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Thoughts on Harvesting

By Dan, long-term RMM worker

What can we learn from church movements around the world? Can their experiences teach us to be more effective participants in the world-wide movement of Christ?

Nicaragua: An Exponential Harvest

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9: 37-38 NRSV).

The challenge for the church around the world – according to Jesus’ words – is not a lack of harvest, but rather a lack of harvesters. Therefore, the church is called to find more harvesters to reap the already-ripe harvest. One lesson from the churches growing exponentially around the world is that the vast majority of needed workers come from the harvest itself. I first saw this principle at work in the rural churches in the villages of Nicaragua.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the harvesters in rural villages of central Nicaragua came from a couple of churches started in 1977. As they saw people in their own village come to faith in Jesus and the lives of families being transformed by the gospel message and the power of Christ, they longed for the people of neighboring villages to experience the same transformation. So they began to go once a week, one or two hour’s walk away (there were no roads), on their own time, and without pay to share the gospel with the people of these neighboring villages. Churches began from these efforts, and the leaders for these churches came from among the villagers themselves. In addition, some of these churches sent leaders to other villages until the entire region was filled with churches that continue to meet the spiritual needs of the villages today. All of these church leaders came from the churches themselves – none came from outside. All of the churches met their needs through the use of local resources and developed their communal lives in Christ in ways that were comfortable to the people of the villages themselves. Such is the case of churches around the world, especially if the new believers are relatively isolated from external resources.

In 1978, there was a drought in this region – forcing some of these subsistence farmers to travel to the eastern part of the country which received more rain. As they went to the land of some acquaintances, they found people there who were open to the gospel message. People came to the Lord and churches formed there too. And people from these churches started other churches in neighboring towns and across the countryside.

In 1982, war came to these eastern communities, forcing the people to flee their farms. Some fled into the jungle area, and others fled back to the villages in Central Nicaragua from where they had originally come. As they fled, they continued to share the gospel, so that new churches were started in both regions. Eventually, families from the eastern jungle area were forced to flee Nicaragua to Costa Rica. There too, they started churches in refugee camps and resettlement projects. They had learned the secret of developing churches without depending on outside resources. Led by those coming to faith, they adapted to the church’s lifestyle. The good news they had responded to continued to be good news as they shared it with others – it continued to grow in whatever situation it encountered.

From 1990 to the present, I have seen similar church growth from countries in South and Southeast Asia and could give examples of how this is happening today.

What were the principles that led to this exponential growth of churches?

  • As people come to believe, they are called to go to those around them who are hungry for the gospel message – building friendships with them, and sharing a gospel message that speaks to their hearts and specific needs.
  • The basic gospel message is relatively simple, how it can be shared is flexible, and it does not require extended study for a new believer to be equipped to share it. In this way, many are equipped to share the message, much as we read about in Acts 8:4 – “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.”
  • Anyone in the church can be called to extend the church to new horizons. Harvesters are not professionals, but people who are bursting with a message of good news. Likewise, the people called to lead the emerging churches (because these are composed of new believers) can come from among the new believers themselves. In this way, the gospel message leads to multiplying churches in any and every situation.
  • The churches that emerge from this model develop themselves in ways that are suitable to the people that compose them. They are led from the beginning by insiders, who can develop in their walk with Christ through appropriate discipleship methods, sometimes with the assistance of outsiders who have a vision of walking with developing local leadership.
Are these principles true only for poor villagers of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, or are they true as well for people in the towns and cities of United States? Could we think of multiplying churches in the U.S. in this way?

Opportunities for the U.S.

It is my observation that existing churches in the U.S. tend to be complex and lack the flexibility to multiply easily. We have the idea that churches can only be adequately led by people who have had extensive training to do so. And because most of these methods of training are time consuming and expensive, the number of harvesters from existing churches is limited – or so we think. This is an observation, not a criticism.

The church in the U.S. has been planting new fellowships in traditional ways for a long time and should continue to do this in an effort to reach those open to this method. However, I believe some non-traditional approaches could be helpful to reach those in our country who are not easily reached by traditional churches. Are our churches effectively reaching the immigrants to our cities, or the many people who have closed their hearts to “the church,” or the many marginalized people in our society? Or are we called to think in different ways about how to reach the people who live among us not knowing Jesus as Savior and Lord?

The following are some practical suggestions:

Spend more time with not-yet-Christians in our social circles

Many of us work or study with people from other people groups who do not intend to be a part of any existing church. We can begin by praying that God will open the heart of those people and that we will recognize opportunities to plant gospel seeds. As interest increases, we can ask God to create situations that lead them to talk about Jesus or talk over passages of Scripture. Rather than extract them from their settings to attend “our church,” they could be nurtured to share the gospel message in their own family or friend circles.

