by Pastor Mike Stine
The following article is based on a sermon by missionary Del Tarr who served fourteen years in West Africa with another mission agency. His story points out the price some people pay to sow the seed of the gospel in hard soil.
I was always perplexed by Psalm 126 until I went to the Sahel, that vast stretch of savanna more than four thousand miles wide just under the Sahara Desert. In the Sahel, all the moisture comes in a four month period: May, June, July, and August. After that, not a drop of rain falls for eight months. The ground cracks from dryness, and so do your hands and feet. The winds of the Sahara pick up the dust and throw it thousands of feet into the air. It then comes slowly drifting across West Africa as a fine grit. It gets inside your mouth. It gets inside your watch and stops it. The year’s food, of course, must all be grown in those four months. People grow sorghum or milo in small fields.
October and November…these are beautiful months. The granaries are full — the harvest has come. People sing and dance. They eat two meals a day. The sorghum is ground between two stones to make flour and then a mush with the consistency of yesterday’s Cream of Wheat. The sticky mush is eaten hot; they roll it into little balls between their fingers, drop it into a bit of sauce and then pop it into their mouths. The meal lies heavy on their stomachs so they can sleep.
December comes, and the granaries start to recede. Many families omit the morning meal.
Certainly by January not one family in fifty is still eating two meals a day.
By February, the evening meal diminishes.
The meal shrinks even more during March and children succumb to sickness. You don’t stay well on half a meal a day.
April is the month that haunts my memory. In it you hear the babies crying in the twilight. Most of the days are passed with only an evening cup of gruel.
Then, inevitably, it happens. A six-or seven-year-old boy comes running to his father one day with sudden excitement. “Daddy! Daddy! We’ve got grain!” he shouts. “Son, you know we haven’t had grain for weeks.” “Yes, we have!” the boy insists. “Out in the hut where we keep the goats — there’s a leather sack hanging up on the wall — I reached up and put my hand down in there — Daddy, there’s grain in there! Give it to Mommy so she can make flour, and tonight our tummies can sleep!”
The father stands motionless. “Son, we can’t do that,” he softly explains. “That’s next year’s seed grain. It’s the only thing between us and starvation. We’re waiting for the rains, and then we must use it.” The rains finally arrive in May, and when they do the young boy watches as his father takes the sack from the wall and does the most unreasonable thing imaginable. Instead of feeding his desperately weakened family, he goes to the field and with tears streaming down his face, he takes the precious seed and throws it away. He scatters it in the dirt! Why? Because he believes in the harvest.
The seed is his; he owns it. He can do anything with it he wants. The act of sowing it hurts so much that he cries. But as the African pastors say when they preach on Psalm 126, “Brother and sisters, this is God’s law of the harvest. Don’t expect to rejoice later on unless you have been willing to sow in tears.” And I want to ask you: How much would it cost you to sow in tears? I don’t mean just giving God something from your abundance, but finding a way to say, “I believe in the harvest, and therefore I will give what makes no sense. The world would call me unreasonable to do this — but I must sow regardless, in order that I may someday celebrate with songs of joy.”
Do we believe in the harvest? Do we believe in a greater good to come that we are willing to sacrifice right now so that one day we will see something greater come of what we have invested? Are we willing to come to the point of tears, knowing the pain and frustration of what we may need to endure because the sacrifice needs to be made?
Each one of us has a bag of grain. It is totally ours. No one can tell us what to do with it or can make us use it in any way that we do not wish to. The grain is our time, and talents, and our treasures.
We may feed ourselves and live comfortably for some time on the grain that we have. But eventually, the grain will run out. When this happens, we starve and experience a slow and painful death. Or we may take our grain, ration it, and wait for the right time to plant it. This requires temporary pain and self sacrifice. But if we believe that the harvest will come, we look forward to another year that we may live and a harvest that will bring about dancing and rejoicing.
Now we aren’t here to discuss growing food and bringing in a harvest but rather we speak of winning souls and growing the kingdom of God. And when I speak of this, most if not all of you will agree that this is something that the church needs to do. Half of you are willing to do more than simply pay lip service to the fact that the church needs to reach the lost for Christ. But most of you are wondering how do we do this? We’ve tried every technique and outreach we can think of. Why hasn’t this church blossomed when these techniques worked for everybody else?
