteers at a Christian-run youth center that serves high school students and has enjoyed opportunities to counsel and present the gospel.
Eric Hausler, the pastor of Naples Presbyterian Church in Naples, Florida, teaches weekly Bible studies at the county jail, and some of his former students and their relatives have attended worship more than once.
We could compile a long list of opportunities for witness that church plants and congregations have utilized, and then celebrate how the Lord has blessed those efforts. But what can we learn from these examples?
Effective outreach and evangelism ministries require time and thought. The Lord providentially brings people with particular talents, gifts, passions, and interests to each congregation. The Lord also providentially shapes a community with particular passions, interests, and gathering places. When we take time to analyze how the Lord has shaped our congregation and our community, he often opens the door to tremendous periods of witness that produce much fruit.
Congregations must emphasize weekly worship, sound biblical preaching, and consistent discipleship and teaching. The Christian is by nature a worshiper, but the Christian should also long to see more and more people gathering for worship. That desire to see the Lord receive the worship he deserves from a greater number of people motivates our ministry of witness. May we give thought, planning, and time to evangelism and outreach. And may the Lord bless our witness by gathering more of the worshipers he seeks.
The author is general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, July 2014.