Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ripe for Harvest?

I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor. John 4.35-38

We have been told that baptisms are down in the Southern Baptist Convention. We have been told we need to re-double our efforts in witnessing. We have been told the reason for the decline is our lack of commitment and relaxed attitude toward soul-winning. Some have suggested that perhaps we need to tweak our methods.

PLEASE HEAR ME CLEARLY!!! I AM NOT AGAINST ENCOURAGING OUR PEOPLE TO BE MORE FAITHFUL IN THEIR EVANGELISTIC EFFORTS! AND I AM NOT AGAINST WORKING TO IMPROVE OUR METHODS IN COMMUNICATING THE GOSPEL MESSAGE!

However, I am not so sure that lack of evangelistic zeal or poor witnessing techniques are mostly to blame for the decline in baptisms.

No one in their right mind would call Western Europe, or more specifically Spain, where God has given me the privilege of serving Him for the last 16 years, a great "harvest field." Several years ago, I came across the little book Sowing, Reaping, Keeping, written by Lawrence Singlehurst, Director of Youth With a Mission, England. In this amazingly simple yet profound book, Singlehurst cogently makes the point that evangelism is made up not only of "reaping", but also of "sowing" and "keeping". And, in order to be most effective at the evangelistic task, it is necessary to analyze the context in which one finds oneself, and adapt the strategy accordingly. Upon my recommendation, the IMB Western Europe leadership has since made Sowing, Reaping, Keeping required reading for all new missionaries to Western Europe.

Another book with a similar message is Finding Common Ground, by Campus Crusade for Christ worker Tim Downs. I cannot recommend these two books strongly enough. In order to capture the force of the arguments made, you must get the books and read them for yourself.However, in light of recent admonitions to re-double our efforts at harvesting in the context of Southern Baptists in the United States, I want to leave you with some choice quotes from Finding Common Ground...

Many of our modern churches and evangelistic movements were founded during a time when the American fields were abundantly white for harvest. But the fields of the fifties and sixties, like the fields of Jesus’ time, were ripe for harvest because of countless sowers who had worked to create a soil that was conducive to the growth of the gospel. The "soil" of our society is the whole environment in which Christians seek to live and minister. It is the culture, the atmosphere, the worldview, the zeitgeist—the "spirit of the time" in which we live. In each generation, Christians must attempt to plant the seed of the Word of God in the soil of the prevailing culture. Historically, some soils have been better than others. In each case, the nature of the soil determines what kind of life it will support…

There is no doubt that the soil of our society has eroded significantly in a short period of time. Over the last forty years, many para-church organizations and churches have struggled with a thinning harvest in America. In an attempt to recapture the glory of past harvests we have recruited more harvesters, sharpened our sickles and scythes, and challenged our workers to greater commitment and longer hours.

Maybe it’s time to analyze the soil. Maybe it’s time to sow. (pp. 16-17)

Almost thirty years ago, as a young college student and a very new Christian, I was trained in the basic principles of evangelism. I learned to present the gospel using a simple tract, the Four Spiritual Laws. I discussed that little booklet with roommates, fraternity members, grad students, international students, and even professors. I presented the gospel to literally hundreds of people during my four years of college, and I found a tremendous amount of openness—even eagerness—to discuss spiritual things. In those days, I could assume the openness of the average hearer. My sole filter when considering a potential listener was, "Are you busy?" Today, many Christians attempting to do evangelism find that they now must assume the disinterest, or even the hostility, of the average hearer. As a result, the statistics on evangelistic success from most ministries are much lower than they were thirty years ago.

What accounts for this change? Our first instinct has been to examine ourselves. Have we lost our first love? Are we lacking in dedication or commitment? Are we as bold as we used to be? Our second response has been to reconsider our methodology. Is this booklet out-of-date? Are we behind the times? Should we expand this, enlarge this, reprint it in four-color, or make it available on CD-ROM? The option we rarely consider—perhaps because it sounds unspiritual—is that times have changed. Perhaps our nation has entered a different phase of the harvest cycle. Perhaps our culture’s fields are not as ripe as they used to be.

