Why the Poor Harvest? Assessing All the Factors in Seeing People Turn to Jesus

by Robertson McQuilkin

Seeing many people come into the Kingdom of God requires more than just a look at the soil. It requires hard work and carefully evaluating the sun and rain, the sower, the seed, and our method of sowing.

During four decades of traveling to speak with missionaries all over the world, I have often encountered discouraged people. When they arrived on the field, young and enthusiastic, they had dreamed of an abundant harvest and many people coming to the Lord and remaining strong in him. But it wasn’t happening. Why? Well, the soil was so hard. Often, others nearby, sowing in the same field, were getting a significant response. No matter—“This soil is like concrete,” they would say.

Recently I was with a group of discouraged missionaries. One had not had a single convert after twenty years of diligent seed sowing. Yes, the soil is one factor in productivity, but there are other factors as well—the sun and rain, the sower, the seed, and the sowing.

The soil. Do you live in the Sahara? The rain forest of Brazil? Southern California? Poor soil is the factor on which we usually blame the sparse harvest, and it certainly makes a difference. When in Japan, we had a dramatically different response in each of the four or five areas in which we worked simultaneously. In the village of a few hundred, there was no harvest at all. In the town of two thousand, a few came to know the Lord. In the larger town of twenty thousand, there was a fair harvest. But in the city of seventy thousand, there was a good harvest. I assumed it had to do with the soil. Rarely did a farmer come to faith in Japan and never a fisherman. But there are other factors that could account for the varied harvest. It might have had something to do with me. We’ll return to the sower in a moment. But first consider…

The sun and rain. If we don’t fault the soil, we usually explain a poor harvest on the lack of sun and rain. If you want a bumper crop in southern California, you’d better work hard on an irrigation system because there’s so little rain. If you want a crop in the arctic winter, you’d better try for mushrooms in the basement, not bananas or pineapples (which need sun). Sun and rain—God’s sovereign activity. If we don’t blame the soil, then we attribute the lack of harvest to God’s sovereign purposes. Certainly God’s intervention is the fundamental necessity, so we give ourselves to prayer. If prayer is lacking, the harvest will be too, for prayer is the conduit through which Holy Spirit energy flows. Better work on that irrigation system! The Spirit must give the harvest, and prayer is the link God has provided for power flow. So we invoke God to move in his sovereign way, watering the seed with the sun and rain of the Holy Spirit.

In many places with a meager harvest, I find missionaries pleading desperately for God to move in a special way. I see their puzzlement when others sowing in the same field do have a harvest. Suppose we plead with God for years and there’s no harvest? Perhaps the answer lies in the…

Sower. If you’re looking for someone to manage your farm, do you advertise in the farmer section of the want ads or in the sales representative section? Does our sower have the gift of evangelism? If not, God tells us to desire it earnestly. The force of the verb is to keep on desiring the greater gifts with passion (1 Cor. 12:31). What greater gift than the gift of evangelism? If we desire this gift earnestly, year after year, and God seems to prefer to give us other gifts, he may be guiding us into another vocation. The temptation will be to give up too soon, but first let us ask God for that gift.

Of course, we may have a truncated definition of the gift of evangelism. Before our ministry in Japan, I pled with God for the gift of evangelism (which I did not seem to have). In those days, we could preach in the public schools of the Carolinas. I did quite a bit of it and sometimes it seemed half the school would respond. At other times, there was no response. Did you ever see Billy Graham give an invitation and no one respond? I would go home weeping, pleading with God for the gift. How could I be a pioneer church-starting missionary without that gift?

But God was hearing, and when we got to Japan we discovered that the American approach to evangelism may not be the best method in Japan. We also discovered that to reach the Japanese through me, God had granted just the right gifting and family to live among the people and love them to Jesus. Maybe the heart of the sower is as important as the gifting. Apparently God thinks so. If I have all the gifts to the max, but come up short on love, I’m nothing (1 Cor 13:1-2). However, I discovered there was something else very important that I had neglected. 

The seed. You don’t sow cotton seed in Maine. Perhaps you say, our seed is a given—the word of God. Right! But it’s a big bag with lots of variety. I’m told there was a man fishing on the end of the pier when his friend came up. “Have you caught any fish?” “No, not a one,” he said disconsolately. His friend asked him what bait he was using. He said he was fishing with raspberries. “But maybe fish don’t like raspberries?”  “Oh, raspberries are delicious. I love raspberries!” 

When first arriving in Japan I discovered that I was fishing with raspberries. I would prove logically the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ only to hear the Japanese proverb, “That’s too logical to be true.” And I remember the day a young man who had come to Christ six months earlier told me that he couldn’t understand why I was so happy about the prospect of heaven. “Kono seikatsu mo juubun des!” (“This one life is enough!”) he would say.

In a society which believes in reincarnation, it was not a happy thought to consider an afterlife. So I was fishing with raspberries. Of course, as missionaries, we know that no one will ask for a Savior until they see their need. So, faithful to the word, we preach about sin. But there’s no word for sin in Japanese. The word we use means “crime.” It’s difficult to tell a meticulously law-abiding citizen that he or she is a criminal.

So we get specific, and define sin; for example, lying. Then we hear the Japanese proverb, “A lie also is a useful thing.” In fact, not to lie is often the shameful thing. When the truth would embarrass either the other person or you, a lie is required by common courtesy. It would be shameful to tell the truth and so, in a shame culture, I was fishing with raspberries. When I shifted to the kind of thing I would call sin and they would call shameful, I was beginning to offer hope for the pain. For example, the most terrible thing a person could say to a son would be, “On shirazu. dete ike!” (“You’ve forgotten your obligations; get out!”). How could he find forgiveness and change? The word of God has something to say for that soul infirmity, call it sin or call it shame.   

