About a year ago, we had a Broadcast Hangout with Rich Tutt on the theme of the Old Testament.
One of the points that Rich brought out was that in the original Hebrew, the words that we translate ‘earth’ and ‘land’ are actually the same word (erets).
This makes sense of much of the Biblical narrative.
It starts with the cultural mandate, where Adam and Eve were commissioned to subdue the Earth. The garden that God planted was not all (or even most) of the world that he created, but it was rather a specific (and probably quite small) place within God’s wild world.
It was a base of operations from which his people could undertake their pioneering mission to subdue the land.
Fast forward to the fall and this task became hard and laborious, and the land would only yield its harvest through sweat and tears.
Fast forward further and God’s chosen people are entering God’s land (earth/erets). It’s the same thing. A people commissioned to fill and subdue the land.
So too in the New Testament. Make disciples of the nations. Teach them to obey. Be witnesses to the end of the earth. There is still a harvest in the earth, and the mission is still for God’s people to go out as pioneers into that harvest field.
But that doesn’t mean there are no challenges before us. I want to address two of them.
1 – Lack of Workers
When Jesus cast his mind to the vast crowds of people in all the towns and villages of Israel, he had compassion on them, and uttered the famous statement:
‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:38)
Jesus responded by doing two things. He asked for prayer about the situation, and he multiplied his pioneering ministry.
Prayer is crucial.
Jesus knew that the harvest was out there, but he also knew that there was a chronic shortage of pioneers who could go and break open the land to yield its harvest. So he asked all of his disciples to pray for an increase in the number of workers that God would send into the field.
This is a great thing to do as we are overwhelmed by the needs around us.
In our experience, prayer meetings are often the place where the magic happens. In the early days after moving to Manchester and starting South Manchester Family Church, Colin Baron had gathered around 30 people to pray for an increase in church planting in Greater Manchester.
At the time, there was a young girl called Sue, who lived in Bolton, who was travelling 30 miles to worship with them. During that prayer meeting, Colin suggested that they ‘suck it and see’ about starting something in Bolton, but as he said it he heard God challenge him, “Did I ask you to suck it and see, or did I ask you to plant churches?”
That evening, Bolton Family Church was started.
As that group of people looked over the towns of Greater Manchester, they felt compassion for the people, and so they prayed. God brought workers to the harvest field as Sue and a couple of her friends formed the core group of a new church.
That church is now around 150 people and has been itself active in church planting.
Prayer is vital. But prayer is not the only thing that Jesus did, and if our only response to the need around us is to pray, then at times it can become a hiding place that inoculates us from the part that God is asking us to play in his pioneer mission.
As the narrative continues into Matthew 10, we see the second response that Jesus made to the needs around him. He multiplied his pioneering resources (see Matthew 10:1-8).
Even though many people had been healed, fed, taught and delivered from demons under Jesus’ own ministry, there were so many more to get to that Jesus split his twelve apostles into pairs and sent them out to do the ministry that he had been doing.
As a result, Jesus was able to multiply his ministry six-fold and have a much larger pioneering impact on the towns and villages of Israel.
Despite this increase, this pioneering task was still too great, and so Jesus needed to multiply himself further, and in Luke 10, he sends out 72 others. Having initially moved from one ministry team to six, Jesus now gives himself another six-fold increase, with 36 teams now ministering in the different towns and villages.
2 – Hard Soil
When Jesus told the parable of the sower, he led us to expect that some places would be more receptive to the gospel than others.
Right now, Europe is hard soil. Christianity has declined on the continent over the last century, and we hear far fewer testimonies of church planting movements in this part of the world than we do in the Far East, in India or in Sub-Saharan Africa.
So, what do we with hard soil?
The Biblical answer is to ‘cultivate’ it (this is the implication of the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve).
In the early 1940s, Korea looked like hard soil. Now around 30% of the population are believers, and there are tens of thousands of churches.
In the 1960s, China looked like hard soil. Chairman Mao expelled foreign missionaries and banned the practice of Christianity. At the time, there were less than a million Christians in the whole of the country. Now the number is 150 million (growth of 15,000%).
Hard soil doesn’t always stay hard. Especially when God is involved.
A hundred years prior to the expulsion of missionaries under Mao, a young man from Barnsley sailed from Liverpool to Shanghai. His name was Hudson Taylor.
Immediately on arrival, Taylor adorned himself with local clothing and wore a pigtail in the Chinese style (this was unique amongst Western missionaries), and rather than stay in the safe coastal regions he headed inland with a dream in his heart of bringing Christianity to every province and village of China.
As well as being a great missionary, Taylor was a movement maker. After some time back in England to recover from an illness, Taylor returned to China in 1866 with 16 additional missionaries to send to the different provinces. By 1876, this number had increased to 52. In 1884, a further 76 were added to this number, and in 1887, another cohort of 102 new missionaries joined them.
Taylor started a movement of missionaries known as the China Inland Mission that was able to bring the good news of Jesus to every part of China.
When Mao expelled the missionaries, it was too late to stop what God had started. The gospel had spread. The soil had been cultivated. China was ripe for harvest, and in the sovereignty of God, revival came.
Europe may be hard soil today. What better reason to start a movement that multiplies churches across our continent? We could see the soil cultivated as Taylor and his team did in China, and then who knows what is possible?
We have a mandate to pioneer, and to fill the earth with disciples of Jesus.
The workers are few, so we pray and we multiply what resources we have.
The soil may be hard, so we get to work cultivating it and be ready for what God will do.
And we trust that he will fulfil his promise – that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.