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Global missions are too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.

This more or less sums up the consensus of church leaders who gathered in visionary clusters in the post-Revolutionary War era as they set in motion the organizational efforts that would launch the first American-based global mission venture.

This was an organization with the unwieldy title: the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). They held their first meetings in 1810 and sent their first missionaries to India in 1812. Most were New England Congregationalists, but by the time those first missionaries set foot on mission launching ships they had welcomed other Reformed representatives to their board as well, including representatives from the Reformed Church in America. That’s about as ecumenical as folks got back then—Reformed bodies getting together with other Reformed bodies—but it was a deliberate move to ensure that no one denomination would control the work. In their minds global mission was too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.

The reasoning behind this was simple: denominational structures were too inflexible and inner-focused to be of much use for the mobilization and sustenance of global mission programs. It was one reason why, these pioneers reasoned, global missions had been so long neglected in Protestant circles. Denominations, particularly those forged in Reformation fires, were so focused on internal matters and competitive sectarianism that the global reach of the gospel became secondary at best to what they were about.


I was thinking about this recently as I pondered a proposal that had come before the 2021 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America to create an independent agency for global missions. The motion was shot down quickly as voices from all sides of our diverse body raised objections. I don’t remember exactly what those objections were, but I remember thinking at the time that they more or less boiled down to this: We’ve never done it that way before!

But, in fact, we have. It’s the way RCA first sent missionaries to their respective fields, under the auspices of the ABCFM. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the RCA, along with other denominations, decided to create their own global mission agency. For the previous thirty years, the RCA cooperated and operated out of an independent missions model, a model that would set the stage for the way the RCA operated when global missions became denominationalized.

David Abeel

There’s an iconic story that has long been told in RCA mission circles about how that earlier emphasis on independent agency shaped the RCA’s vision for mission. It’s a story that arose out of the pioneering mission work of David Abeel in China. Even though the RCA has long claimed Abeel as a denominational missionary, he was, in fact, sent to China by the ABCFM in 1842. Other RCA missionaries followed in Abeel’s wake. And they were highly successful in terms of what today is called “church planting.”

When these new church plants became organized congregations, the RCA determined that they needed to be put under classis supervision, in this case the Classis of Albany, as they could conceive of no other way the church could be Reformed.

The missionaries disagreed. “The church in China has to be independent,” they said, recognizing in this case an important tenet of global missions—that the gospel is best embraced and practiced contextually. It made no sense for the growing Chinese church to come under the governance of a body so far removed from its context. The Chinese church, these missionaries understood, would not thrive or even survive if it was put under the supervision and control of an outside ecclesiastical institution.

A flurry of telegrams related to this matter flew back and forth between China and Albany over the next months: the denominational execs maintaining that the Chinese church be put under classis control, the missionaries maintaining that it shouldn’t.

Then came the critical telegram from the missionary community united behind this message: “If you insist on putting these churches under classis control, we will quit. Every one of us (and there were quite a few missionaries there at the time) will quit.”

The missionaries won. The RCA then made it a point of policy to never create denominational churches through its global missions program. There would be no RCA congregations in Mexico or China or the Arabian Gulf or Ethiopia or Kenya or India or Japan or Taiwan—because this work, as the ABCFM board understood, was too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.

What I wonder while looking back at this early history is whether it might be good for us to reconsider the recent motion, not as a way of dealing with our current crisis (which precipitated the motion), but as a way of recovering the impulse of those pioneering global mission efforts. The reasoning of these pioneers, it seems to me, was sound.

In general, denominational structures are neither flexible nor focused enough to negotiate well the complexities of a globally contextualized ministry. Too many other concerns drive our business. This is to say nothing, of course, about the impressive impact RCA supervised missions have had and continue to have in various parts of the globe. It is, instead, to wonder out loud if that impact could be even greater if global missions were put on a more independent footing—one that would give them not only more contextual flexibility, but also remove them from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that our denomination, like all denominations, are wont to suffer. Is it not, perhaps just as true today as it was in 1810 that . . .

Global missions are too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and contolled by denominations?

John Hubers

John Hubers recently retired after serving as a Reformed Church in America missionary partner with the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He and his wife served as a missionary pastoral team with churches in Oman and Bahrain. John also taught missiology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He holds a PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in World Christianity and Global Mission.


