Enrolment numbers are falling at theological colleges across Australia. Our society is becoming increasingly secular in nature. No wonder the harvest has never seemed so plentiful and the workers have never seemed so few. In this context, more than ever, we must raise up more gospel workers for the field. But how are we to do this?
We are limited in our resources: we only have so much time, attention and energy. So we need to be wise in the way we expend them for ministry. We need to make strategic choices: we should only invest in programs and people likely to yield a return. Furthermore, we must do all we can to ensure that the limited time we have is not poured into “end-of-the-line ministries”—ministries where the gospel message terminates without producing an ongoing gospel effect. This means we must be careful in choosing which people we should disciple. Typically, people who show themselves to be faithful, available and teachable are the ones we can mould into the sort of ministry worker we need. Let’s focus on them.
But let’s pause for a moment: is that what Jesus would have us do? As I wrote the above paragraphs, it was scary to me how easy they were to compose. It seems to me that in this day and age, we’ve trained ourselves to want to get the most out of absolutely everything—the greatest bang for our buck. Furthermore, since almost everything has been given a value, our evaluations extend even into our personal relationships: when I expend my time, my energy, my attention and my friendship on someone, I begin to expect something tangible in return. I might even have a particular outcome in mind prior to establishing a relationship with someone, using my friendship with them as a bartering tool to achieve those outcomes.
It’s pretty clear that this type of thinking ought not to exist—not even to meet the great need for workers for the gospel. Why? It’s because when it comes to people, true Christian love resists the temptation to view the other person as an object. People aren’t things to be moulded (or manipulated) into whatever our desires happen to be; they are human beings, created in God’s image for the purposes he intended.
Let’s look at discipleship as an example: if I make decisions about who to disciple by favouring people who are faithful, available and teachable, it’s because I think that people like that can give me something I can’t get out of others. It also shows that I’m only discipling them in the first place in order to achieve my desired outcome. These desires now shape the expectations I have for myself, my expectations of the other person, and even my expectations about how God will work. In short, everyone must bend to conform to my pre-conceived standards about what will make this discipling relationship a success. However, this isn’t loving: it doesn’t put the person I’m discipling first and it doesn’t honour God. Furthermore, it isn’t necessary, because we have all we need in Christ.
Christ’s work has set us free from our inward desires and focus so that we can be truly other person-centred. Our own position before God is secure, so I have nothing I need to achieve or produce. I can relate to others freely, not seeking to gain something from them. There is no prior motive or desired outcome in true Christian love—save only to see Christ in the other.
Since we have all that we need by grace, it’s best to make decisions about discipleship with a mindset of grace. Such decisions should not be based on those who we think are deserving—those with no debit that needs to be cleared to make our investment worthwhile. Instead, our desire for those we disciple needs to spring from true Christian love—a love that loves others as we have been loved, for we were saved not because of anything in us or about us, but because of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as there’s no work that merits our righteousness, there ought not to be any work we deem meritorious in our relationships with others.
Disciples are made through the proclamation of the gospel. Although we long for the gospel message to go as far and wide as possible, we don’t need to disciple selectively to achieve that ourselves. If the gospel truly is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and if it is truly the word that does the work, we don’t need to worry ourselves about achieving maximum results and avoiding end-of-the-line ministries. These things are not concerns when the message of the gospel is preached, because it’s God who gives the growth.
So what do we do when the workers are few and the harvest is so plentiful? The answer isn’t to set ourselves the task of raising up workers for the harvest; instead, we should pray to the God of the harvest—that he might continue to show us his grace as we tell of his grace to all.