Stop praying for the harvest

Why we are to pray for more and better reapers, rather than for a greater harvest

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Our Lord never instructed us to pray for the harvest; instead He instructed us to pray for the reapers of the harvest. He asks us to make it a matter of prayer that the Lord of the harvest will send forth reapers. The challenge, then, from Jesus' viewpoint does not lie in a shortage of harvestable grain, but a shortage of workers to help gather in that grain.

In the first three quarters of 2004 the Adventist Church's Year of World Evangelism, over one million baptisms have flooded the membership rolls almost 3,000 new believers a day! It's likely that by December 31, this year will mark the greatest one-year baptismal total in the history of our denomination.

Even as we rejoice in these accessions, we ought also to repent for the shortage of workers to complete the discipleship task. Today, despite our best efforts to recruit the names of newly interested individuals, or even to baptize new believers through evangelism, we face the awesome challenge of integrating those we baptize into discipled believers who, themselves, will become part of the harvest labor force. Rather than praying for greater quantities of converts, we ought to pray for a greater quantity and quality of harvesters.

Pray for reapers who'll care for the harvest

"There was a great deal of work to be done, and a great deal of good likely to be done, but there wanted hands to do it. ... They that were ill taught were desirous to be better taught; people's expectations were raised, and there was such a moving of affections, as promised well. . . . Note, It is a blessed thing, to see people in love with good preaching. The valleys are then covered over with corn, and there are hopes it may be well gathered in. That is a gale of opportunity that calls for a double care and diligence in the improvement of it; a harvest-day should be a busy day. It was a pity when it was so that the laborers should be so few; that the corn should shed and spoil, and rot upon the ground for want of reapers; loiterers many, but laborers very few."1

Harvesting must consist of more than "mowing down" the grain; laborers also must preserve it in barns. Left untended, even though reaped, the good grain will rot if it's neglected or abandoned. For example, too often thousands of new accessions are added to the church without as much as a place for them to worship, a pastor or elder to watch over them, or even a song book to aid their worship.

One union president told me of a short-term effort that produced mass baptisms of thousands for whom they had neither names nor addresses. His members feared their already too-crowded facilities would be over whelmed, not to mention that from these new converts no tithe or offerings would come in.

If numbers explode by the thousands and giving does not increase in proportion, such efforts are not true evangelism, but exploitation. If we are more focused on total accessions than integrated discipleship, the numbers we grab will not result in fruit for the kingdom. Massive additions to the church without commensurate efforts to preserve the fruit will result in massive apostasy of the newly converted, not to speak of members who might hold an antagonism against public evangelism. We can easily destroy the very process we desire to establish.

Sometimes glowing reports of evangelistic efforts fail to tell of abandoned and disillusioned new converts who end up as enemies of the faith they had embraced. If we lack sufficient time or resources to place the newly baptized in a church facility and provide them trained spiritual leaders either pastors or lay leadership to develop them into functioning disciples, we should not junket to distant places, but rather stay home and pray for genuine reapers.

Pray for the keepers

The task is not complete once people are baptized. Much activity even earnest evangelistic activity without preservation of the harvest, leaves the results in worse condition than if they had never been contacted. "To labor at considerable expense to bring souls into the truth and then leave them to fashion their own experience according to false ideas they have received and woven into their religious experience, would leave that work far worse than if the truth had never been brought to them. To leave the work incomplete and to ravel out is worse than to wait until there are plans well devised to take care of those who do come into the faith."2

Note the conundrum. Individuals brought to conversion without adequate follow-through end up worse than if they had never been contacted. Mass actions by people may result from Holy Spirit-inspired movements, as at Pentecost, or may result from the mob spirit of terrorists who eagerly consume and leave a track of destruction in their wake.

Activity alone is not the hallmark of progress. Hurricanes produce tremendous activity, but have tragic consequences. "God would be better pleased to have six truly converted to the truth as the result of their labors, than to have sixty make a nominal profession, and yet not be thoroughly converted."3

Incomplete work curses rather than blesses both the new believers and the church. Jesus employed some challenging analogies to describe the effects of an incomplete reformation good seed which birds snatch away, or which weeds choke out and into whose now empty space unclean spirits return sevenfold; a swept house with the last state worse than the first.

Pastors and local church elders are the keepers. We need to instruct, resource, and hold accountable these leaders to function as responsible "keepers." Their job is not complete when an individual is baptized, but only when those who are baptized are brought to responsible discipleship.

"Souls are precious in the sight of God; educate them, teach them, as they embrace the truth, how to bear responsibilities. He who sees the end from the beginning, who can make the seeds sown wholly fruitful, will be with you in your efforts."4

Pray to preserve more of the crop

A Dakota wheat farmer once demonstrated that the task of reaping is not limited to a massive machine moving through the fields to mow down the grain. Mowing also must be "combined" with collecting, baling, storing, and preserving or the efforts are wasted.

