Feature

Sowing the Light: A Perspective

Hard work for the harvest

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For the past several decades the missions emphasis of The Alliance has clearly been on spiritual harvest. We tell wonderful stories of people—thousands of people—coming to Christ, of many churches being planted, of expanding missionary activity. We rejoice and praise God. And we also gain support—through prayer, people, finances and partnerships—to continue the harvest.

But what were the beginnings of these harvests? As Jesus was talking with His disciples at a well in Samaria, I can see Him sweeping His arm toward the fields outside the town. “‘Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps . . . harvests a 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 [i.e., the sowing] and you have reaped the benefits of their labor’” (John 4:35–38; emphasis added).

The truth is that we are reaping and harvesting today because of the hard, painful work of many sowers who have gone before us. I am immensely grateful for them, but I’m also concerned.

Today we face dark places where there is no light or so little light that it could be snuffed out. There are eternal consequences for those in darkness. The enemy will do all he can to extinguish not only the light but also those who bring it. We must be light to those who don’t even know it exists.

Yet . . . are we setting ourselves up for an even more difficult job in the future—and perhaps even perceived failure—if we go to those dark places with expectations of a quick and bountiful harvest? What if our candidates are excited to join our ministry expecting rapid results? Some might become disappointed with the outcomes.

We may (subconsciously perhaps) devalue or minimize the role of sowers, seeing them as “unsuccessful” if there is little or no harvest. New workers, having heard the great harvest stories, may assume that we are in a perpetual harvest mode. We may miss opportunities for rich future fruit because we are neither persistent nor patient.

Some say, “Well, we’re in the Final Harvest! We’re bringing back the King!” But, by living uniquely in that perspective, we demonstrate an unawareness that we’re reaping what others have sown. We are responsible not only to reap now but also to sow now—or future generations will have no harvest.

The task before us in many, if not most, locations is the “hard work” (Jesus’ words) of sowing. But for that to succeed we must help people (workers, leaders, supporters, pastors, students) to accept, anticipate and be willing to put into practice a sowing approach to ministry.

How? I believe we must redefine—and clearly communicate—expectations for our workers, recognizing that some may be called to be sowers rather than reapers. We must also make sure that The Alliance and all those who stand with us to be light understand this subtle yet needed shift, especially as it is practiced in the newer mission fields.

Two Kinds of Harvests

Fields of grain are prepared, planted and developed over a period of months. The labor is intensive. The harvest occurs during a relatively brief time because weather or insects can quickly destroy it. Consequently, each worker toils from the beginning of the harvest right up to the last day. The grain harvest is thorough and final. (This is what Jesus was referring to in John 4.)

Vineyards and fruit groves, however, are tended over a period of years. The care of vines and fruit trees requires the fastidious hand of a patient worker. The gardener “dresses” the vine or tree, meticulously tying a drooping branch back to the vine, pruning where necessary and pulling weeds and fertilizing. Young plants may not bear fruit for several seasons, but once it appears, the vine or the tree will produce for many years. This harvest is not a quick, one-time event, but at the end of the season the vinedresser and the harvesters will be glad together. The initial work may have been unrelenting for many years, but the fruit will be enjoyed for decades.

Henry Blackaby has challenged Christians to “join God where He’s working.” But where is that? Most would answer: “Where things are happening. Where there’s action. Where there’s a harvest.” The predominant understanding of God at work appears to be where there are results.

A believer desiring to be light may say, “Nothing’s happening here, but things are moving over there, so that must be where God is. I should go there.” But with this mentality one risks becoming a migrant worker, constantly searching for bigger and better harvests. We can end up being caught in this web, asking people to pray for, give to and join us in exciting ministries because we’ve learned that support—workers and finances—often go where the action is. But with such action we also end up minimizing the slow, plodding, hard work of soil preparation, sowing, watering and vine dressing.

A dangerous fallacy—that God is more at work in the harvest than He is in the sowing—could be shaping our belief and practice. If so, this perspective must be corrected, especially because of what lies before us.

After serving for 16 years in the “harvest context” of Africa and then for 18 years in the “sowing context” of the Europe/Middle East Region, I wonder what missions will look like in the coming decades, when Alliance workers move into some very dark and difficult places.

The work ahead of us is among unresponsive, least-reached people groups. We need to be willing to begin long-term, visionary projects that we in this generation may never see come to fruition. It is possible that we’ll be required to pull up acres of untended, dead vines; maybe we’ll need to allow the soil to lie fallow for a time. Perhaps we’ll need to set aside time, money and personnel to study and work the new soil, the new vines, the new orchards.

Can we do it? We don’t have a choice if we are truly willing to be light in the most spiritually desolate places.

What Can We Do?

Celebrate sowing. Some may ask, “If we don’t have enough harvesters, how will we ever get enough sowers?” Begin by talking about the need to sow and encouraging that aspect of ministry as well as that of the harvest. Emphasize the fundamental aspect of prayer in this effort.

Train our youth in the philosophy and basic skills of sowing as well as reaping. I keep hearing that postmodern youth are willing to see people process a decision for Christ and to accept the value of the journey, not just the destination. As we begin to develop this new mindset, we may see workers signing up who might not have felt called in previous times.

Create support structures for our sowers. Sowing is hard work, so just as we need to equip them we also need to encourage them, esteem them and care for them.

Prepare for the long haul because without the toilsome preparation, planting and vine dressing in the very difficult locations around the world today, there may be no significant harvest tomorrow.

Help our sowers to be willing for the harvesters to get the credit. Sowers are often forgotten or not acknowledged on the same level with the harvesters. Like John the Baptist (another sower), they have to respond humbly when the spotlight shines on others.

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