Jesus said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest…to send out workers into his harvest field.” But how many of us actually pray this way?
About twelve years ago I attended a Christian funeral that changed my life.
The funeral was unique in several respects. First, it was quite large: about 20,000 people mostly of Puerto Rican descent—representing 56 churches gathered to weep, rejoice, and worship as they reminisced over a lost friend.
Second, the deceased was a church. That’s correct, a local church. And those at the funeral were her spiritual descendants. Third, they loved the church! None of them had split off from it. They had all been equipped, encouraged, sent out, and supported in their new works.
I remember an older gentleman— the pastor of the church—at the front of the meeting who cried through it all. It had been his vision to start churches, and for him this gathering was the fulfilment of his calling. He could go home to the Father knowing he had accomplished what God had placed him here on earth to do.
Whatever God called me to do, I knew it had to be marked by a willingness to give everything away.
Pastor after pastor and elder after elder stepped up to the microphone to give homage to the mother church, describing how the church’s generosity and vision were responsible for the planting and flourishing of their churches. One of the speakers pointed out that the previous year the church had started eleven new churches, and as a result of that “childbirth” the mother congregation had died. It had given away all its leaders, workers, and people. There was now only a handful of people left, so they decided to lay it down.
A passion in my soul
That day God burned a passion into my soul for renewal and growth. Whatever God called me to do, I knew it had to be marked by a willingness to give everything away. I prayed, “Lord, if you ever call me to minister in another church, I promise it will be a sending church.”
Jesus trained his disciples to be just like him, to reflect his nature and do his Father’s works. This meant they were men and women of action, sent out to demonstrate and proclaim the kingdom of God. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35).
During his earthly ministry Jesus was a man on the move with a purpose: to teach, preach, and heal, starting with the people of God. In Matthew (9:35-38), Jesus tells the disciples
As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples
there is a great need for more workers to go out into the harvest field (v. 38). However, most readers often miss the motivation forgoing out compassion for sinful and hurting men and women. “When he saw the crowds,” the text says, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 36).
“He had compassion on them….” These words capture Christ’s heartbeat. His love for the people caused him to endure the cross and send out the disciples. That same love and compassion should motivate us to go out. Charles Van Engen, in his book God’s Missionary People reminds us that “the Church exists for humanity in that it is the spiritual body of Christ, and—like Jesus—it is sent to be a servant. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples into the world for the sake of the world.”
Bloom where you’re planted
Western civilisation is similar to first century Israel. Sin abounds: greed, idolatry, disrespect for the elderly, religious pluralism, child sacrifice through the practice of abortion. We aren’t too different from ancient Roman civilisation, though we mask our paganism through modern technology.
God’s heart is full of sorrow when he looks on Western civilisation, and even more so when his church fails to go out with the good news that his Son has conquered sin and death. But the harvest is plentiful, if only we will look around us and minister to the needs of the people.
The most important lesson to learn about being sent out is we first must bloom where we are planted. Whenever I talk about being sent out as a missionary I am deluged by people whose personal lives are not in good order. They don’t understand that an airplane ride to Africa or Latin America won’t make them more spiritual. “If you want to be a missionary,” I tell them, “start where you live: with your family, among your friends, among the homeless in your local park. Do good works, and invite non-believers along with you. The world knows the genuine from the fake, and if non-believers see you feeding the poor? they’ll listen to your message. That’s power evangelism.
“In fact,” I tell them, “I’ve got more news for you. The workers that Jesus talks about in Matthew 9:38—the ones who did overseas missionary work—were his best trained and most mature disciples. And it was the same in the early church; in Acts 13:1-2 the Holy Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas, the most mature leaders in the church at Antioch.” In other words, God calls people who are already walking with him, not those who are running away from their problems.
In Matthew 10:1-16 Jesus provides the Twelve with specific instructions about their calling. In Matthew 28:20 the great commission is handed down to all generations, so these instructions apply to us as much as they did to the Twelve. Here are the key elements of his instruction:
First, he granted the Twelve authority to carry on his ministry “to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (v. 1>. They knew how to do this, because they had walked alongside the Master, and now they received authority and power to overcome the evil one and preach reconciliation in his name.
Second, he called each one of them by name (vv. 2-3). They were sure of their calling, so they went out with confidence that God was with them, no matter what the response was to their ministry. People who enter ministry for the wrong reasons—and any reason other than God’s calling is the wrong reason—cannot withstand the trials that inevitably come with being on the front line of spiritual warfare.
Third, he gave them specific instructions about where they should go. “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (vv. 5-6). Old Testament Israel is analogous to the church. Jesus was saying the renewal of God’s people, calling them back to the kingdom of God, comes before going out into e world. Our second priority is going into the marketplaces and practicing evangelism and church planting.
Now, I do not imply that the renewal of God’s people and personal evangelism are mutually exclusive activities; both should take place simultaneously. But Christ put a higher priority on renewal. Why? Because when God’s people are renewed, explosive evangelism and church growth inevitably follow.
We will continue our ministry of renewal and equipping the saints, particularly to leaders. Our prayers are that each part of the church we minister to will experience renewal and growth.
Preach the kingdom
Fourth, he told them what to preach. “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near”‘ (v. 7). Jesus wanted both the works and the words of God’s reign proclaimed. Without an explanation of the gospel, good works, signs, and miracles have little lasting benefit.
Fifth, he told them the nature of their ministry: to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (v. 8). It is worth pointing out here that up to the time Jesus gave these instructions there is no reported incident of his raising the dead.
Sixth, he told them what provisions to take (vv. 9-10). In this instance the disciples were told to travel lightly, but later on they received different instructions, allowing for extra clothes and money.
Seventh, he told the disciples how to handle receptive and unreceptive people. If the people receive you, he told them, they will receive God’s peace and blessing. And for a town that
may reject you, “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (v. 15).
Finally, he warned them that their calling was full of danger. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (v. 16).
All Christians are called as workers in the ripe harvest fields that can be seen if only we open our hearts to the world. For all of us this work begins at home. Some are called to minister in our churches, encouraging fellow Christians to turn more wholly to God in faith and obedience. All are called to evangelism, no matter where we live or work. A few of us are called to extralocal ministries—missions, renewal groups, even church planting teams. What part should you play? “Ask the Lord of the harvest,” and he will show you.