Thus I spent years studying the culture of Japan. The things that were important to me as a westerner often were not important to them. Many of the things that were of great importance to them, I did not even recognize, so blind I was to those teachings of scripture that would reach into the Japanese soul. So I began to choose the seed carefully. And God gave a great harvest. But there is another possibility for a poor harvest. 

Sowing. Faithful missionaries constantly evaluate methodology. No matter if the soil is hard, no matter that we don’t see evidence of God’s sovereign moving among our people as he has moved among others; no matter how carefully we choose our seed to sow seed appropriate to the soil, there is one thing we can do: we can change our method. I have lived long enough to see methods come and go. If my change of methodology is not mandated by scripture, I need not dogmatize. And yet there is one element of the sowing process we can dogmatize on: hard work. 

At the end of my first term on the mission field, I attended a union meeting of missionaries from various “companies.” As was the custom, we were examining the sowing method. In the midst of this discussion someone stood up and pointed to me, saying, “McQuilkin has gotten a good harvest. Why don’t you ask him?” It was like a bolt from the sky. What could I say? So I told them, “In Japan, if you want one person to continue in the faith, you must baptize five. To baptize five, you must have twenty make a profession of faith. To have twenty make a profession of faith, you have to have one hundred serious seekers. To have one hundred serious seekers, you need five hundred inquirers. To get five hundred inquirers, at least five thousand people have to know that you’re there.” I sat down. They heard it well: they had to work hard.

Fifteen years later I was invited back from America to give devotionals at that same conference. The theme of the conference was church growth. A team of experts from America were the guests and there was much discussion about the method of sowing. In the midst of that discussion someone stood up and said, “Some years ago we did a scientific survey and we discovered that if you want one person to continue in the faith, you must baptize five. If you want to baptize five, you will have to have twenty professions of faith…” My spur-of-the-moment exhortation to work hard had become a scientific fact! 

The soil, the sun and rain, the seed, the sower, and the sowing are all factors in reaping an abundant harvest. Surely the path of wisdom is to carefully consider all the factors that impact the outcome of our evangelistic effort. 

Yes, it’s the Holy Spirit who gives harvest. So what is our part?

•  Prayer, the conduit for the flow of the Spirit. And among all those prayers, the prayer for the gift of evangelism for us and for our colleagues, and for the new believers who have come to faith.

•  Methodology. Let us ask of God wisdom. He promises to give that wisdom if we ask in faith. But when we adopt or create a change in method, we must do so modestly, recognizing that we do not have a biblical mandate for most of those methods. Begin with that question, “What is the biblical basis for this method?” Surely we will find that one method is essential—hard work. 

A Note on Method and Mission
I have lived long enough to see (and experience) major methodological dogmatisms sweep the world of missions. After World War II, the first book American missionaries translated into Japanese was Alex Rattray Hay’s The New Testament Order for Church and Mission. This, it was held, was the biblical basis for the Nevius method, which had been around for some decades. Then came the Church Growth Movement with Donald McGavran. Many missionaries were slow to adopt it, but I was a convert, even writing a book in defense of that methodology.

Before long, however, it was replaced by the Jesus people movement in the 1970s that advocated the method of church-to-church reaching out with short-term teams and funding for nationals. This approach actually swept North American churches more than it did the missionary world, culminating in the twenty-first century when Saddleback Church in California adopted the method.

Recently, I read Theology News and Notes (Fuller Seminary’s magazine) on the Emerging Church and another statement published from the recent triennial of the World Evangelical Alliance’s (WEA) Theology Commission. The light dawned. I told my wife how the emerging view of mission is playing out, bypassing the whole question of a poor harvest.

Evangelical views on mission are changing. They range from holism through missional to emerging to emergent. Recently, evangelicals have been trying to raise consciousness of our (perceived) failure to adequately address the compassion (justice and mercy) purposes of the Church. Some push this to the next level of making the compassion ministries equal in God’s intent with the evangelistic. Somewhere in there, purpose or “ministry” is re-defined as “mission.” Many are giving priority to temporal redemption over eternal redemption. We have now reached the post-modern emergent churches, which focus wholly on the temporal, many denying the reality of hell and the exclusiveness of Christ as the way to reconciliation with God.

When I finished my tale of grief to my wife, she said, “Isn’t that what happened a century ago?”  How perceptive! So we come full circle to the re-definition of “mission” that occurred in the early twentieth century when the mainline ecumenical movement lost the traditional mission of the Church which gave priority to vertical redemption above the horizontal. Of course, the biblical Church throughout the ages has given full attention to ministries horizontal, now articulated precisely as Rick Warren’s (pastor of Saddleback Church) PEACE plan. But all those elements of illness, injustice, ignorance, and poverty were pursued in obedience as essential ministries of the Church, not as Great Commission mission.

So what should we do—those of us who believe in the spiritual harvest as God’s primary redemptive mission? Certainly renew our efforts to assure a good harvest, now more “plentiful” than ever. Hard work, to be sure. But wisely, too, prayerfully and carefully evaluating soil, sun and rain, sower, seed, and our method of sowing.


Robertson McQuilkin is former president of the Evangelical Missiological Society and of Columbia International University, which he led for twenty-two years. He now ministers in writing and preaching. Of his nine books, the best known in missionary circles is the motivational The Great Omission: A Biblical Basis for World Evangelism (Authentic, 2001). 

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 298-303. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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