Nashville (BP) -- Two of the most gripping passages of Scripture open the successive chapters of Romans 9 and 10.
Romans 9 gives a glimpse of the apostle Paul’s deep-seated, continual heaviness of heart and grief over the lostness of his countrymen. We have heard people say they’d be willing to die for someone; but who would be willing to suffer eternal separation from God in order that others may enter a saving relationship with Christ? Yet this is what Paul said he would be willing to do.
In the next chapter, Paul poured out his heart’s deepest desire and prayer -- that his own people be saved. Though he was God’s called and commissioned missionary to the nations, he never lost sight of the desperate plight of his “kinsmen in the flesh,” the Jews. He was as passionately concerned for the spiritual well-being of his own nation as he was for the salvation of the nations.
Paul never lost sight of the goal of his efforts for Christ -- the harvest. Every harvest presupposes several things. It presupposes that a field has been cultivated and fertilized, seed has been sown and tender plants nourished. It presupposes that the hard work of digging out stumps, hoeing weeds, pruning unwanted shoots and leaves, battling insects and fighting off varmints takes place on a daily basis.
But the farmer never loses sight of the eventual end -- that he would reap an abundant harvest.
Things are worse than we think. From 1940 through 1972, the number of baptisms reported by the churches in the state where I serve grew by 401 on average per year. But something happened in 1972. It’s as if all the churches got together and decided to just shut it down. Since that time, for the past forty years, the number of baptisms reported by the churches in my state has declined, on average, by 286 per year.
As the population and number of churches have increased, darkness has increased at an even greater pace.
Perhaps we have misplaced our priorities. Rather than planting the seed of the Gospel in the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbors, hailing from every kindred, tribe, and nation under heaven, through personal evangelism, have we focused too much attention, exhausted too many resources and spent too much time on planting non-reproducing churches?
If we charted the growth in population and the decrease in baptisms on the same graph, what we would see are the upper and lower jaws of a monster’s gaping mouth. It is a roaring lion consuming our land. And who is being devoured in the jaws of this roaring lion? Your children and mine, your grandchildren and mine, your neighbors and mine.
It is later than we think. If we want a true measure of our highest values, all we need to do is divide our budget by the number of our baptisms. Look at the resources we are spending on maintaining the status quo.
The church I served in Florida was near an aeronautical university that trained pilots. I am told that when a plane dives, there comes a point at which the forces of air speed, deceleration, and gravity take over, making it impossible to pull the stick back hard enough to right the plane. This is called the point of no return.
Could it be that we as a network of churches have already reached that point? I hope and pray not. But we must reverse course soon or pass that point of no return. If we do not see a mighty movement of God in our midst within the next few years, we may well crash and burn. Or, to change the image, we dare not pass our time sitting on the decks of our sinking ships, settling into the depths of oblivion at the bottom of the sea.
A simple solution
It may sound like I am pessimistic about the future or about the power of the Gospel. I am not. But I am convinced we must change our focus. We must measure everything we do by the harvest, what I call the 1-5-1 Harvest Plan. The solution is easier than we think.
Interestingly, only in America, with all our resources, do we see a shrinking church. In every country I visit, we see the church expanding. How are churches growing?
The opening word of Romans 10 is key -- “Brethren.” This is a collective noun, a plural focus. Paul knew that the harvest could not be accomplished by himself alone. It requires the efforts of the entire church. In every nation I visit, the laity is equipped and empowered to reach those who live in their own neighborhoods with the Gospel. Just imagine what would happen in your church if the laity was released to do the work of evangelism.
But -- and this is where we have erred again and again -- we must limit the number of already-reached people in this new thing. We already have enough holy huddles; we don’t need one more to add to the mix. Our target audience is the lost. We must keep our focus on the harvest!
The goal is for each new unit to see at least five people come to faith in Christ (the “5” of the 1-5-1 Harvest Plan). At the end of the year, take one of the new converts and begin one more new thing (the second “1” of the 1-5-1 Harvest Plan).
Imagine if every church started just one new thing and baptized five additional people from that one new thing -- we’d see thousands of new converts. If every Bible study class in every church started just one new thing, we’d see so many new baptisms we’d be written up in the Wall Street Journal.
It really is that easy. This is what is happening everywhere else in the world. Why? Because it works. Because it is biblical. It is what Jesus modeled in his ministry and what the Paul taught in 2 Timothy 2:2.
So, how do we pray?
-- Pray for courage to start something new.
-- Pray for wisdom to bring others along with you.
-- Pray for receptivity with the target audience of your new thing.
-- Pray for the lost to be saved, both generally and by name.
-- Pray for additional laborers to join you in the harvest.
-- Pray for effectiveness in your evangelistic efforts.
-- Pray that you never lose sight of the harvest.
Bobby Welch is associate executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and works with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee as strategist for Global Evangelical Relations.
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