Most Seventh-day Adventist churches recognize that they should be "soul-winning" churches. They want to see people added to the church through baptism, but either they get distracted from their mission or they aren't sure how to go about winning souls. Here are three steps that will strengthen soul winning in our churches and our lives.
Step 1: Remember "the harvest is plentiful"
The Holy Spirit is working on the hearts of everyone from the day they are born until the day they die (John 3:5-8; 16:8; 2 Peter 3:9). Some are very receptive right at the time our paths cross them. Mark Finley says he believes at least 5 percent of the people in every part of the world are desperately looking for something better.
I live in Wenatchee, Washington, the apple capital of the world. One Sunday morning last January, I went to the air port to catch a flight. The ticket agent told me, "Your flight has been canceled because of fog."
"So how am I going to get to Anchorage, Alaska, to make a presentation this evening?" I asked.
"Your best chance is to drive over the passes to Seattle and catch a flight from there. You have just enough time if you leave soon. Would you like me to change your reservations?"
After weighing my options, I said, "Yes."
A young man and woman standing at the next counter looked at me and asked hopefully, "Are you driving to Seattle?"
"Yes. Would you like a ride?"
We ran out to my car. They threw a suitcase in the back seat and the woman said Goodbye to the man, then hopped in the front seat of my car.
All of a sudden this became a rather different situation from the one I had thought it was. I climbed in behind the wheel, my mind spinning. I thought, Lord, what should I do? Pray out loud was the answer.
"I always like to pray before I go on a trip," I told the woman.
She broke down crying. "You're a Christian," she said. "It's another answer to prayer!"
As we began the long drive, I told the woman that as a Christian married man I don't normally take a trip alone with a woman I am not related to. She told me she was a flight attendant desperate to get home to be with her three children. A year ago her husband of 12 years had left her to move in with a 21-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant with another man's child. When her world had crashed around her, she had called out to God and found that He was helping her through the emotional and financial crises she faced each day.
"Even though it has been hell, I would go through it all over again because of what it has taught the kids and me about trusting God each day. In December I told the kids that we couldn't afford any thing for Christmas. The next week we received $1,000 from an anonymous donor who 'wanted to help a flight attendant in need.'
"I came to Wenatchee this weekend on a free flight to meet a blind date, but then I was worried I would get stuck here. Now here you are, a Christian giving me a ride to Seattle so that I can get home."
As the miles ticked away, she shared other answers to prayer. Later in the conversation she said, "I felt so bad that I would be missing church this Sunday morning. But this has been like church."
All around us are people God is working on. Is it the mailman? The student whose desk is near ours? The neighbor we have never really talked to? The clerk at the grocery store? Someone we work with? The relative or friend who never showed any spiritual interest before? Each day we can ask the Lord to open our eyes to see what He is doing and to help us become a part of it.
As a church, how can we cooperate with what God is already doing?
Step 2: Understand the harvest cycle
We need to understand the harvest cycle and integrate it into our plans. Last autumn I was meeting with the church board of the Abundant Life Seventh-day Adventist Church to plan soul winning for the new year. I looked over at Mike Skeels, head deacon and an apple orchardist, and began quizzing him.
"Mike, I've been living here four years and watched the apple harvest each year. I have some questions for you. Why don't you just take those big bins used during the apple harvest, put them under the trees, and just accept whatever God gives you, whatever falls off the trees into the bins?"
"As orchardists we understand very clearly what is God's part and what is our part," he replied. "We can plant, cultivate, spray, and harvest, but only God can make the sun shine, the rain fall, and the fruit grow. There is a certain sequence we need to follow."
"How many years have you been involved in the harvest, Mike?"
"Wow, you don't look that old!"
"I helped with my first harvest when I was ten years old. It wasn't my choice, but my dad told me I was going to help since he's an orchardist, too."
"Have you gotten any better at harvesting during the last 30 years?"
"Of course. Each harvest I do my best and then try to learn what will help me do better the following year. Now I'm a consultant for the largest Braeburn apple orchard in the state of Washington."
"Oh, now that you're a consultant, you don't need to be directly involved in the harvest anymore, do you?"
