I love the story found in John’s gospel in which Jesus heals a royal official’s son. While I won’t retell it here – if you’d like, you can read it for yourself in John 4:43-54 – I will say that each time I revisit this account of a desperately determined father begging Jesus to “come and heal” his sick and dying boy, only to be told to “go” and find his son well, I’m struck afresh of this man’s unreserved trust in the words of Jesus.
In the face of the bleakest of circumstances, when all the evidence pointed toward death and demise, and his daring request of Jesus denied – or so it might seem at first glance – this man, says John, took Jesus at his word and departed. He didn’t argue, he didn’t wallow in self-pity when Jesus told him to go back to his son alone, at least the text does not imply so. Rather, he left for home, says John, taking the words of the infamous miracle worker to heart. And while he was still on his way home, his attendants met him with the news that his boy, his beloved son, was no longer sick but alive and well, just as Jesus had said.
The man took Jesus at his word…
I wonder if this is a word for the Church today…?
Is The Harvest Plentiful?
When it comes to the "plentiful harvest" Jesus promised in three of the four gospel accounts (Luke 10:2, Matthew 9:37, John 4:35), I wonder, have we forgotten, or perhaps failed, to take Jesus at his word?
In his book You Found Me, a critique on the current narrative of today’s hostile, post-Christendom culture and the impending demise of the North American Church, Rick Richardson writes the following:
“Jesus once said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few…’ (Luke 10:2). [Yet] as I talk to church leaders around the country, I often feel like I hear the opposite message: ‘The harvest is sparse, the workers are many, and the competition for the few interested unchurched people is intense. People in our culture just don’t care about the gospel any more, and they don’t like the church…’” (Richardson, You Found Me, 21).
While these comments come from various pastors in the United States, I do wonder if this is indicative of our reality in Canada, too? Is the current state of Christianity in Canada really as bleak as what these ministry leaders are saying? Is the harvest really so sparse, the interest of unchurched people toward the person of Christ and his gospel so minimal? Was Jesus lying when he said the harvest was plentiful? Was he misinformed? Perhaps things are far worse for the Church today than Jesus ever expected them to be?
Reading The Data
According to the data, right now, the fastest growing religious group in North America is the religiously unaffiliated, also known as the “nones” - 40% of which is made up of young adults, aged 18 to 29 (Seel, The New Copernicans, 34). While Pew Research from 2018 places 29% of the Canadian population as either atheists (8%), agnostics (5%) or ‘nothing in particular’ (16%), more recent research from Director of Research at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Rick Hiemstra, reports nearly half of the Canadian population to be either agnostic or something similar (Hiemstra, “Not Christian Anymore,” Faith Today, 29).
Hiemstra et al.’s research also seems to indicate a growing decline in church attendance across Canada with only 11% of Canadians attending a weekly worship service – and these numbers do not include the latest stats regarding worship attendance during our current COVID-19 reality. In Barna’s July 2020 report titled, “The New Sunday Morning,” polling data shows that one in three practicing Christians has all together stopped attending church during COVID-19. Just think of that: one-third of the 11% of Canadians who regularly attend(ed) church have now stopped… If you're a numbers person, they're not looking great here, folks. Additionally, in terms of church growth, the most recent stats coming out of the US report 59% of Protestant churches are either plateaued or declining in attendance and membership while only 10% are growing through reaching new people (Richardson, You Found Me, 7).
Further, the current cultural climate of North America which celebrates pluralism, moral relativity, behaviours such as individuality and freedom of personal choice, and most recently is displaying a growing distrust toward institutions (i.e., “defund the police”), is increasingly pushing the Christian faith to the margins. Christianity is seen by many, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, as outdated, irrelevant, inauthentic, dead. In the words of James Emery White, “The Church is losing its influence as a shaper of life and thought in the wider social order, and Christianity is losing its place as the dominant worldview” (White, Meet Generation Z, 28). If ever it was, the data would imply our nation is no longer a “Christian” one.
When I read these statistics, I must be honest, things certainly seem bleak. In aviation terms, it seems as though the Church is caught in a graveyard spin and unable to recover. And yet, I can’t help but ask myself, what if, rather than buying into the current narrative of our day that says the Christian faith is unwanted, unneeded, abysmally ineffective at reaching new people, we actually believed Jesus when he said, “The harvest is plentiful”? What would happen if we actually took Jesus at his word, believing that he really is building his church, right here in Canada, in our midst, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it? What if we chose to believe that the Church’s best days are yet to come because maybe, just maybe, the worst days are already here? (Okay, those last ones were Leonard Sweet’s words, not Jesus’…)
What if, like that desperate dad in John 4, the Church simply took Jesus at his word, and we chose to believe that millions of men, women and children all around us truly are ripe unto harvest, just like he said? What if, friends…?
New Harvesting Techniques?
