Tim Downs has been on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1979. He founded the Communication Center, a communication training and consulting ministry of Campus Crusade for seventeen years. He has been a frequent speaker at FamilyLife Marriage and Parenting conferences since 1985. He is the author of Finding Common Ground: How to Communicate with Those Outside the Christian Community--While We Still Can, published by Moody Press in 1999. Tim and his wife Joy live with their children in Cary, North Carolina.
The fourth chapter of the Gospel of John contains the well-known encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. The woman hurried into the city of Sychar to tell everyone about "a man who told me all the things that I have done." As curious men poured from the city to investigate this phenomenon firsthand, Jesus turned His attention to His disciples.
The Master Farmer was about to turn the work of harvesting over to His laborers--ignorant, ungrateful laborers. The disciples were like farmhands not hired until the beginning of the harvest season. They had missed the backbreaking labor of the spring plowing and seeding. They could enjoy the harvest, but they could never fully appreciate it until they understood the contribution of those who had come before them. So the Farmer spoke to the farmhands. "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."
Welcome to the harvest, Jesus said. Have a good time, but don't get cocky. Remember that this is not your harvest! You know the old saying, "One sows and another reaps." You know what it feels like to be the sower and to see someone else reap the benefit of all your labors. Well this time you're the reaper, and you're about to reap what generations before you tirelessly and thanklessly sowed. Without them, there would be no harvest. Don't forget it!
Jesus told His disciples at Sychar that they would only be able to enjoy the glory of the harvest because countless others in generations past were willing to do "the hard work." And what is this crucial "hard work" to which Jesus referred?
Harvesting is a concise, direct presentation of the gospel and an attempt to move a person to a point of decision about Christ in a relatively short period of time. Harvesting is what we picture when we think of traditional evangelism, and most evangelism programs and training workshops teach a harvesting model. When Jesus sent out His disciples into the mission fields, He made it clear that he was sending them out to harvest.
He also made it clear that He was sending them to harvest where others had sown, and He implied that the disciples' success would be the result of a team effort. Sowing is the long, slow, behind-the-scenes process of preparing an individual, or an entire culture, to be able to hear and believe the gospel. The sower works to create an atmosphere--a soil, if you will-that is conducive to the growth of the gospel. If the sower does his work well--what Jesus referred to as "the hard work"then the harvester may find an abundant harvest awaiting Him. If the sower doesn't do his job, the harvester may find himself casting his pearls before swine.
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 50's and 60's, 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 "world view," 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.
Jesus told us that ministry is like sowing seed on different kinds of soil. There is thin soil, rocky soil, soil choked with thorns, and sometimes good soil as well. Each human life is a type of soil, with its own level of fertility to the seed of the gospel. "Good soil" is a personal worldview that makes acceptance of the gospel possible: a belief in the possible existence of a God, a belief in historical objectivity, a belief in moral absolutes, a belief in the possibility of miracles, and so on. Each of these beliefs is a kind of "nutrient" that makes the soil arable. Without each of them, belief in the gospel is virtually impossible.
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 parachurch 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, challenged our workers to greater commitment and longer hours.
Maybe it's time to analyze the soil. Maybe it's time to sow.
Each nation as a whole has its own soil, created slowly over a period of years--perhaps generations. This is the domain of the sower, a world of millions of daily communications and interactions between people that help to create an environment where the gospel will either flourish or flounder. There is a constant battle going on for the soil of the culture, a battle that is rarely recognized as such because it takes place at an evolutionary pace. It is a grand conflict, the eternal struggle, the ultimate battle--but strangely, it has become the evangelical world's Vietnam. Instead of being recognized as the crucial ministry that it is, sowing has become an unofficial war waged by unsupported, underequipped personnel who return from daily battle unnoticed, unheralded, unworthy of the recognition due those who serve in True Ministry.