"Oh, yes, I do. If I'm not directly involved in the harvest, I won't be a good consultant because I'll forget what it is really like. When harvest time comes, almost everything else is put on hold. The barn may need to be painted or the fence fixed, but they will have to wait because it is harvest time and we need every willing worker to help bring in the harvest."
"During harvest do you pick every apple?"
"Not the first time. The pickers need to learn how to tug on the apple. If it comes off in their hands, the fruit is ripe. If it doesn't come off and they keep pulling on it, the apple might come off, but it will later rot and spoil other apples in the bin. If they don't pick an apple when it's ready, it will fall on the ground and rot. With some types of apples, we may need to sweep through the orchard as many as four times to get the maximum number of apples because they ripen at different rates."
By now, as we sat in the planning meeting, we were all making mental notes:
1. Lots of church members have simply "watched" the soul-winning harvest over the years but have never been personally involved in it.
2. In the harvest of soul winning, God does His part and He helps us do our part. We shouldn't just wait to see who will fall into the church and into the baptistry!
3. There is a certain sequence to fol low to have the best harvest of souls. If we make plans with this in mind, we will see more people involved in outreach, soul winning, and discipling new members.
4. The more times we are involved in the harvest of soul winning, the bet ter we get at it, if we are humble learners. We are not thinking clearly if we say, "We tried soul winning and it didn't work." Instead it is better to say, "What can we learn from previous soul winning experiences so that we can do better next time?"
5. Some people get involved grudgingly at first but then learn to love soul winning. Once you've seen God use you to win someone to Him, you will be hooked!
6. Soul winners become more and more excited about soul winning and can become good "consultants," showing others how to become soul winners.
7. Every pastor and member needs to be involved in soul winning activities every year of his or her life, especially if they are church leaders. The "consult ants"—those who receive part of their paycheck from tithe money (pastors, teachers, conference leaders) and those who serve on local church boards— need this yearly involvement if they are to stay focused on the mission God has given all of us.
8. During "reaping meetings," almost everything else in a church should be put on hold because every willing person is needed in the harvest of souls.
9. When inviting someone to make a decision for baptism and church membership, we should give gentle "tugs" or invitations. If the person is ripe, they will make the decision. If they aren't and we come on too strong, they may decide but later cause problems in the church.
10. If people are not "ripe" to make a decision, we should come back soon and give them another invitation because they may have ripened by then. After reaping meetings it is valuable to have a follow-up plan so that those who weren't quite ripe during the meetings will have an opportunity to make decisions for Jesus and His church.
In our church board we decided to have two harvest cycles during the coming year. We wrote the following introduction to our "Harvest Cycle" plan and then listed five basic actions we felt we needed to enter into, based on what Jesus said about soul winning:
We believe the Holy Spirit is at work continually to gather people out of the harvest and prepare them to be future missionaries for the Adventist message. Here are five things we can do to cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing:
1. Fast and pray. "Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not cast him [an evil spirit] out?' So Jesus said to them, 'Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting'" (Matt. 17:19-21).
2. Sow. "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for noth ing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill can not be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:13-16).
5. Disciple. "Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go there fore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you, and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20, NIV).
Step 3: Put specifics on the harvest cycle
Put specifics on the harvest cycle for yourself or your church, such as how and when the harvest sequence will be carried out, who will lead out with each phase, how much it will cost, and how it will be paid for (see box at right).
Sometimes Sabbath School classes can take the initiative to develop a har vest cycle plan. Individual members can talk with pastors or church leaders about how they can be a part of some thing the church is doing in addition to what they do as individuals. In heaven we will get to spend eternity with those we have brought to Jesus and His church.
Here is a scene to be imagined: "With unutterable love, Jesus welcomes His faithful ones to the joy of their Lord. The Saviour's joy is in seeing, in the kingdom of glory, the souls that have been saved by His agony and humiliation. And the redeemed will be sharers in His joy, as they behold, among the blessed, those who have been won to Christ through their prayers, their labors, and their loving sacrifice. As they gather about the great white throne, gladness unspeakable will fill their hearts, when they behold those whom they have won for Christ, and see that one has gained others, and these still others, all brought into the haven of rest, there to lay their crowns at Jesus' feet and praise Him through the endless cycles of eternity."1
1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1888; rev. 1911), 647.