  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    Thank you, John, for a deeper and broader story about earlier days in RCA mission history. I love these stories.

  • This is an interesting bit of history that I really knew nothing about. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    John, thank you for raising a very important issue, and asking what must be the right questions. Especially as it seems the RCA’s denominational leadership is flip-flopping. The Restructuring agenda first went one way, the way you mention, setting up an independent mission agency, which was rejected, and is now going the opposite way, proposing that the RCA become a global denomination, planting RCA churches around the world, all to be directed by a central office and a central board.
    A couple of minor historical notes. According the the history of the China Mission by Gerald De Jong, the General Synod was asking the missionaries in Amoy to organize a (Dutch Reformed) classis of their own under the Particular Synod of Albany, and the missionaries that they were first working with were English Presbyterians, although the English Congregationalists also were connected.
    Also, while the ecumenical vision of the Amoy missionaries eventually did become general RCA missions policy, as you say, in one case there was a lag, and for a number of decades the India mission was organized on the narrow denominational model, with a Classis of Arcot organized in 1854. In Arcot they even organized a third denominational seminary with a General Synod Professor of Theology (William Scudder). Only in 1900 did the Arcot Mission of the RCA begin to move to unity in an indigenous Indian denomination. But your point remains valid, that all the other RCA missions, such as in Arabia, followed the Amoy model.
    You raise the important question of how much does Mission, as ‘foreign,” or “global,” or whatever, properly belong to the essence and identity of the ordinary local church, and in what form. Thank you for raising the issue, and let’s hope the RCA takes it seriously as it considers the proposal of the Restructuring Team.

  • John Hubers says:

    Thanks, Dan, for filling in the historical gaps missing in my attempt to narrow the focus to the primary issues. I do hope, as well, that, as you say, this may spark a needed discussion about the naure and focus of global missions within our denominational structure.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr/ says:

    The latest proposal is to count churches started outside the US as part of the RCA which is taking a step backwards in my view. How can a church plant in Africa be part of the Reformed Church in America? The church is both global and local, but the control should be more local, less global just as we are restructuring.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for this. It was really informative and very thoughtful.

  • Harold Gazan says:

    Thank you, John, for that important part os Missions History that I was not previously aware of. And, you have given us reason to reconsider what direction the mission endeavors of the RCA should go as the denomination shrinks and evaluates its organizational structure. Thank you for this.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    You raise some interesting question and I’ll confess that I find both some hopeful possibilities and some significant resistance to it personally.

    I greatly appreciate as you tell the history, how the RCA does not plant RCA churches. I think that’s an important value that has evolved and I’m not sure what that looks like moving into the future and especially regarding church planting and restructuring.

    My resistance comes up with two particular words: independent and denomination. “The church in China has to be independent…” I can see that need to be independent from Albany, historically. And that was the 19th century; how much more that reality there is now! I get it. Especially with our history of colonialism and the rise of nations and what not. Big issue here is about control… But I wonder—not being a congregationalist and not valuing church autonomy all that much but much more valuing our catholicity—the place and value of independence ecclesiastically? Quite familiar with the proposal brought to the 2021 General Synod, I think the arguments raised were much more than We’ve never done it that way before. They were deeper and more nuanced than that. And some of us had significant theological arguments, that mission and the church could not be independent of one another.

    Which leads me to wonder about (and stirs up some resistance in me) the word “denomination” which you use rather frequently here. It’s a term that we all use often but I’m not sure we’re always talking about the same thing. I wonder if there are times when the more appropriate word to use is “church,” and if so, is there a formative aspect that it would have on us?

    But I do greatly appreciate the ecumenical nature of the early ABCFM and it makes me wonder how much more ecumenically our Global Mission future could be. (I think that the UCC and Disciples work cooperatively with their mission programs?) What would it look like to truly begin to live into full communion with our partners? The 2021 proposal was about creating an “independent” agency. Instead, what would it look like to reengage in an ecumenical future that was not more independent from the church, but in contrast, came out of it more broadly and inclusively?

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Hear , hear!

