Saturday, February 19, 2005

Reaping Where We Have Not Sown

Sitting on the veranda of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, I listened to a visiting pastor from the U.S. talk about his reason for being in Kenya.

“My vision,” he said, “is to work among the harvest fields where God is working and where people quickly respond to the message of Christ.”

The pastor was sincere in his missions approach, and, though I don’t believe it’s missiologically sound, I understand why he and others are attracted to what is called “harvest ministries.”

There are two fundamental reasons why people are engaged in harvest ministries: one, they believe it is biblically based; two, there is a cultural motivation.

Theological Argument - In Matthew 10:14, Jesus instructed His disciples that if they encountered resistance as they went from town-to-town proclaiming the Kingdom message, they were to shake the dust of that city from their feet and move on to another venue. This principle, some would argue, is an indication that God would have us take His message to those who are receptive. In other words, if a people or country is resistant or hostile to the message, move on to people and places where the message will fall on fertile soil.

In support of this biblical interpretation, the primary theme of Henry Blackaby’s book Experiencing God (Broadman 1998) is that the church is to find a place where God is working and join Him. By implication, if God is not working among the Hindu or Muslim people, neither should the church. People with a strong Reformed theology would make the argument that, technically, we should be serving where God is calling His elect; that would preclude us going to those nations that are decidedly anti-Christian.

Market Share - Culturally, harvest ministries are often referred to as the “big bang for the buck” philosophy. Born out of a Western mindset where success is gauged by how large a local church is or how many people are converted, people are drawn to ministries where they can experience instant gratification. If a congregation can be established overseas in a year and become a super church within five years, such quick results make for an attractive ministry. Conversely, ministries among resistant people groups, where the establishing of a church is calculated in decades rather than years, are not seen as blessed of God. With limited mission dollars available, it seems reasonable, so the argument goes, that the church should invest in missions projects where they will receive greater results for each dollar spent.

Market or Missions?

While harvest ministries are appealing, missiologically it is weak, both scripturally and practically, to come to the above conclusions.

From Scripture - The Apostle Paul, the first cross-cultural missionary in the New Testament, stated that his ministry philosophy was to take the Gospel where Christ was not named, as he didn’t want to build on another man’s work (Rom. 15:20). As he traveled throughout Asia declaring the Good News to the Gentiles, he stated a fundamental agricultural principle which is a metaphor for Christian ministry: some plant, others water, but God gives the increase (I Cor. 3:6-9).

If Paul had only gone to the places of harvest, there would never have been a church established in Ephesus, Corinth, or other countless cities he visited as recorded in the book of Acts. The only place that seemed to be suited for a harvest ministry in the days of the early church was Jerusalem. That was short-lived, however, as persecution soon scattered believers to the point that even Jerusalem was no longer “ripe” for a great harvest.

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:19,20) mandate is not limited to those who are receptive. Rather we are admonished to go into all the world, not just those parts that are experiencing harvest. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that the nations are not believers because they have not yet heard; and they have not heard because no one has gone to them to give the Good News message; and the lack of messengers is due to a lack of support in sending people to deliver that Good News message (Rom. 10:13-15).

In our day, the two billion who have not yet heard of Jesus may not have heard because we are sending too many to those who have already heard and not enough to those who are not considered to be in the harvest field category. Statistically, 95% of Christian work is among people and in countries where there is already ministry activity, leaving only five percent of God’s laborers working among one third of the world’s population who are without a Gospel witness.

The Hard Work - Practically speaking, it is impossible to have a harvest without first being engaged in planting. The reason Kenya, Korea, and the Philippines are harvest fields today is that someone took upon themselves the task of planting many years ago. No one knows if there will be a harvest among any particular people group or country; that’s God’s work. One thing, however, is certain: there will never be a harvest until someone digs in the hard soil, breaks the ground, and plants the seed.

While I am not opposed to those who want to be engaged in harvest ministry, my view is that there will always be plenty of laborers to do reaping where they have not sown. Wherever there are results, I am confident that there will be enough volunteers to get their piece of the prize. The real eternal “bang for the buck” goes to those who are willing to break hard ground—those who water the dry soil and wait with expectation for God’s increase.