What’s encouraging to me these days is the fact that while the camp of ‘not religious’ is speedily growing, a majority of those in this same group are not completely closed off to all things spiritual. Interestingly, according to Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, “A majority of Millennials hold a wide range of supernatural beliefs” (Bibby, Thiessen and Bailey, The Millennial Mosaic, 175). In other words, today's religious nones may not be religious, per se, but they are spiritual, and many of them open to supernaturality such as neo-paganism, the occult and the paranormal. As James Emery White writes, “There is one aspect of this turn to the supernatural that works in our favor – namely, that Christianity is very much a faith in the supernatural” (White, Meet Generation Z, 134).
Could the supernatural nature of our faith be the Church’s doorway to reach the emerging generations with the gospel? Perhaps, rather than employing an apologetic of knowledge, reason and logic, what if the Church explored an apologetic based on imagination, desire, wonder, transcendence, mystery, the power of God to heal, set free, and cast out demons? Might this be a more effective way to reach the plentiful and ripe harvest fields in our cities, provinces and territories, our nation?
Further, in the words of David John Seel, Jr., “Many of the ‘spiritual but not religious’…want a resacrilization of the world. They want to see and experience the sacred in more areas of life. They want a spirituality that is vital and personal” (Seel, The New Copernicans, 98). Perhaps our model(s) of evangelism need to adapt to such as these? If we’re not seeing the harvest we long for, especially amongst the emerging generations, maybe the way we’ve been harvesting should be re-evaluated?
Thinking too of the increasingly growing diversity of Canada, with the influx of different people groups, nations, tribes and tongues to our country comes also an arrival of new worldviews likely very different than our own. While the West views the world primarily through the lens of guilt vs. innocence, Eastern cultures think more through a worldview of shame vs. honor. In these cultures, decisions are made not on individual basis or personal desire but on one’s place in society and what is best for the nuclear family or community as a whole. In cultures with more animistic beliefs like those found in much of Africa and South America, and amongst Indigenous peoples in North America, a fear vs. power lens is the way in which the world is viewed and understood. This in mind, perhaps the reason it would seem the harvest is not plentiful these days is that we are using techniques effective at harvesting Western wheat rather than wheat from the East? Perhaps our method(s) or understanding of harvesting needs to change? Perhaps our presentation of the gospel needs to include not only freedom from guilt and punishment, but so too freedom from shame and dishonour, and slavery to fear, sin and death?
For more on worldviews and the gospel, check out my friend, Jerin Thomas’ review of Jayson George’s The 3D Gospel here on reKindle.tv.
Miraculous Movements: A Case Study
I recently began reading Jerry Trousdale’s, Miraculous Movements which recounts the incredible transformation the gospel is making in hundreds of Muslim communities in the Eastern world. Literally hundreds of thousands of men and women from over 20 different people groups are discovering the truth of Jesus and devoting themselves to a life of obedience unto the commands of Christ. Thousands of churches are being planted, impossibly hard-soiled communities are now seeing abundant harvests, entire mosques are coming to faith in Christ. And this is only the beginning!
Why is this happening? And how? First and most clearly, this is none other than a work of God. This is his story, and his victory. Secondly, this movement is catalyzed and sustained by prayer. Without prayer, undoubtedly the immense fruit seen today would be far less. Thirdly, the harvesting methods used are being tailored toward the shame vs. honour, collective cultures they are trying to reach. The method of discipling entire families rather than individuals is seeing explosive growth as entire Muslim communities are coming to faith simultaneously. Last, this movement began as a handful of faith-filled men and women simply took Jesus at his word, believing that the seemingly impenetrable harvest fields of the Muslim world truly were ripe unto harvest - just like He said. They chose to believe in the narrative Jesus told rather than the narrative painted by history, the culture they work and live in, or their own past experiences.
More Questions Than Answers
As I seek to wrap up this post, I guess I don’t really have any answers for what the great harvest of Canada needs to look like in terms of methodology or evangelistic style. In fact, I think I have more questions now after writing this than before... ha! But what I do know is that Jesus wasn’t lying or misinformed when he said the harvest is plentiful. Regardless of the dwindling numbers and bleak statics, regardless the current cultural climate of hostility to the Christian faith, regardless the grim narrative that says the Church is in her final days, the harvest is plentiful, friends. This is the narrative we must choose to believe in. We must take Jesus at his word.
So, may we, the Church, take Jesus at his word, choosing to believe what he has said. May we choose to believe in a different narrative than the one we see before us today, but one filled with hope and much expectation of an incredible future. May we earnestly pray unto the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into the harvest fields, and for new, innovative and Holy Spirit-inspired strategies and methods to harvest the vast ripe fields around us. And as we take him at his word, trusting in what he’s said, may we see the great harvest Jesus has promised us. All for his glory.