Do We Need to Change Our Church Order?

If I did not preach with unbelievers in my mind at least some of the time, I was not living up to my calling.

These days, many preachers and members of the Christian Reformed Church seem to believe that evangelism is not the task of the church at Sunday worship. But how can that be right?

The Church Order of the CRC says: “A minister of the Word serving as a pastor of a congregation shall preach the Word, administer the sacraments, conduct public worship services, catechize the youth, and train members for Christian service. . . . The minister, with the elders, shall exercise pastoral care over the congregation, and engage in and promote the work of evangelism” (Article 12). The minister engages in and promotes the work of evangelism. In fact, the Church Order goes even further. It boldly asserts: “The calling of the minister of the Word is to proclaim, explain, and apply Holy Scripture in order to gather in and build up the members of the church of Jesus Christ.”

What does it mean to “gather in . . . the members of the church of Jesus Christ?” I know the Church Order does not explicitly state how to go about this task. Perhaps a sign out on the front lawn stating the time of the worship services would be sufficient. In that case, perhaps that could also qualify for building up the members of the church. Unlikely! According to the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, it means to gather as in evangelism: “The minister of the Word, along with the members of the congregation, must reach out into all the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that unbelievers may be won for Christ. The preaching of the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, is the means by which this may be done.”

Maybe I’m just dense, but for all my life as a preacher in the Christian Reformed Church—I’m now retired—I have thought that if I did not preach with unbelievers in my mind at least some of the time, I was not living up to my calling as a Christian Reformed minister. The 2011 Yearbook records that in 2010, out of 1,084 churches in our denomination, 604 had no evangelism growth. Do we need to change our Church Order, or do we need to change our thinking and practice of worship and evangelism?

About the Author

Larry Van Essen is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (8)


Yes, the church order needs to be changed in various aspects.  The church order in some cases encourages a kind of orderliness that reduces risk and risk-taking, and encourages careers, rituals, liturgy, and a focus on career pastors, rather than on "called" pastoring.  For example, why does not the church order require that every single sermon include a specific if brief explanation of the gospel of salvation?  or a call to repentance?  Or a call to share the gospel?   Are these not the essence of our gratitude to God? 

The church order mandates worship services, which is good, but Jesus and the apostles spent much more time at explaining the gospel in non-worship settings than they did at worship services.   Why does the church order not suggest that every church ought to be able to document two hours of evangelizing for every hour of worship service?  And set a goal of having two non-members attend church for every official member that attends?  Re-arrange the priorities and mindset from serving ourselves to serving God? 

But whether the church order mandates this or not, we could still adopt these priorities at the church level, as part of our joyful obedience to Christ.   We just need to encourage each other more in this, and pray more for this.  And share our successes.  Because they are really God's successes through us. 

John Z. - What constitutes a "worship setting"?  I really don't know that it can be said the apostles and Jesus did most of their explaining and teaching in "non-worship" settings, though it is possible they weren't at synagogues for most of that.

If the church order required documenting 2 hours of evangelism for every hour of worship, you would find two things happening.  First, the definition of "evangelism" would be expanded to include nearly anything and everything; and second, people would think that once they got their 2 hours in they could knock off and quit.

Nor would a church order mandate that every sermon have a call to repentance be conducive to effective teaching or sermonizing.  Most churches in the CRC do have a call to confession/repentance at some point in the liturgy anyway.

Your bottom line, though, is correct.  We shouldn't need to wait for the Church Order to direct us when the Bible already does that.

Eric, when Paul spoke to Festus would not seem to be a worship setting, for sure not a worship service...  Or in the Phillipian jail.   Or when healing the lame man at the temple, etc.   Peter speaking at Pentecost as a "drunk" man?   Jesus talking to Pilate?  or the thief on the cross?   Of course, to a certain degree, every moment of our life ought to be in worship, but that is a different aspect and a non-church order definition....  

Yes, church order mandating two or three hours of evangelizing might lead to including nearly any activity in the category of evangelism.  But that would probably still be more proactive than what is happening today.  And it provides no guarantee, since a former edict to have two worship services on a Sunday is often ignored by many members today.  But at least it would indicate a perspective that is more holistic, and more missional. 

Having a confession of sins in the liturgy prior to the sermon is often a formalism without significant meaning.  Often confession is blithely glossed over without the understanding of what true repentance really means.   Many people say they are sinners, but then act as if they never sin.  They never confess an actual sin nor spend time repenting, which means to find a way to stop their sin, or ask someone to help them stop.  They make excuses for their sin instead of repenting;  they live in the "assurance of pardon" of sins that don't seem to matter to them.  They forget the call to "repent and believe", and shorten it to "just believe".   It might be better to take this out of some ritualized process, and include it in the sermon instead, where it can be related to real life and real repentance. 