Ellen White uses the same language to describe the plowshare of truth, planting, reaping, and preserving. "Too often the work is left in an unfinished state, and in many such cases it amounts to nothing. Some times, after a company of people has accepted the truth, the minister thinks that he must immediately go to a new field; and sometimes, with out proper investigation, he is authorized to go. This is wrong; he should finish the work begun; for in leaving it incomplete, more harm than good is done. No field is so unpromising as one that has been cultivated just enough to give the weeds a more luxuriant growth. ... A minister might better not engage in the work unless he can bind it off thoroughly."5

Discipleship is a process, not an event. The goal of the Great Com mission is not numbers baptized, but numbers discipled. Baptism is a vital, essential step and even a climactic point in the conversion process, but it cannot be "the event" that measures a completed work. Notice the command of Jesus: "In my authority go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all things."

Too often we have failed to under stand the difference between the event of accession onto the member ship rolls of the church and the process of assimilation into the body of believers. As Peter Wagner so aptly declares to his church growth classes, "Any scheme which separates evangelism and follow-up has built into itself the cause of its own failure."6

Churches are all too often raised up and then left to crash and burn, all the while new fields are being entered. "While we should be ever ready to follow the opening providences of God, we should lay no larger plans, occupy no more ground in branching out than there is help and means to bind off the work well and keep up and increase the interest already started."7

This spiritual formation of new believers is not easy work. Of course, there is always adequate reason behind the temptation to rush off and start new work, rather than to stay by the original task and complete the work of developing the new converts into productive disciples. Nurture of newborn believers is challenging, difficult, and can be distasteful work; it requires constant and extended effort. It is far more exciting to make babies than to change diapers.

"After individuals have been converted to the truth, they need to be looked after. The zeal of many ministers seems to fail as soon as a measure of success attends their efforts. They do not realize that these newly converted ones need nursing watchful attention, help, and encouragement. These should not be left alone, a prey to Satan's most powerful temptations; they need to be educated in regard to their duties, to be kindly dealt with, to be led along, and to be visited and prayed with. . . . No wonder that some become discouraged, linger by the way, and are left for wolves to devour. Satan is upon the track of all. He sends his agents forth to gather back to his ranks the souls he has lost. There should be more fathers and mothers to take these babes in the truth to their hearts, and to encourage them and pray for them, that their faith be not confused."8

Pray and care for God's new "children"

Neglect or rejection of new believers is neglect or rejection of the Savior Himself. Jesus describes new converts as "newborns of the water and the Spirit" and "little ones" who must receive nurturing care. Those to whom He refers are little ones who believe in Me "those who have not [yet] gained an experience in following Him, those who need to be led like children, as it were, in seeking the things of the kingdom of heaven."9

It is basic to the role of Spiritual leaders to patiently help new converts. "Those who have newly come to the faith should be patiently and tenderly dealt with, and it is the duty of the older members of the church to devise ways and means to provide help and sympathy and instruction. . . . The church has a special responsibility laid upon her to attend to these souls who have followed the first rays of light they have received; and if the members of the church neglect this duty, they will be unfaithful to the trust that God has given them."10

When you petition the divine Master of the Harvest to send forth reapers, remember "the need is always greater than the supply of workers. In praying for laborers, we must be willing to go ourselves, obviously."11

This passage (Matt. 9:37, 38) constitutes one of the great missionary passages of the New Testament. "Jesus pictures the world as a great spiritual harvest in need of laborers to gather it into the fold. He urges the disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth the workers to gather it.... As so often occurs, those who prayed were themselves sent."12

Everyone who loves Christ and the souls He died for should show this love by their earnest prayers to God (especially when the harvest is plenteous) that He would send forth more skillful, faithful, wise, and industrious laborers into His harvest.

"Bind off your work thoroughly. Leave no dropped stitches for some one else to pick up. Do not disappoint Christ. Determine that you will succeed, and in the strength of Christ you may give full proof of your ministry."13

1 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 1996 ed. (Peabody, Mont.: Hendrickson, 1991); Matt. 9:37, 38.

2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn. 1946), 84, 85.

3 Ibid., 320.

4 Ibid., 335.

5 Ibid., 332.

6 C. Peter Wagner, personal class notes, Church Growth I, Fuller Theological Seminary, March 1986.

7 White, 323.

8 Ibid., 351, 352.

9 Ibid., 341.

10 Ibid., 351.

11 W. MacDonald and A. Farstad, Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. 1997 ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995); Matt. 9:37, 38.

12 K/V Bible Commentary, 1997 ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994); Matt. 9:37, 38.

13 White, 325, 326.


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

December 2004

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