In our days, when prophets of gloom are cheaper by the dozen, it is refreshing to take note of some of the favorable entries on the ledger of the Christian Church. Indeed, there is justification for a sensitive awareness to the change and decay which perniciously eats away at the fabric of human society. Uncritical optimism concerning either the church or the world cannot be defended. Yet our faith in the Living Christ who preserves and increases his Church amid the perils of modernity opens our eyes to some significant signs of hope.
One of these, too long neglected, we believe, by our churches, is the increased emphasis on the place and function of the “laity.”
To a large degree Reformed Christians have always been suspicious of the term “laity” and all it denotes. In theory at least the sharp demarcation between clergy and laity found in certain Christian communions is not congenial to the Reformed faith. Yet for want of a better term we use it, even with tongue in cheek.
Increasingly noticeable throughout the Christian world since the last war has been a new emphasis on the responsibility of being a church member. Because of the alienation of the masses from the Church and its gospel, men are acutely aware of the necessity of witnessing to those with whom they live and work and play.
The Reformed Church (Hervormd) in the Netherlands has stressed what it calls the “apostolaat.” In Germany, England, and the United States movements have arisen to encourage the individual believer to witness for Christ. Both Amsterdam and Evanston have touched on the importance of an activated laity for the continuance and growth of the Church in these times. Even the Roman Catholic Church has not hesitated to give greater responsibilities to its members.
All this, needless to say, finds warrant in the Biblical teaching on “the priesthood of all believers.” In support of this distinctively Protestant position we can do more than quote I Peter 2:9. The whole New Testament insists that believers are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Despite the fact that we have upheld this doctrine in theory, we have largely failed to utilize it in practice. Indeed, there are many in our churches who without much training have served admirably in consistory, in Sunday School, on local school boards, and in evangelization projects. Yet all in all, we are still very much a “clergy-conscious” group. In this respect we have fallen far behind our Reformed (Gereformeerde) brethren across the seas.
It can’t be denied that in many if not most of our churches societies do not flourish unless conducted by the pastor. He is often expected to assume the responsibility for the Sunday School, projects for local evangelism, and denominational enterprises. Even enthusiasm for the Christian schools and for Christian labor organizations, to mention no more, seems to be in large measure proportionate to the zeal of the pastor.
This does not augur well for our churches. We have taught our people fairly well; but in large measure they remain “massive” instead of “active” as far as implementing and propagating the faith is concerned. Possibly the solution lies in the direction of classes in “lay leadership.” Two or more congregations could combine in this effort of training our people to lead Bible discussions in society and to take an active part in Sunday School, local evangelism, and personal witnessing.
Has this matter ever been discussed in your consistory? Or is it taken for granted that your pastor must of necessity lead every society and spark every evangelistic program? Aside from the undeniable fact that this is expecting too much from any man, no matter how gifted or industrious he may be, it seriously damages the spiritual growth of the congregation.
As a church we are faced with the serious demand of becoming more articulate. We claim to have a message, the only true and abiding message of hope, for the world today. But as long as we suppose it’s the business of only one or two in the church to give expression to it, we’re not going to get much of a hearing.
Let’s learn a lesson from some of the sectarian and heretical groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. To a much larger degree than we, they have galvanized their membership for active witnessing. Unless our membership responds to this challenge, we will continue to find ourselves in the back-wash of Protestantism—a small, ineffective and inarticulate denomination, trying to preserve for ourselves what we have and forgetting the command of our Lord to weak for him everywhere.
– PETER Y. DE JONG