Speaker: The Revd Tom Stuckey, Past President of the Methodist Conference (2005)
Theme: The Power of the Cross
Dates: Friday 3 to Sunday 5 November,
Revival and Harvest
‘In the middle of a still, humid summer’s day, the farm workers are idling time away. Ripe cornfields are all around them, but they are resting in the sun, chatting, some snoozing. They are passive, oblivious to the urgency of attending to the over-ripe harvest. Others tinker with rusty farming machinery nearby, which stand quiet, obviously not used for a long time. Harvesting equipment is inadequate and unprepared. Suddenly, from the corner of the fields, massive combine harvesters, manned by eager workers, power into action, moving in purposeful sequence together, to gather in the ripe golden corn. The farm hands, caught off guard, stumble to their feet and rush to their ageing machines. As engines struggle into life, the labourers, with a surprising fresh sense of purpose, line up with others to join in the harvesting of the great crops before them.’
This was a prophetic picture the Lord showed me a year ago about the state of our Church. We are marked by a variety of attitudes to the decline we face and the situation in our nation. Some have their heads in the sand, unable to face the reality of the moment; others are using coping mechanisms to manage decline pastorally. Some brave ones are boldly rationalising and pruning to enable growth, and a few visionary ones are seeding new experimental forms of church presence. Not many are actually expecting a large harvest from their efforts. Prayer is not mobilised, missionary strategy not acted upon, members are not empowered, and leadership is not prepared for the harvest that is growing around us. If we do not wake up to the potential of this season, we will be caught off guard by others who are better positioned for harvest, spiritually and naturally. We need quickly to enable an attitude of expectation and a culture of spiritual readiness to touch people who are ripe and desperate for the love of Jesus.
I have written about revival for a few years now, about its theology, mission potential, lessons from history and, above all, its constant challenge for the ‘more’ that God has in store for his church. In this article I simply want to state an obvious fact – namely that revivals are first and foremost times of spiritual harvest amongst those who are not yet saved. When we read the stories of past moves of the Spirit, we rejoice over the hundreds, perhaps thousands swept into the Kingdom as the gospel was preached and lived out in power and mercy. The 2nd Great Awakening amongst the American student colleges and amidst the migrants at the Camp Meeting frontiers, though profoundly different contexts, were both the fruit of a harvesting awareness in the church, as well as themselves becoming the new harvesters for their generation.
Yet the reality is that the approaching spiritual harvest was not obvious to most church people or leaders prior to those seasons of revival. The discerning few – spiritually renewed leaders, seasoned intercessors, restless young evangelists perhaps – saw what was possible, what God was preparing his church for. For times of massive cultural change, social dislocation from its own past, anxiety about the direction of the world, personal unsatisfied questing after transcendence and yet the irrelevance of the church have often been the very times God’s Spirit has brooded to birth revival seasons. In other words the social trends were against the tide of expectancy for Christian revival. The time of the Wesleys in the 1730’s was just such a time as that for whole swathes of the English population, the new industrial working class. This fermenting group, potentially the agitants for a revolution like that in France, was actually the group ripe for harvest in the fields, the classes and societies of early Methodism.
Why do I say this? There are trends, unnoticed by many, that point to impending harvest. When we look at the explosive global prayer movement at the moment, the unsatiated hunger for spirituality in people all around us, the common bonding of hopes and fears in international crises that have captured ordinary people’s attention, we see a ripe harvest field. Yet if we see only the desperate state of church decline nationally and locally around us, we can lose perspective. We can feel perpetually inadequate for the task, and forever by-passed by our society’s fast-track ride into post-Christian post-modernity, rather than harvesters poised to capitalise on ripe fields of God-opportunity. For example little in the life of the Argentinian church of the 1970’s looked promising for the evangelistic harvest of the mid-1980’s under the ministry of Carlos Annacondia. Evangelical churches were by and large small, insular, marginalised and feeling powerless. Yet the national trauma of the Falklands War aftermath both unsettled a nation and also created an openness amongst the churches for a fresh wind of the Spirit; thus emerged the space for visionary evangelists and church leaders to rise and capitalise on the moment.
The story of Jesus’ hands-on teaching with the disciples in John 4:27-38 is very pertinent for our situation today. In this episode Jesus, of course, has been about his Father’s business in touching yet another life with Kingdom grace. Now in the aftermath of the wonderful changed heart of the Samaritan woman, and the stirring of spiritual interest in the local village, Jesus’ disciples return from a shopping trip, and they find their values and expectations colliding with his.
In a dialogue typical of many, Jesus debriefs the Twelve after yet another ministry situation they failed to capitalise on. He chides them for being preoccupied with material interests (v.31), unaware of a spiritual harvest around them (v.35), and passive spectators to Jesus’ ministry (v.32). Does that challenge us? How often do we keep our sights low, consumed by maintaining the church rather than turning ourselves inside out in expressions of Kingdom grace? Does our faith stretch to personal risk taking in reaching out to others, expectant that God can use even me to bring a seeker to Christ? In contrast Jesus calls them, and us, to have a heart for the Father’s work (v.34), spiritual sight to see the harvest fields (v.35) and a renewed commitment to join in the harvesting of the Kingdom (v.38).
Of course, what I say has to be put into context. We do need a radical movement of congregations who are present in a relevant way within our culture, to incarnate church in the midst of the people. We need help to re-learn in what ways to live and tell the gospel so that it truly resonates and challenges the people of our communities. Not every group and sub-culture is as spiritually ripe as others. Yet many are and we do not realise it. We need the Lord’s leading if we are to find the open doors of opportunity, the men and women of peace in a neighbourhood, those praying for us to come over and help them. And he will give this to us, along with the filling of his Spirit and, I believe, in our day the revival element that surprises our ordinary walk and witness.
Even today, Jesus’ eyes are ranging across his church, looking for volunteers for his harvest field. We must be a people prepared in every way, not intimidated by the signs around of decline and marginalisation, but expectant and getting ready, with a harvesting mentality to our planning and praying. May God help us see and act as he does.