In John 4, Jesus uttered His famous words, "I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest" (v. 35 NIV). Christians have often assumed that Jesus was stating a timeless spiritual principle: Now that the Messiah has come, a new era has begun. The fields will always be white for harvest. Is that what Jesus was saying? If so, He picked a strange metaphor. In actual farming, a time of harvest is followed by a time of rest, followed by a time of sowing, and the process begins all over again. In farming, no field is always ripe for harvest Was Jesus telling us that His fields were different, in that they were always ripe? Or was He tellling His disciples something about the day in which they lived? "But when the fullness of the time came," Galatians tells us, "God sent forth His Son…" (4:4). Much has been written about the "fullness of the time" and why the Messiah came when He did. Could it be that a part of the "fullness of the time" was that the fields of Jesus’ time had been throroughly sown and were now abundantly—perhaps uniquely—ripe for harvest? (pp. 102-03)

Let me state my concern plainly. Because we enjoyed such evangelistic success in the sixties, we told ourselves that the American fields would always be white for harvest. Because harvesting was so effective, we told ourselves that harvesting was the only technique we would ever need. If the fields are eternally ripe, we only need to harvest. Why bother with anything else?

So we teach each new generation of Christians how to harvest—only how to harvest—and we assure them that the fields around them are ripe and ready for the picking, if only they will have the faith and the boldness to go. Our books and our training videos are loaded with illustrations that show how easy it is and how open people are to hearing the gospel. But when they go, they sometimes have a rude awakening. The fields around them do not always seem ripe. People are not as eager and open as they expected—sometimes they’re even hostile. And so, because harvesting is all they know how to do, they begin to withdraw from the fields. (p. 105)

10 comments:

Michael Stover said...

David;

I have recently been thinking and praying along similar lines and was astounded to read your post today. I especially enjoyed the excerpts from the books you mentioned and plan to acquire these books and read them as soon as possible. Our church is always looking to go outside the box and try new ways of reaching people, but sadly, most of our efforts can be categorized as 'harvest-type' efforts. We focus little on the patient work of sowing and keeping. Thanks for this excellent article. Now, do you have any suggested solutions? I plan to post an excerpt of this on my blog as well.

blampp@juno.com said...

David,
Great Post! I personally think that your reasoning can be used in varied geographic applications..... for instance you appear to reference National regions (examples; Europe, USA, England, et. al.), but I believe that reasoning is applicable to the variety of culture's even within a country! Consider the differing reponses regionally within the US?
Plus, it has always frustrated me that Translators fail to properly acknowledge the participals in both "Commissions" (Mark 16:15f and Matthew 28:19f) The verbs are "to proclaim" (to all the world) and "make disciples" (long term learning followers) and the participals imply "making, marking, maturing and mentoring") all while we "are going"!
Why the translators insist on making "Go" a verb when its ("Going")a participal as with "baptizing", "teaching"and is appropriately indicated with "ing" words in English! There obviously must be "soil" or "soul" preparation as the Holy Spirit "woo's" and convicts! H.H. Hobbs does a good job in his commentary on the Gospels in exegeting these passages! I appreciated the books you referenced as well! Blessings..... and continue to ". . . make Disciples . . ." (Matt.28:19)

Ken Sorrell said...

David,

Once again a very thought provoking post. I too have wondered about the cycle of sowing, watering, and harvesting. However, although I agree with your basic premise, here are some questions that still nag at me.

1. If we sow and if we water, are we guaranteed a harvest? Galatians 6:9 says that we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. And 1 Corinthians tell us that Paul sowed, Apollos watered, but "God" gives the increase.

2. Why is it that Jesus never taught His disciples to pray for the lost? He always told them to pray for more workers, more harvesters. Along the same lines, Jesus never taught His disciiples to pray for sowers or "waterboys and girls". Why is this?

I am unable to express a clear argument to your position of the possibility that the passage in John 4 was for that time and not timeless, but I'm just not ready to go there yet. Here's the best reponse I have at the moment.

How do you catergorize where in the cycle "X" people are? Are entire people groups in the sowing part of the cycle or just individuals in that people group? I do not know, just asking.

I really do not want to offend anyone at this point and want to take care in how I express this. But I do believe that in the late 60s and early 70's there was a shift in how we presented the Gospel and we cannot diminish the impact of this change. It was during this time that we decided to "soften" the presentation and to that end I believe we watered down the true Gospel message.

The 4 Spiritual Laws which you reference in your post was one of the first moves in this direction. Even Bill Bright, in his book "Come Help Us Change The World" acknowledged that changing the first law to, "God loves you and has a wonder plan for your life", may or may not have been a wise decision and was in fact a last minute decision. I do not believe he intended to water down the Gospel by the way. But it does seem that during this time there was a change.

We in our region have spent the last two years looking at evangelism, all parts including sowing and watering, as well as studying Scripture. When I look at the evangelism practices of Christ, He always started with the sinful nature of the person he was speaking with. Modern day evangelism seems to have left this position and opted for other alternatives.