In our zealousness for the harvest, we have forgotten--we have deliberately devalued--the role of those who sow in our generation. And why not? After all, what kind of fool would continue to sow when the harvest has arrived? Because of the evangelistic success of the last forty years, we have concluded that we have entered a state of perpetual harvest--the Last Harvest--and that the fields of our society will be forever white. In our enthusiasm we have declared harvesting to be our exclusive domain, forgetting that we have reaped the benefits of someone else's labor--the labor of sowers-and that we are also responsible to sow, or the next generation of Christians will have nothing to reap.
This is a difficult time to be a confessing Christian--and in our increasingly diverse and "tolerant" society, it's going to become much more difficult. Our nation's "soil" has been altered by generations of secular academics, artists, writers and entertainers who slowly changed the nature of the ground on which we stand. They have sown the cultural wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind.
What can we do? Those of us in harvesting positions--church and parachurch workers--must rethink our concept of "true ministry." We have come to believe that there are only two kinds of Christians: the harvesters and the disobedient. We must begin to teach, with great urgency, that every Christian everywhere is a laborer. We must tell them that every laborer should learn to reap, and that God will call some to exclusively exercise this role--but everyone can learn to sow right now, right where they are.
In short, we must revalue the role of the sower. We must encourage a new generation of Christian sowers that their work matters to God, that we are true partners in ministry, and that the fate of future harvests depends on their efforts. Instead of endlessly exhorting them to join us in our role of harvesting, we must equip them to fulfill their role, a role that God has given them, so that one day the sower and the harvester can be glad together.
At the turn of the new millennium, there seems to be a heightened sense among all Christians that this is a crucial point in human history. Some see an age coming to an end as our civilization crumbles around us--we have a brief opportunity left to get in any last words. Others see a new and golden age upon us as technology creates opportunities for ministry that have never existed before--we have a brief opportunity to take advantage of the possibilities. In each case, there is a shared sense of urgency--and a resulting focus on the immediate. I believe this sense of urgency, this focus on the time immediately before us, is leading Christians to practice a "scorched earth" policy in communicating with the unbelieving world. This is seen as a time to reap, not to sow; a time to proclaim, not to persuade.
This attitude emerges clearly when you consider our language and imagery regarding the "harvest." Jesus told us to beseech God to send out workers into His harvest. But what kind of a harvest is it? Judging by virtually every Christian book cover, poster and church bulletin cover in existence, it's a harvest of grain. Vast fields of wheat have turned golden all at once, ready for the harvester's sickle.
In a wheat harvest, the grain is harvested in a short period of time. There is a small window of opportunity before weather or blight destroys the crop where it stands. Each harvester works from the beginning of the harvest to the end, and when he is finished the harvest is done. The reaper passes through the fields, the sheaves are bundled, the fields are cleared. A wheat harvest is a thorough, final, consummate event.
But Jesus also spoke of people as though they were a harvest of fruit. A fruit harvest is a very different kind of harvest--a patient, gradual, ongoing process. Though there is a harvest season, the fruit harvest takes place over a much longer period of time. It's no accident that a fruit grower is sometimes known as a "vinedresser." He can't simply walk out into the vineyard with his sickle and mow everything down. The vinedresser always enters the vineyard prepared to do a variety of jobs. He looks first for ripe fruit; where he finds none, he "dresses" the vine. He pulls a weed, fertilizes, cultivates, ties up a sagging branch. Tomorrow, a different worker may come behind him. She may find a thick, hardy vine where he tied up a feeble twig. She may find ripe fruit where he found none! No matter. At the harvest celebration, the sower and the reaper will be glad together.
I believe it's crucial for Christians to ask themselves, "What kind of a harvest do I believe this to be?" The majority of evangelicals today seem to be thinking and acting as though this is certainly a wheat harvest--and the Last Harvest at that. Time is short, we have a brief window of opportunity, we must give everyone one last opportunity to hear. Our preferred style of communication is confrontational proclamation, not gradual persuasion. We reap, but we have no time--or reason--to sow. There is no future harvest and there are no workers to come after us. When we are finished, we reason, the harvest is done.
If we're not careful, it will be.
