The URCNA Pastors and Missions Conference, held on May 15-18, 2017, focused on the theme: Reformed and Relevant—Reaching Our Generation with the Gospel. The facilities at Guelph Bible Conference Centre in Ontario provided a relaxing atmosphere and enjoyable activities for more than 30 pastors, many accompanied by their wives, who attended. Elders, lay persons, and students also benefitted from various presentations. Attendees could register for all or parts of the conference, while lectures on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings were open to anyone at no cost.
“We were glad to see many come out and join us in some great singing and worship and hearing a message from our main speakers, Dr. Eric Watkins and Rev. Paul Murphy. Numerous young people came to those evenings and came away very excited,” said Rev. Richard Bout, URCNA Mission Director and a conference organizer. “This year’s conference was a great time of learning and fellowship. Our speakers and workshop leaders were from the OPC, Can Ref, PCA and the URCNA and did an excellent job in explaining the calling we have been given to be an evangelistic, outward-facing church.”
Two other pastors assisted Rev. Bout with planning the conference: Rev. Brian Cochran, Redeemer Reformation Church (URC) in Regina, SK, and Rev. Norman Van Eeden Petersman, who formerly served at Adoration United Reformed Churches in Ontario and is now pastor of Vancouver Associated Presbyterian Church (APC). The Vancouver church is the single Canadian congregation of the APC, a small Scottish federation of about twenty congregations that came into existence in 1989 by seceding from the Free Presbyterian Church.
“Our planning for this conference started in February of 2016,” explains Rev. Van Eeden Petersman, “when we agreed to work together to organize the 2017 conference.”
The conference consisted of two components: a pre-conference from Monday evening through Tuesday afternoon geared toward pastors, and a general missions conference open to lay people as well as ministers from Tuesday evening through Thursday morning.
The pre-conference sought to generate fellowship and reflection among attending ministers and missionaries and their wives. After Monday’s evening meal, Rev. Paul T. Murphy, Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) spoke on “A Church for God’s Mission: Not a Mission for His Church—Understanding the Great Commission.”
“I was advocating a change in perspective so that instead of missions/evangelism being a line item on the church’s agenda/budget, that it is the raison d’etre of the church second only to worship,” he said. “This calls for a radical rethinking of how we do church and evangelism.”
Using several texts, he showed that God is a missionary God and that covenant is for the sake of the nations. He made several points of application. We should have a “go” rather than a “come” mentality about evangelism. We should view election missiologically, not just soteriologically. We ought not discuss covenant without mission. We shouldn’t distinguish between established churches and mission churches because every church is a mission church. We need to recover the office of believer as described in Q&A 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism to realize that every Christian is a witness. And many of our congregations need to ‘outgrow the ingrown church’ (as per C. John Miller). Rev. Murphy concluded by demonstrating from Luke 15 that God rejoices when we join Him “on mission.”
Reaching Generation Y
On Tuesday morning, Dr. Eric B. Watkins, Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in St. Augustine, FL, spoke about “Preaching to Generation Y: Reaching the Lost Without Losing the Reached.” He examined the challenges of preaching to a generation that has lost direction in many ways and seeks identity in the wrong places. He addressed questions such as: How do we engage a media-driven culture? What language will reach Generation Y without abandoning previous generations? How can we remain faithful to our time-tested creeds and confessions and yet reach a generation that is losing interest in history?
Rev. Harry Bout, emeritus minister of Immanuel URC in Jordon, ON, addressed a crucial topic in the second lecture of the morning. He urged pastors to “Take Heed to Yourself—Your Public Ministry and Your Private Walk.” Rev. Bout serves in the Niagara Migrant Ministry, is involved with Hispanic outreach in southern Ontario, and for several months each year works in Tepic, Mexico.
Participants could choose from three afternoon breakout sessions, one designed especially for pastors’ wives. Rev. Cochran spoke about “Training our Youth to Stand Strong in a Digital Age.” Rev. Neil Stewart, Grace OPC in Sheffield, ON, spoke on “Avoiding Burnout in the Ministry.” Mrs. Julie Murphy addressed other wives of ministers regarding their roles as “Women in the Trenches.”
About twenty pastors’ wives attended the entire conference, according to Rev. Richard Bout. He said, “We really wanted to build them up in the important role they have in their husbands’ ministries.”
The Tuesday afternoon sessions were followed by a prayer time, free time for fellowship, and the evening meal.
The missions conference began with Tuesday evening’s lecture, as Dr. Watkins spoke on “Reformed and Evangelistic: Cultivating Outward-Facing Church Plants.” He noted that Reformed churches face the challenge of cultivating a culture of evangelism. He explored ways self-consciously Reformed churches and church plants can effectively do evangelism by faithfully, yet creatively, bringing the gospel to those outside the church. A Question & Answer panel discussion followed.
Wednesday’s first session featured Dr. Brian Lee, Christ URC in Washington, DC, discussing “The Challenges and Joys of Urban Church Planting.” He began work as a church planter in DC in 2008, and the church organized at the beginning of 2016. The second morning session was on “Discipleship through Home Bible Studies” with Rev. Connan A.V. Kublik, New City Church (PCA) in Hamilton, ON. He spoke about the power of the gospel to accomplish true transformation as it is heard and believed.
The afternoon breakout sessions offered three choices. Rev. Mitch Persaud, New Horizons Church (URC) in Scarborough, ON, enlightened attendees on “Learning Cross-Cultural Etiquette.” Rev. Tony Zekveld, Hope Centre in Toronto, ON, addressed “Witnessing to Sikhs and Muslims.” Rev. Cochran spoke again about “Training our Youth to Stand Strong in a Digital Age.” Rev. Persaud and Rev. Zekveld repeated their presentations later in the day.
On Wednesday evening, Rev. Murphy spoke on “Reformed and Missional: The Challenge of Being an Evangelistic, Community-Centered Church.” Using Philippians 2:15 as an illustration of being the light of the world, he encouraged churches to do evangelism “in an organic and covenantal” way. Organic in the sense of seeing and meeting needs with the gospel as we “integrate and ingratiate ourselves into the community.” Covenantal as in taking advantage of family ties to follow up with evangelistic contacts. He challenged churches to “develop a culture of evangelism, which needs to be personal and loving.”
He said, “My application here was whether or not we would really love the unlovely and welcome them into our midst because that it what God did with you and me. I tried to promote the love of God for sinners so that we would be channels of that love to others.”
Another panel discussion and a time of refreshments finished the day’s events.
On Thursday morning, Rev. Bill DeJong of Blessings Christian Church (CanRC) in Hamilton, spoke on “Reaching Your Community with the Gospel: Practical Ways to Reach Out Locally.”
The conference concluded with Dr. Watkins speaking on “From Geneva to Disney World: Reformed Worship in a Postmodern Context.” In his description of the lecture, he noted, “The consumeristic narcissism or our postmodern context has created a serious challenge” for Reformed churches. It can be difficult to explain why they continue to worship as they do when many evangelicals are exploring other options. His talk suggested that Reformed worship is not only “distinct and beautiful,” but that it also has “a lot more to offer our postmodern friends than either they or we may have imagined.”
This was the second URCNA conference focusing on pastoral ministry and missions, although similar conferences have been held every other year since 2009. Pastors met for that initial conference on ministry at Puritan Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. A missions conference in 2011 took place in Denver, CO. In 2013, the first combined conference was held at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. Two committees planned that event, when the final pastoral ministry session also functioned as the first session on missions. A 2015 pastors conference took place in Escondido, CA.
Rev. Van Eeden Petersman describes participation in the 2017 conference as “a real joy.” He said, “Having speakers from the URC, OPC, PCA, and Canadian Reformed churches was a good way to have us reflect more broadly on our work and what it means to be, as Paul Murphy made plain, a church that exists for the sake of mission. After every session and during every mealtime, that was a lot of intense and focused discussion of what we are to be doing and how we can do better in our current contexts.”
Rev. Cochran described the messages by the main speakers as “very insightful and convicting,” causing many pastors to “repent of our lack of an outward focus on sharing the gospel with others” and encouraging them to “strive by God’s grace to cultivate a culture of evangelism in our churches.”
But the setting and schedule permitted plenty of less interaction and reflection as well. Attendees took part in basketball, volleyball, ping-pong, and horseshoes. Rev. Cochran described the conference as “a great time of refreshment and fellowship” and noted that “the singing of Psalms and hymns to God was wonderful.”
Pastor Rich Bout reflected, “We live in challenging times for the church, and we have a lot to learn in how to faithfully share our faith in the gospel with those around us. One of the special blessings of this time together was the posture of humility and prayer that the pastors and elders demonstrated as they took in biblical exhortation from a variety of angles.”