The first thing that anyone must do before they undertake any sort of activity is to prepare. We have to do this with even the smallest things in life, so why do we overlook this when it comes to evangelism? When we go to work, we don’t wake up, jump in the car and go. We have to shower, get breakfast, brush our teeth, comb our hair, and get dressed. Even when I was in college, I at least had to get dressed before going to class at the early hour of 11.
How do we prepare for evangelism? Praying is a good start. Confess your sins. Prepare your heart so that when you go out, you aren’t aiming for personal glory or even just to add numbers to your church. Ask God to eliminate any and all pride so that whatever is done would be for His glory and His alone. And ask that God would use you to reach other people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you prepare, you need to know what you are talking about. That’s why you need to be reading your Bible and constantly searching the scriptures for truth. This isn’t something that simply makes good sense, it’s something that we are commanded by scripture to do. In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
This doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to answer every question a person may have about Christianity. I can’t answer every question about Christianity. But we can both look for answers. What our responsibility is, is that we are able to tell anyone why we are a Christian, the difference Christ has made in our lives, and why they should be Christians to. And how they can become a Christian. Believe it or not, many Christians, although they themselves are saved, do not know how to explain to another person how to be saved.
Using phrases like, ask Jesus into your heart, or believe in Jesus and be saved might mean something to us, but to the unchurched, they sound very weird and confusing. How do I ask Jesus in my heart? How do I know if he’s in there? How do I believe in Jesus? I believe that he lived, he was a real person. Is that enough? Know how to explain salvation to someone else without using confusing terms!
Jesus said in Luke 14:28-33,
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
In Building a Contagious Church Mark Mittelberg has seven values that we must consider before reaching out. I wish to examine the first three today.
We live in an increasingly secular society today. Most of you can tell me how society has changed since the 1950’s, starting very rapidly when prayer was removed from our schools in 1963. I can chronicle how society has become a wasteland in the last 15 years. The church, for the most part, has remained unchanged. We hold the same doctrines that we did 2000 years ago. Sure the music has changed some and the buildings have too, but our core values are the same fifteen years ago as they were fifty years ago as they were 2000. This means that we continue to grow farther and farther away from what is normal for society. We can’t relate any longer. Most of us, myself included, have been in a nice protected bubble where we don’t even get influenced by secular society any longer.
Unfortunately, if we have kept society at an arm’s length away so it can’t influence us, we’re also too far away to influence it. So without compromising any moral values, we need to take at least one step toward a secular society in hopes of relating to it and being able to influence it and reach the lost for Jesus Christ.
The first three values give us motivation to take these steps.
Value # 1
People Matter to God
Just like the need for a church to do evangelism, this value sounds like it doesn’t even need to be said. We can repeat from memory John 3:16 that says that “God so loved the world.” But we find it so hard to live this idea out. Do we really live our lives like people matter to God? Do we act on the knowledge that every one of our friends and neighbors who doesn’t know Jesus Christ is going to hell unless they repent of their sins? Do our church programs center around the fact that people matter to God- or are they oriented to the idea that Christians matter to God- or even just we matter to God?
If I may go off subject for a moment, the church has become really self-centered. Our churches are the way they are because we like it that way. The decorations that are up are the ones that are acceptable to us. The music we play is that which we are accustomed to. Even our method of preaching is the manner that we have known for years. What we have before us, in this church, and in most churches in America, is what it is because people in that church like it that way. Even churches with more contemporary music implemented because it helps to better reach non-Christians have the music because enough people in that church like it.
Now, I believe that a worship service is meant for Christians to worship. Whatever the style, it is supposed to cause the Christians gathered in that place to worship Almighty God. However, a Sunday morning worship service is the service that non-Christians in most instances are most likely to come to. So we have a dilemma that I don’t have an easy solution to.
All of this said however, if we held an “outreach” service, say on a Sunday afternoon or evening, one where believers were not intended to hear deep instruction or even gain a truly worshipful experience but where non-believers could come into contact with basic truths of the gospel – if we held an outreach service – most of us would hate just about every element about it. But if we truly believed that people mattered to God, we’d invite everyone we could and come with them and suffer through the “terrible” service.
