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If God is a mission God, then His church is a mission church. “Missions” is the term we commonly use for the sending activity of the triune God in order to establish His kingdom. The Lord Jesus sent His disciples to make disciples among all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God, teaching them all that Christ commanded, preaching to all people the Gospel of grace, and witnessing to the resurrected Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The church is His main sending agency, and in that sense we speak of a mission church.
Missions, according to the early Dutch reformer, Gisbertus Voetius (1580–1676) is the extension of the kingdom of God through evangelism, church planting and bearing witness to Jesus in all areas of life. John Piper reminds us that the worship of the true God is the goal of missions. Therefore, Christian mission cannot be separated from the church.
However, the early growth of Protestantism shows that the Native Americans and African Americans, those who were not part of the transplanted European denominations, were slow in being reached for the Gospel, gathered in the church and trained in ministry and missions.
Over one hundred years before the church was transplanted from Europe to the American colonies, the church was established “south of the border,” in the Caribbean and Latin America. The Roman Catholic Church has grown there, but in a misdirected way. The colonial Protestant churches reached out to the colonists but not to the Native and African American populations. Thankfully, today the variety of people groups is being reached through mission societies, the newer evangelical churches, and by the national churches.
The origin of Christianity in the Americas is in the Caribbean. Seventy years before the French Huguenots established a colony in Florida (1562); the Roman Catholic Church came to modern day Dominican Republic. Although Christopher Columbus was not a Roman Catholic missionary, he was instrumental in creating opportunities for Catholicism to become established in the New World. On his first voyage in 1492, he did not bring missionaries. A year later he was accompanied by Bernardo Boil and twelve religious workers in order to start the evangelization of the Indians.
During his first trip, Columbus left sailors at a fort built in northern Haiti. Upon returning he found that they all had been killed by the local Indian warriors in retaliation for the Spaniards’ assault on native women. What resulted was an undeclared war by the Spanish against the Indians. The genocide in Hispaniola came to an estimated 400,000 Indians in less than fifty years. An estimated two million Indians died of unnatural causes during first years of the Caribbean conquests. The Indian slaves were replaced by millions of African slaves during the following centuries. The resisting Africans, Indians, and Protestants were treated with zero tolerance by the Catholics until colonization took place in North America and until nineteenth-century national independence gripped hold of the southern Americas.
The origins of Protestant denominations south of the border lie in the establishment of colonial churches in non-Roman Catholic nations. Before 1800, there is little emphasis on evangelism among non-colonists, national church planting and training of non-colonial leaders. Missions were more of an exception than the rule. Protestantism in North America fared somewhat better in evangelization of the Indians and African Americans, however, both the conquest of the West and the vile institution of slavery were great hindrances, if not contradictory to the mission task.
Charles Spurgeon observed: “Someone asked ‘Will the heathen who have never heard the Gospel be saved?’ It is more a question with me whether we, who have the Gospel and fail to give it to those who have not, can be saved.”
Renewed Mission Efforts
What the Catholic and Protestant denominational efforts could not accomplish in missions, the mission societies, renewal groups and new denominations would. The Moravians undertook, with great suffering and loss of life, the evangelization and building of the church amongst the non-colonists in St. Thomas starting in 1732 and Surinam in 1735. In eighteenth-century North America, Protestants such as David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards began to evangelize among the Indians. Baptists and Methodists brought new missions zeal to newly opening fields. Also noteworthy is the Scottish Missions Society, which started to work with the Jamaican slaves in 1800. Bible Societies became active in Bible distribution as well as educational efforts. In North America the African American church began to develop into large and significant religious and cultural movements.
Today, the largest Reformed church south of the border is the African-Caribbean Christian Reformed Church in the Dominican Republic, which started in 1980. So we see that the church in the Americas is experiencing growth, but how much of it is Christ centered, biblically based, Spirit given, and glorifying to the Father? Like in the past, are we seeing the growth of the true church or growth of the misdirected false church? Even more profound is the question that after nearly half a millennium of the church coming to the southern Americas, why are there so few theologically Reformed churches and leaders in most of these nations? If classical Reformed theology is the best way to express biblical theology, should not this theology be leading the way toward biblical church growth?
What is amazing about God’s sovereign grace is that God still gives opportunity for genuine repentance and renewed involvement in missions after so many years of misdirection. The history of the origin and development of Presbyterian and Reformed churches south of the border shows that if American churches are not involved in evangelism, church planting, and local church leadership training among all people groups, then God will raise up other Christians to do such work. He will be exalted among the nations, He will inherit what rightfully belongs to Him, and He will do it according to Christ, the Word, the Spirit, and through His body, the church. He repeatedly calls us to preach, teach and serve according to His ways and throughout the whole world. The mission church in the Americas continues as a sign of God’s sovereign grace until the Lord returns. This is our hope as we participate in God’s mission church.