When such people respond to the gospel, why not add them to our church membership? This might be appropriate in some cases. However if we do that, we have only added a member. But if they are encouraged to reach out to their own people, we have gained a harvester. In this way, the gospel can penetrate new frontiers. Churches started this way would be led and developed by the people from those social circles themselves, with appropriate assistance from you and/or others. Is this what Jesus intended when he sent the former demon possessed man back to his own people? (Luke 8: 38-39)

Spend more time with not-yet-Christians outside our social circles

After praying for God’s guidance to lead us to them, we discover those whom God is calling us to spend significant time with. We could take the time to really get to know them; find ways to meet them on their turfs, at their social places, or in their homes and neighborhoods. God might be calling some of us to live among them so as to truly become a part of them. As we get to know them, we pray that God will lead us to some among them who may be especially open to the good news of Jesus.

This may be uncomfortable. Often our tendency is to develop a strategy to attempt to reach out while remaining in our comfortable churches. We think we can make our church comfortable to them and wonder why they don’t come join us in our church. But to truly go out and live among them requires leaving our comfortable churches to spend significant time among those who need Jesus. This is the kind of sacrifice we expect of overseas workers, but we may not think it is necessary to reach the unreached among us. But I am convinced that to reach the lost, we need to sacrifice the routine of our churches to experience Christ in settings uncomfortable to us at first, but comfortable to the people we are called to reach. Who among us is willing to make this sacrifice?

Churches grown on their soil, not ours

This is a principle obvious to U.S. workers going overseas to share the good news, but I believe it is also applicable here. One or several of us could go among them, so the church which emerges will be truly their church. It is led by them, it looks like them, and it feels like home to them.

It is true that we know more of the Bible message than those we are trying to reach, but they know much more about how to reach their own people with a simple gospel message. It is an error to think we can be more effective than them just because we know more about the faith than they do. Once someone from another culture or people comes to faith, he or she has special insight in how to reach others of similar backgrounds. Our task is to find these first believers (they are always there), and once they come to faith, encourage them to share the good news (as they understand and articulate it) with their family, friends, and neighbors. We walk with these new believers as they discover more of Christ and how he is relevant to their own people and share this good news with them. We never become leaders for them. Rather we walk with them as they grow in leadership of their own people.

Christ is the center of what happens, not our church

As we go to live among them (John 1:14), they will hear the good news in a special way, because Jesus becomes special to them as they discover him at work among them – opening their eyes to the truth and an alternative way of living. Prayer for God to open their eyes is a key part of any such effort.

As we interact with them, Jesus reaches out to them in ways we cannot anticipate or orchestrate. Simple and flexible interaction is key. Are there ways of meeting them where their felt needs are met through the grace of Christ? We should re-read the gospels to get ideas of how Jesus entered the lives of people and ask God to how to do the same today – using our creativity to try different approaches.

Call our children to learn missions together with us

It is my understanding that American Christian families are often hesitant to take their children to the places needed to really do outreach to those who don’t know Jesus – often in our cities. But if God calls parents, doesn’t he also call the children of these parents? Is God really calling us to raise our children in sheltered settings among church people we know rather than to walk with our children and discover as a family what it means to be faithful to God’s calling? This sacrifice could lead to many families who walk in darkness to find the light of Christ through our testimony. I have seen the rich diversity of experience and depth of faith that comes from mission families walking in obedience in cross-cultural settings.

Or is God really only calling singles or empty nesters into mission?

Discern who God is calling us to

Our cities are filled with immigrants who have come here in search of opportunity and a better life. While it becomes increasingly difficult to get long-term visas to live in other countries, God has brought these people to our cities. This is an opportunity and a challenge to the church in the U.S. today. Those who come are often of other faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animistic peoples, and secular people professing no religion or faith.

Besides this, there are many born here in America who are alienated from the existing church. Poor and marginalized people, people in crisis, and those outside their comfort zones are often more open to the gospel message than those who are satisfied with life as it is.

Discern who God is calling to go out

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3 NRSV).

I believe this is an effective model for calling out more workers into the harvest. Whereas God continues to call people individually to go, I believe the church needs to take more seriously the task of finding workers through prayer and then sending them cross-culturally.

I am aware that many will find these suggestions unfamiliar and may be hesitant to try these methods, but I do believe these are excellent ways to increase the number of harvesters in the Kingdom. If someone is doing or wants to attempt something mentioned here, please talk about it. Networking and learning from each other can be an excellent way of furthering the cause of the Kingdom in the challenging settings in which we live. To any who are waiting to see whether these ideas might be effective or not, please support those who are trying this method by your prayers and words of encouragement. Send me your comments by emailing mosaic@rmmoffice.org.