Believing that people matter to God means that when we hold a community event like an Easter Egg Hunt or and Ice Cream Social, we make a conscious effort to not even talk to people from our church. We try to be friendly to everyone at the event that we don’t know, to establish relationships with them, learn their names, and hopefully even remember them the next time you see them in the community or at another event. Believing that people matter to God means that you sacrifice what could be a fun social event for you with your church friends so that you can build relationships with the people who matter to God and yet are going to hell because they don’t know about Jesus Christ.
Mark Mittelberg writes, “When this value really takes root, it dramatically affects our checkbooks and calendars, because those are the places where it expresses itself in daily life. We ought to be able to look back and say, ‘Here’s where I’ve spent my time and energy trying to reach people outside the family of God.’ We should be able to open up our checkbook ledgers and say, ‘Here’s where I’ve invested my resources to help make evangelism happen through supporting the church’s outreach efforts; buying Bibles, books, and tapes to give to spiritual seekers; spending money to take a nonbelieving friend out to breakfast or lunch; or inviting non-Christians into my home.’”
None of these things are done for personal glory, a pat on the back, or an attaboy from the pastor. But, if I knew most of you for more than two months, I’d be able to look down every aisle and tell which people really believe this. If you do not believe that people matter to God, if you don’t believe this deep down in your soul so much so that it affects everything that you do, everything else won’t help you in evangelism. All the skills in techniques in the world won’t enable you to effectively win souls for God because if you don’t believe God thinks that they matter, you won’t really make an effort to save them. You’ll pay lip service to the notion and tell me on the way out the door what a good sermon this was. And then probably think I wish so-and-so was here to hear it.
Value # 2
People are Spiritually Lost
When I was in high school it really bothered me the way people partied and drank and did other things more stupid and harmful to their bodies. In my first year of college at a secular school I was so immersed in it that it sickened me to no end. I became enraged when a gay and lesbian club spoke to my class to try to get people to join them.
Today, it doesn’t bother me as much. Not that I’ve become numb to the sin that I’m surrounded with. Instead, I’ve realized that people who don’t know God, live their life like there is no God. We can’t expect any better from them and honestly it is unfair to expect them to live by our standards. Make no mistake about it, what they are doing is sinful and wrong and God will judge them fully for everything they do. But what should we expect from people who do not know better?
What we know that non-Christians don’t know about themselves is that they have a hole in them that only God can fill. They are miserable without God. Their lives have no purpose as they chase after wealth and power and prestige with the knowledge that in the end they will still die and no matter how wealthy, powerful, or important they are they come to the same end as the homeless man on the street. People drown their misery in alcohol, drugs, sex, food, television, and an endless number of other things.
The Westminster Confession states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. If that is what we are here on earth for, how can the person who doesn’t know God achieve this? No wonder they are so wretched.
All of this comes down to the fact that people need God. People matter to God and these very same people need God. They might not know it but they do.
Value # 3
People Need Christ
Values 2 & 3 are so closely tied together, I already stated the value before. Because people are spiritually lost, they need Christ. This creates two barriers in evangelism. First, many people even recognize that they are lost, that there is a barrier between them and God. They do not realize that despite however good they try to live their lives, they haven’t lived a perfect life and have therefore sinned. They do not realize that their sin separates them from God, that no sin can enter God’s presence. People need to realize this before they can even know that they need Jesus.
Once they know that they are separated from God, then they realize they need a solution. No other religion offers a permanent solution to sin. Someone asks you why Christianity is different from other religions, tell them this. Jews had to continually make sacrifices to atone for their sins. Hindus must go through a series of reincarnations before reaching nirvana and thus cease reincarnating into this ugly world. Buddhists don’t even deal with sin and just say that suffering is the result of sin and enlightenment is the goal. Muslims have to cross their fingers and hope they were good enough. Catholics have to say Hail Mary’s, have the last rites performed, and go through purgatory. Christianity is the only religion that offers a once for all sacrifice for sins. This is why we need Christ.
The blood of Christ is what washes away our sins and allows the sinner to enter into God’s presence.
These three values we need to truly affirm if we are going to be able to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ. The next four values will help us to bridge the gap in reaching a culture that we have difficulty relating to but nevertheless needs to hear the gospel.
In review, before we begin to evangelize, we need to be prepared. This means we need to pray and to be studying the Word of God. We should be doing this anyway. Then we need to affirm values that remind us of why we going out into the world in the first place. People matter to God. People are lost. People need Christ. These are simple but forgotten so often and lived out very little. We need to return to them and dwell on them if we are to reach our community.