URCNA Synod 2012: Missions

“What will be the hot topic at Synod this year?”

I’m frequently asked that question, but if I’ve learned one thing in my years of covering major ecclesiastical assemblies it’s that you just never know.

Worship service at Synod Schererville 2007

Some issues are inherently controversial, while other seemingly benign matters end up devouring hours of delegates’ time. Discussion often reveals thorny aspects of initially rosy issues.

Final votes can be surprising. A voice vote can easily be too close to call. Are more people in favor of that motion? Or are the people in favor simply projecting their voices more forcefully? A show of hands may instantly clarify or may require re-counting. There are times when many speak passionately for or against a matter and I am sure that it will be a close vote, only to be amazed at the overwhelming consensus.

Not wanting to fall into inaccurate prophecy, I’ll refrain from creating a list of hot topics. But over the next few days, I’ll try to give some background material to help you understand some of the issues that are likely to generate discussion on the floor of the URCNA Synod Nyack 2012.

One thing that will almost certainly trigger animated discussion is the lengthy report from the Synodical Study Committee on Missions, which calls for the establishment of a standing Missions Committee with a full-time Chairman-coordinator.

Although the study committee was appointed by Synod 2010 and subsequently began their work, it’s important to realize that the committee didn’t start from scratch just two years ago. Missions has been a topic of concern for some years in the URCNA, and the study committee began on an already existing foundation.

The provisional agenda (found here) contains the report, which makes it clear that the committee seriously studied and incorporated aspects (especially the Joint Venture Model) of the Biblical and Confessional View of Missions, which was recommended to the churches by Synod Escondido in 2001.

The Missions study committee also researched extensively the missions policies and practices of church fellowships belonging to NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), of which the URCNA is a member.

If it seems the study committee report devotes a lot of space to OPC missions, there’s a good reason. The OPC has a dynamic and effective mission organization that is active in literally more places than can be publicly named.

The study committee’s thorough and well-written report goes on to summarize its work and describe the biblical as well as confessional basis for its proposal. This section concludes:

So we see very clearly, both from the scriptures and our confessions, that we as the church of Jesus Christ must be planting churches, evangelizing, and preaching the gospel to the whole world. This is not optional but essential to being the church of Christ. If we neglect the evangelization of the nations, we will lose our identity as the church, which is called to be the salt of the earth. The Lord’s warning in Mathew 5:13 is a very serious one: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” We must reach out with the good news of the gospel to those still in the slavery to sin. If we are slow to do this, it may be that we need to remember again how precious the gospel is that brought us salvation by God’s grace. May we all recover the wonder of God’s calling out to us through his Word and giving us everlasting life in Christ by grace alone. As one united federation of churches, may we be found faithful to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, so that the name of the Lord be praised and glorified.

The next section of the report emphasizes the need to prioritize URCNA mission and church planting efforts. It concludes:

Moreover, every URCNA congregation should prioritize their giving to URCNA missions over, above, and before para-church organizations and non-URCNA mission works. Because of our duty to fulfill the Great Commission and our obligation to our missionaries as articulated in Church Order Article 47, URCNA congregations should not fund para-church organizations or non-URCNA mission works if URCNA missionaries or church plants are lacking funds. It is essential that we have our priorities properly ordered.

This is the essence of the study committee’s proposal:

In order to facilitate greater coordination and cooperation of mission efforts within the URCNA, this study committee recommends the formation of a federational missions committee composed of seven elders/ministers, each representing a classis, and an eighth man who serves as the committee’s chairman and fulltime coordinator of home and foreign missions. The formation of this committee responds to:

  • our need to work together as federated churches, as required by the scriptures, our confessions and our Church Order;
  • the substantial growth in the scope of domestic and foreign mission activities of URCNA member congregations and classes;
  • the sense of standing alone that exists among many of our member congregations, missionaries and church planters;
  • the desire of URCNA churches to be more effective in fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission.

A common observation heard on the floor of synod is: “Great idea. How much will it cost?” The Missions study committee tried to forestall that expense question by including an estimated budget of $6,000 for the standing committee and between $85,000 to $141,000 for the full-time Chairman-coordinator.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the URCNA is doing a great job of coordinating church planting and missions efforts. I doubt that any delegate will fail to see the necessity for some kind of intentional cooperation. But I anticipate objections may arise in two primary areas: authority and expense.