    • John M Hubers says:

      Thanks, Thomas. I’m sitting at a pool watching my granddaughters frolic in the pool, so can only give a brief initial response mainly in this case to say that my reference to the reasons given at Synod to deny the overture referenced less the thought that went into the proposal in its formulation and oppsition than trying to make sense of the train of objections from the floor that came from folks on all sides of our theological spectrum. Don’t remember hearing any real support for it, and, yes,there seemed to be an undercurrent of – let’s keep doing what we’ve always been doing.

    • John M Hubers says:

      Several things come to mind that may have to do with semantics than substance.

      The ABCFM defined independence more as a practical, operational matter than something that would have necessitated a congregational model. The China missionaries too albeit in a more contextualized manner – churches united in China to allow them to be identified as culturally Chinese,even while being linked together “denominationally” as RCA or Presbyterian churches were in the states.

      My question with the 2021 proposal was whether or not it is possible to create an independent structure like the ABCFM that could remain Reformed in its approach and theology (as they did) without being under denominational control. Perhaps not. But perhaps so.

      Whatever the case I think it might be intersting to resurrect that model to see if it might offer a way forward for a mission model that would allow for great contextual and organizaymtional flexibility. Its a wondering out loud …..

  • John K says:

    I thank you too John,
    Seems like I remember how the WCC was formed.
    The Edinburgh Mission conference of 1910 was successful in its own way, but the need was felt to come closer to the Church, out of which “mission” flows.

    The success of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 led to the merger of the Faith and Order Movement and the Life and Work Movement to establish the WCC in 1937–1938.

    Seems to me the Antioch congregation was the originating group and mission flowed from them. There was both separation and independence and support and interdependence.

    Just a thought. Proclaiming the gospel of the death and resurrection of our Lord and his intercession for those who come to believe through the witness of his followers. In fellowship with one another. Today.

  • Paul Nulton says:

    I am glad we are thinking in new ways about Global Mission. I know that on the mission field we do not start Reformed Churches that belong to the RCA but when of sufficient size turn them over to the nearest evangelical national church like we did Chiapas to the, if I remember correctly, the Mexican Presbyterian Church. I always appreciated this concept as fitting into the idea of the Holy Catholic Church as expressed the our ancient creeds, the true Church of Jesus Christ wherever it is found in the world by whatever name it calls itself.

    Recently I have been impressed with reports from our General Secretary that there are a growing number of new churches in Portugal, Spain and other European nations, in South America, and even Nepal, seemingly quite youthful, who want to identify with the RCA. I inquired with him about their practices: did they believe in Covenantal theology and practiced infant baptism and other Reformed beliefs and theology. He assured me they did. I tend to be evangelical with a small “e” in todays right wing Trumpian Protestant movement. I wanted to be assured these new churches were committed to our Reformed faith and basic practices and related to the whole person no matter their race or tribe.

    I am a member of a Classis where maybe half the churches don’t have a Sunday School or youth group – the strong majority without a full time Pastor – congregations aging and dwindling. I served one in the Catskills for nearly 8 years as a retired contract Minister in a small mountain community highest in elevation in the RCA east of Denver. We held our small size but our younger families move away for employment.

    All this got me thinking. We have quite a few growing churches in foreign lands who may want to be part of us and what we have to offer. Lets turn that around. What do these youthful churches have to offer us? Ways we may impact youthful generations into our churches? Ways we may impact people of other races and nationalities in our local bodies? New ways to share the Gospel of Christ that impacts populations? New energy to do something new instead of keeping on with what we’ve been always doing that isn’t making much impact? We once had a Reformation so that, in part, tradition was no longer an equal authority with Scripture in the Church. I was a Pastor 45 1/2 years serving RCA Churches in the East and West. I saw tradition, the ways we’ve always done things, blunt good developments in the lives of congregations, raise its ugly head when people unlike “us” started coming to church, when congregations resisted dealing with changing communities, and singing “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” divided congregations. Maybe we need to rethink our strategy about Global Mission. Maybe we need to see ourselves as the mission field these different national younger churches can minister to and teach us and reveal a much more effective way to share Jesus with others.

    The RCA historically has been among the leaders in World Missions and sent the first missionaries to a number of nations and groups. Could it be that God may be
    blessing us in our declining situation by sending us these younger national churches wishing to be part of us and sharing their godly gifts to help rebuild us? Does pride stand in our way?

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