Two thieves on the cross beside Jesus.  They both saw him and knew him and knew about him and what he claimed to be.  They both knew they were guilty and Jesus was not guilty.  One wanted Jesus to identify as a similarly unjustly punished, lower class, crucified and tortured poor man.  He wanted Jesus to rescue him to redeem him from punishment.  The other thief simply acknowledged that he deserved his punishment and that Jesus did not.  He repented.  Jesus assured him of heaven.   It was not merely the desire to be saved, nor the knowledge of Jesus that saved, but it was the repentance that Jesus responded to. 

Your dismissal of confession in the liturgy as merely a formalism would, it seems to me, also apply to the bulk of what would follow a church order edict to include such a confession and call to repentance in every sermon, or do so many hours of evangelism work, etc.  Indeed, it could apply to most of what is done in worship at some point or other.  Changing the requirement/tradition won't change the way the human heart responds to it.

Paul also spoke in synagogues (as did Jesus).  They held what amounted to worship services in the open, too - particularly when such large gatherings prevented them using a building or even fitting in a town.  I really don't have enough information to say where they did the bulk of their teaching and evangelizing and I don't think getting into that kind of weedy morrass is helpful.

And I would hesitate to say that repentance is what saved the thief on the cross.  Faith entails repentance, certainly - a good tree produces good fruit, right?  But it is a very short step from what you've written to the Rite of Reconciliation and Absolution.  I would prefer to keep further away from that. :-)

My point is that the church order won't address the problem.  With or without it, the Bible calls us to be witnesses to Jesus, to teach his commandments, to tell of his marvelous deeds - the Bible calls all of us to this, not just ordained ministers and professional church workers.  And if the Bible's clear call is not sufficient, no adjustment to the church order will make up the deficiency.

You are right, I think, that confession in the liturgy can still be a good thing, and that any required thing can become a type of formalism or legalism that doesn't reach every heart.   I suppose my point is that we should pay attention to the possibility, and not let it become a mere formalism.  Thus a custom ought not to become a requirement, and the purpose and intent ought to be more important than the ritual itself. 

I think thinking about what the church order attempts to guide or "regulate", compared to how we ought to be spending our time on this earth as servants of God (people of God = church), is very helpful and useful.   The reality is that the apostles spent much more time preaching and teaching outside of the synagogue than in it.  This is not to diminish the importance of congregational communal worship, but rather to emphasize the rest.

Did repentance save the thief on the cross?  No, God saved him.  Jesus saved him.  Jesus sacrifice saved the thief.   But the repentance was the key to his faith, meaning trust, and it distinguished him from the thief on the other side.  In my mind this has nothing to do with a "churchly" rite, and everything to do with reconciliation with God.   As the epistle of John says, "no one who believes in God keeps on sinning".  

True the church order doesn't solve the problem;  but it  could address it.   Why couldn't it address the three essential components of a good sermon message, for example(not as a rule but as a guide)?  Or why couldn't it address the essence of personal evangelism within the sermon?  or within the neighborhood?

The Church Order is replete with guides, "ordinarilies", and exceptions almost to the point it begins to fail to be an order at all - and many feel free to disregard it at their whim even when it is not intended merely as a guide.

The Bible already calls for us to all be witnesses to Jesus, to call each other and the world to repentance and faith in him, to bring that good news.  I fail to see how editing the Church Order to mirror that challenge will suddenly cause those recalcitrants who yet resist to think, "Ah! Now that the Church Order says it, I guess I'd better do something."  

We must, I think, trust the Word of God to achieve the purposes for which God sent it and not let our impatience and frustration with our brothers and sisters lead us to think such weak reeds as a frequently ignored church order will be the thing to get us there.

Ah, true enough! 

When I wrote the article: "Should we change the church order?" I was attempting to make one point.  The point is that our worship services in the Christian Reformed Church were meant to glorify God, edify believers and gather in unbelievers.The last part is the key to my point.  The church order presently views worship serivces as having an evangelistic component, one which I think is routinely ignored by preachers,elders, and worship coordinators.  The Israelites in their worship anticipated and desired the attendance of the nations,( see Psalm 105) and Jesus clearly addressed unbelievers and earnestly challenged them to faith( consider his messages to the crowds and his healings of all who would hear him at times) and Paul anticipated and desired the attendance of unbelievers at worship.( consider 1 Peter 2:9, even adapting the message of preachers to unbelievers,1Corinthians 9: 22, 14:24-25).  Timothy Ketter calls this evangelistic worship and argues his case for it in his book Center Church, particlularly in chapter 23.  I would like to see our worship gatherings become also evangelistic gatherings.  This requires of course a great deal of prayer, planning, and understanding by the congregation.  It would greatly affect the way we preach, sing, pray and whatever else we do in worship.