Let me state my concern plainly. Because we enjoyed such evangelistic success in the 60's, we told ourselves that the American fields would always be white for harvest. Because harvesting was so effective--a concise, direct presentation of the gospel and an attempt to move a person to a point of decision about Christ in a single sitting--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. 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.
Suppose your pastor preaches on the need for every Christian to share his faith, and to reach out to his neighbors right where he lives. You return home, duly convicted and motivated to share your faith. But where do you begin? You consider the families around you. The family to your left is Hindu. The woman to your right is a radical feminist, with a placard by the front door that reads, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." The man across the street has a car with a bumper sticker on the back: a fish that contains the name "Darwin" is consuming a little fish with a cross inside. Down the street lives a different sort of couple--a married couple with 1.2 children, college-educated and conservative in their values.
With whom do you think you'll attempt to share your faith? Much more importantly: what will you say to everyone else?
The problem is not simply that we fear talking with people who are so unlike us. The problem is what we think of when we think of sharing our faith. Because we think exclusively in terms of harvesting, the thought process that goes through our minds is, "I can't harvest with a Hindu, or a radical feminist, or an ardent evolutionist, so I guess I'll try to harvest with the Young Republicans." The tragic result is that we attempt to share the faith with those we think may be closest to it, and say nothing to everyone else.
I recently heard a minister say, "We don't have time to try to make people interested in spiritual things. We need to find the people who are already interested and talk to them." An African-American friend of mine quipped, "It's a funny thing. To white people, African-Americans never look interested."
Can you see the change that's taken place? Evangelism used to be a process of taking the gospel into untouched places and to unreached people. Today, because we insist on harvesting alone, and because harvesting is getting harder to do, we are saying nothing at all to more and more people. We are withdrawing from the resistant and stubborn people who might need more time and more convincing--the vast majority of Americans. We spend our time instead with a rapidly shrinking minority, the people who are "ready to listen"people like us. This allows the Hindu, the radical feminist and the evolutionist to go their separate ways with no communication whatsoever from the Christian next door. As this continues to happen on a larger and larger scale, our country begins to polarize into two distinct spheres: the Christian and the definitely non-Christian.
That is exactly the situation we have in our society today, and I believe most Christians are unaware of the very great danger this situation presents. A generation ago our nation was similarly divided into the Christian and the non-Christian, but most non-Christians were at least friendly and respectful of the gospel. Today, with less and less communication from the Christian world, true nonbelievers are free to grow more ignorant, more distant and more hostile.
What can we do to help reverse this dangerous polarization? What can we do to reach out not only to those who are like us, but also to those who are most unlike us? We can begin to think in a different way about sharing our faith. When we think of communicating with those around us, we can begin to use this thought process: "I may not be able to harvest yet with the Hindu, the feminist or the evolutionist. But what can I say to each of them? Where can I at least begin? How can I sow?"
Sowing is not some trendy new approach to evangelism; it is an ancient, biblical approach to ministry that was recognized and valued by Jesus Himself--and it is not an option. Sowing is an essential task made necessary by the changing condition of the American fields. To be sure, we can refuse to sow; but just like a farmer who refuses to plant, we will do so to our own peril.
I'm calling for a movement of sowers to commit our lives to the rebuilding of the American culture. Many Christians today, weary of our culture's foolish excesses, are proclaiming that America has had its chance. We have no right to that judgment. We are expected to grant forgiveness to individuals not seven times, but seventy times seven. Can we offer less to our nation as a whole?
I'm calling for Christians to rise to a whole new level of energy, persistence and wisdom: energy to pursue a culture that's rapidly retreating from us; persistence to work diligently while waiting for long-term results; wisdom to know how to speak boldly, yet with gentleness and reverence.
I'm calling for the pursuit of a distant harvest, a long-term commitment to reverse the trends that are stifling the harvest today. I'm calling for a strategic alliance between sowers and harvesters that will give Americans the greatest possible opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. I'm calling for Christians to harvest and sow, as Jesus originally intended, so that one day the sower and the harvester may be glad together.