Due primarily to its history, the URCNA has an inbred fear of hierarchy. We’re a federation that believes strongly in the final authority of local consistories, some of which may view this proposal as a a “top-down” proposal that mandates mission causes. I believe the drafters of the report were careful to maintain the local consistory authority structure. This is how they envision a standing committee’s function:

The committee would function as an information hub for URCNA missions, encouraging communication between URCNA missionaries, church planters, councils and congregations by doing the following:

(a) obtaining updates from the missionaries and church planters for publication in the missions newsletter and missions page of the URCNA.org website;

(b) ascertaining and remaining abreast of the disparate financial needs of missionaries and disseminate pertinent information to URCNA councils (e.g., location, family, nature & needs of a particular ministry);

(c) generally promoting the cause of missions in the URCNA in a way that consistently represents our commitment to function as a covenanted body;

(d) gathering information about the work of missions and church planting which could be contributed to a manual of helpful guidelines to assist Consistories, missionaries and church planters in the day-to-day activity of missions ….

(e) producing a report on the work of URCNA missions to each synod.

You can read more specifics about how the proposed committee would function by accessing the report in the provisional agenda.

While you’re on the official URCNA website, delegates (especially first-timers) may benefit from printing and reviewing a copy of the Regulations for Synodical Procedure.

What do you see as possible objections to the study committee’s report? What other “hot topics” do you anticipate?

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10 thoughts on “URCNA Synod 2012: Missions

  1. Who knows–there may be a consensus among URC churches that we need to adopt this system in order to be really serious about church planting and mission efforts. I agree with your point: “I doubt that any delegate will fail to see the necessity for some kind of intentional cooperation.”

    I hope you’ll include a piece on the work of the Songbook Committee, because it seems to me that there’s going to be a lot of debate about music and the Psalter Hymnal. With so many unknowns in the reports and so much variation in the overtures, it doesn’t seem like there is much unity at all on this topic within the URCNA. I hope and pray I may be proven wrong on this point, and that synod will conclude with more agreement on our music rather than less.

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York

  2. Nice piece. It is worth noting that the OPC came out of bad situation with the mainline Presbyterians but still figured out how to cooperate with each other to do missions effectively. One of the reasons Machen left to start the OPC was because the mainline missionaries (Pearl Buck, for example) were saying it wasn’t necessary to teach that people rely on Christ for salvation. Machen started the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in response and the birth of the OPC followed not too long after. My point is, URC officers need to put some aspects of the CRC experience behind them and consider the virtues of greater federation-wide cooperation in missions.

    I think you have a typo here – “and between $85,000 to $14,000 for the full-time Chairman-coordinator”.

  3. Glenda,

    I agree with your supposition, “Due primarily to its history, the URCNA has an inbred fear of hierarchy. We’re a federation that believes strongly in the final authority of local consistories” and believe that mindset could lead to some significant discussion and consternation surrounding Appeal #1 (which, for the sake of full disclosure, has been assigned to Advisory Committee #1, not the appeals committee of which I am chairman…).
    This may prove to be a “hot topic”, to use your words.

    1. I have that same foreboding about Appeal #1. Rev. Miller, do you know if anything similar to the request in this appeal (altering the decision of a previous synod) has been suggested before in the URCNA, and if so, has it been approved? To me it seems like an unusual and rather bold step–although in this case it may be warranted.

      Michael Kearney
      West Sayville URC
      Long Island, New York

      1. Hello, brother MIchael.

        As far as memory serves (note the foreboding in that statement!) the only method by which an attempt to alter the actions of a previous synod in our short history has come by way of overture. For instance, we have altered our church order.
        This appeal is potentially far more broad than a narrow consideration of a particular decision of the previous synod on the matter of being “forced” to buy a songbook (to sum up their language). Behind that consideration is the issue, again, of settling who we are ecclesiastically. In many particular ways which I have not time to spell out here (anyway, I smell my wife’s wonderful cooking) we – URCNA – are an ecclesiastical hybrid. That could be good but time will tell.
        I hope I am not being too abstract….

      2. Thanks Rev. Miller. In many ways this discussion reminds me of my current governmental studies. Should the URC function as a democracy (all churches having equal and sovereign power) or as a republic (churches joined together in a centralized government)? Or, like America, should we continue to function as a hybrid somewhere in between the two extremes? Indeed, time will tell.

        Blessings,

        –Michael

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