Anyway, great post and thanks for challenging my thinking again. I hope you will stay on this topic for a couple of posts. It is a critical discussion for us today.

mr. t said...

You make an interesting observation. I tend to agree with Ken S. I believe there are individuals in every people group ready to be harvested at any given time. Jesus referred to the man of peace or the worthy household. Once His disciples discovered that person, they were to stay with the mop and not go house to house. It was through the mop that the gospel would spread in their oikos and larger community. We see this happen in our part of the world, even in hard resistant places. God is already at work before we arrive and if we follow Him, we enjoy the privilege of being in on the harvest.

David Rogers said...

Everyone,

Thanks for your helpful comments. I am thinking that instead of trying to answer the points you bring up one by one here, I will take them into consideration as I develop this a little further in future posts...

Dale Huckabay said...

What an interesting discussion! I think we need to preach the gospel and trust God to convict and save. I know there is much struggle with how to package the gospel for different cultures and times, but I don’t think God is withholding His power until we get our presentation just right for a particular group or for those with a certain worldview. God saves individuals rather than groups and He knows exactly how each person is completely unique and so how best to approach that person. Maybe we are too focused on our process and not focused enough on waiting for God to reveal Himself as the great harvester of souls. Preparing equals prayer. Sowing equals preaching (witnessing). Harvesting equals what God does.
I do believe we could profit greatly by examining our motives in evangelizing. I think that is where we are hindering God more than in any other way. As a pastor, I am very aware of my desire for the church to grow and I am very aware of some impure motives in that desire. Even though aware I still struggle constantly with all the ways my self-image is tied up with the growth of the church in numbers as well as how I think others perceive me. Even in the very small church I pastor it is a snare!
Thanks

GuyMuse said...

So we teach each new generation of Christians how to harvest—only how to harvest..."

While we are in a harvest field where we serve, we still teach our people that in each place that God leads us, it will be to either...

1) plant the seed, 2) water what someone else has already planted, or 3) harvest what others before us have planted and watered.

We never know for sure which of these three etapas the Lord is placing us. What is important is to not become discouraged just because it doesn't turn out to be the harvest phase we were hoping it would be.

Rick Hedger said...

Hello David, this is my first time to comment on your blog. I was made aware of it during the recent preparation for the convention.

I really liked what you had to say on this one. The comments have been very helpful as well. I would like to give some insight into a few passages that have helped me to understan this process a little more.

The Galatian 6:9 passage does state that we are not to give up too soon. For we will reap a harvest "at the proper time" or "in due season" if we do not give up.

Psalm 1 gives some insight that the one who meditates in God's law day and night will be like a tree planted by streams of living water that brings forth its fruit "in season".

The John 4 passage does say that "one sowes and another reaps". There must be account given to spiritual giftedness as the Body functions as God intends.

There is the field, there is the giftedness and there is the proper season. All must be considered.

Thank you for your faithfullness to the calling on your life.

wemissy said...

thanks for the thoughtful writings. Perhaps we could add to the requirements for baptist churches: "sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide... and only our own traditions." I also wonder about the vague concept of a "New Testament Church." Has this concept been nailed down to a specific local assembly at a particular point in time? As I read biblical and extra-biblical sources, I don't see much evidence of a perfect church, in Jerusalem or any where else. Keep up the thinking, please.

A fan, trudging through the post-modern/post-Islamic/Catholic/Calvinistic/Charismatic/Pagan landscapes.
P.S.: I just read Gene Edwards' "RevolutionaryEarlyChurch" article in which he describes the glorious chaos of the earliest days, which seems a bit more realistic than the romantic notions of early church described in Shaping of Things to come." http://lesbar.down-to-earth.de/media/Revolution.pdf.

David Rogers said...

wemissy,

Thanks for your comment. I am trying to make sure I understand what you are saying.

First off, I assume from your "display name" you are someone working with "our company" in this same part of the world.

Next, I am not quite sure when you talk about "New Testament Church" and "requirements for baptist churches" if you are addressing something in this post, or rather something from a previous post or posts. Because, as far as I can tell, I wasn't really addressing those issues one way or another here, though I definitely do so in other places.

Also, when you say "keep up the thinking", are you meaning to say you like the conclusions I am drawing, or rather that you feel I still have a ways to go in reaching the right conclusions? I don't want to be overly sensitive, just want to understand better where you are coming from, in order to give whatever questions you are asking or points you are making a worthy response.

Finally, I think sometime in the past I may have read something or another by Gene Edwards, but definitely not recently. Are you suggesting his ideas as a model worthy of imitation for us here in W.E.?