In 1975 Dr. Jim Engel published an influential book on missions and evangelism titled, “What’s Gone Wrong with the Harvest.” That title seems to describe a dilemma still facing the church today, a dilemma reflected in a brand new Pew survey of the U.S religious landscape: “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”
Are you troubled by these statistics? Americans, and particularly our younger generation, are abandoning religious affiliation in greater and greater numbers. Among those who still identify as Christians, there appears to be an increasing cynicism and/or disinterest toward the work of missions and evangelism. Many, and again, especially our younger generation, seem to be abandoning missions and evangelism in favor of an exclusive focus on social justice and mercy ministry. So we hear the question, “What’s going wrong?”
But to take a pessimistic attitude toward evangelism and the harvest would be shortsighted. God is on the move in wonderful ways if we only have eyes to see! 2,000 years ago Jesus told His followers, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). These words of Messiah offer us encouragement as well as instruction. Much is going right with the harvest today.
Despite the seemingly widespread unwillingness to consider Jesus, many people are painfully aware that their lives are missing “something.” They may or may not realize what they need is true purpose, fulfillment and the vitality those things afford. Others long desperately for answers to the questions that gnaw at the edges of their conscience.
In John 4:35-38, Jesus says, “Lift up [also translated “open”] your eyes and look at the fields. They are already white [meaning ripe] for harvest.” When Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful,” He wasn’t seeing fields of people running around trying to be reaped. The Lord saw the needs of the multitudes — whether or not they did. We must take our cues, not from those we are trying to reach, but from the One who sends us to reach them.
To be in sync with how God is moving in the world today we first have to see the potential. When we walk in Yeshua’s footsteps, we’ll not only see people for who they are, but we’ll see the possibilities for the harvest. This is certainly true for us in Jews for Jesus. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that today our largest branch of missionaries would be preaching the gospel openly in the Land of Israel? Who would have imagined that some of the most open hearts to the gospel would belong to college-aged Israelis?
We stand in amazement of these things, but the Lord Himself is never surprised. From His perspective, the harvest was always plentiful. We need to be people who see possibilities for the harvest even as God does. People who see possibilities, or potential, are people of vision … and that vision gives us the encouragement we need to move ahead.
Some have described our need to see the potential as a “paradigm shift.” When the Japanese launched digital watches onto the market, within one year they wiped out decades of Swiss dominance. The irony is that the Swiss had already invented the digital watch – but had not understood the market. They had not seen the potential.
When General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, stood before Queen Victoria, she asked what she might do for him. He replied, “Your Majesty, some men have a passion for money. Some people have a passion for things. I have a passion for people.” General Booth echoed the Apostle Paul’s sentiments to the Corinthian Christians when he basically told them, “What I want is not your possessions but you.” (See 2 Corinthians 12:14.)
When you see the possibilities, the potential, you have a clearer understanding of the problems as well. “The harvest is plentiful but … the workers are few.” If you don’t see the harvest, laborers are irrelevant. But Jesus’ words to those who see the harvest are as accurate as ever: the laborers are few.
Five years ago our leadership council recognized that we needed to work harder at raising up the next generation of Jews for Jesus, so we set a goal: “50 by 5.” That effort was to recruit and train 50 new missionaries within five years. We have just about reached our goal at 48! Praise the Lord. That includes three young people we just accepted onto staff the week before last. Seven young missionaries began training in our New York branch last month (we introduced them in our September print newsletter which you can view online or download a PDF here), and next month we will begin training several more in Israel.
While all of this is encouraging I still long to see many more. At times I feel as though we are trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. We need to see the way Jesus sees; we need to be hopeful and passionate for the harvest today.
Despite the recent Pew poll and as cynical as some have become in the church, I see how God is still touching young people and electrifying their hearts for the cause of evangelism. We even produced a documentary film about this phenomenon called “Awakening,” which this year won the International Christian Film Festival award for the best Christian film of the year!
And just this month a group of a dozen young Israeli believers, all in their twenties, completed a missions trip in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. (See Jews for Jesus News). They are just one example of a whole new generation that is committed and passionate about evangelism. It would be wrong to say young people today don’t care about telling others how Jesus changes lives. And yet the laborers are still comparatively few.
Our natural inclination is to say:
“The workers are few… so let’s get going.” Or
“The workers are few… so let’s call people up and get them to go.” But how inclined are we to follow Jesus’ instructions? He tells us to PRAY.
“The workers are few, so… PRAY.
That is the “paradigm shift” we need. Often our prayers are simply the starter course for the meal – a perfunctory act, a formality before we get down to the real business.
Jesus says that prayer is the real business in this harvest. Prayer, not human strategy, is the main course. Prayer is the principal activity Jesus told us to rely on to accomplish our goals. We pray and God directs us to people (or them to us) and sends them out.
So for those who have been joining us to pray as our Lord instructed, I hope you are encouraged by what we see Him doing these days. Take a look at this picture of our current class of trainees in New York City and rejoice in God’s answer to your prayers. I hope you’ve also been encouraged by the last few months of RealTime reports on our evangelistic efforts around the globe. The harvest is indeed plentiful. Then let’s all of us, as Jesus instructed, keep diligently praying for more laborers!