In January, I spoke in a workshop at Mission ConneXion (www.missionconnexion.com). Every year, this internationally-focused missions conference draws thousands of people and nearly one hundred agencies to Portland, Oregon. The Friday opening Key Note featured Francis Chan. Six thousand people registered; only twenty-five hundred could fit into the venue.
My Saturday workshop, “Maximizing Harvest Potential Among Unreached People,” was one of ninety-six in twenty-four tracks. About fifty people filled the room to learn about harvest and receptivity among unreached people. I love this subject – a personal favorite – and it is now a strategic focus at Globe International. Our reasoning is this:
- Whereas, there are over three billion unreached people alive today, and
- Whereas, they are living in seven thousand distinct people groups, and
- Whereas, Jesus’ declaration “the harvest is plenteous and the laborers are few…” is still true today,
- We are resolved to be good stewards of time and resources and
- We are resolved to think BROADLY AND strategically and
- We are resolved to pray and plan to go FIRST to receptive (i.e. harvest ready) people.
Christian history supports such a strategic response to the Great Commission. In Matthew 10:14 when Jesus deployed his twelve apostles (missions-sent ones) for the first time, he commanded them to leave unresponsive and hostile hearers. “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.”
It is a poignant study of Acts to note that early church leaders followed this behavior. In Acts 13, when Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch-Pisidia, they encountered both receptivity and resistance from two groups, some Jews and some Gentiles. After preaching one Sabbath, some believed. Then the next Sabbath, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” (v. 44). But, then, the resistant Jews stirred up trouble and reviled and contradicted Paul and Barnabas. Paul stood up and declared, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles.” (v. 46). Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the district, at which point they “shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium.” (v. 50).
In modern times, we rarely shake dust off our feet. We might, however, use a different metaphor to express protest. We will “throw in the towel,” or say “I’ve have had enough.” We might “turn our back on the problem” or we’ll just “walk away.”
Unfortunately, Jesus’ directive is under-obeyed in modern missions. I understand the reluctance to obey this command. Career-minded missionaries spend years learning a language and assimilating into a new host culture. If, after all that work, the people aren’t receptive, it is very hard to walk away from the investment. So, many will stay, laboring in a field that is unripe, working with people who are not receptive, and hoping that their seed sowing will one day bear fruit.
- They will tweak their methodology to get better results.
- They will adjust their expectations to ward off discouragement.
- They will build up their prayer life to hammer away at the resistance.
None of these activities are wrong per se. In fact, some people are called to serve in difficult areas. They act in part as watchmen over the harvest, a sort of “crop guard” or “field tester” to monitor the condition of the fields and call others when the harvest ripens.
In his book “Understanding Church Growth,” Missiologist Donald McGavran wrote that we should “hold unreceptive fields lightly.” McGavran was of course speaking to mission leaders. Using Jesus’ agriculture metaphor, he was making a case for the stewardship of human resources. No farmer sends a dozen harvesters into an unripe cornfield. Neither should we.
A preacher or witness sows and then sees a response – either a harvest in the form of conversion, or resistance in the form of indifference or persecution.
What about sowing? Isn’t that also a legitimate activity? The answer is of course “yes!” But, in evangelistic work, scripture indicates that sowing and reaping happen almost together. A preacher or witness sows and then sees a response – either a harvest in the form of conversion, or resistance in the form of indifference or persecution. Jesus’ parable of the sower challenges people to be good soil and respond to the word as it comes to them. The implication for the sower is to always sow seed on good soil – no farmer deliberately sows seed onto the road, or into weeds, thorns and stony ground. Jesus inference that some falls there is simply warning us to NOT BE THAT GUY. Obviously, we can’t see the human heart, so we sow in hopes of a positive “good seed” response, and move on to better soil if we see otherwise.
What about personal evangelism? Isn’t patience and connectivity the point? Yes, of course. But again, scripture emphasizes the “preaching of the Gospel” to “pante ta ethne” over patient one-by-one relational connectivity. A hearer receives, his group is reached quickly, and then believers are formed into church communities. Otherwise, the preacher moves on.
Some will disagree with this position. That’s okay. But the logic is sound. And, there is precedent for it in scripture. Plus, with the challenge of three billion unreached people and insufficient workers to reach them, stewardship requires us to think more broadly and more strategically and then act on our faith by GOING TO THE RIPE FIELDS FIRST!
If you want to learn more, I refer you to my book by the same name. “Go to the Ripe Fields First!” is available in paperback at Globe, or on Amazon Kindle: