Some time ago I sat in a large church in Kyiv, Ukraine, listening to a visiting evangelist from America share a testimony. He told how he had been walking through the capital's main square when he noticed a large political rally in progress. He walked up to the stage and asked if he as a visiting American could speak to the crowd. They gave him the microphone and he proceeded to preach the gospel to over 2,000 people for five minutes. He asked how many wanted to accept Jesus and 2,000 hands went up. "Isn't that wonderful," he asked the congregation. There was no response. He couldn't imagine why they could not see that this was one of the greatest evangelistic miracles of all time, happening right in their own city. They, in the meantime, were looking around trying to figure out where were the hundreds of new converts that should have been in their church that morning.
In contrast, I was in Albania just weeks after the country had opened up. Youth With A Mission (YWAM) was there along with a number of other missions to conduct a first-ever joint stadium crusade. It was agreed that we would work together and abide by some strict policies that were jointly drafted. First, we would use only the Book of John for all our preaching and teaching and this would be given to the people on the first night. Altar calls would not be made. Rather, seekers would be invited to the city park the next day for further instruction from the Book of John. This was the pattern every evening and every day. After a week, people were invited to respond and were then asked to join a special class which prepared them for baptism. Fifty people came on that Saturday to a lake in the middle of Tirana to profess their new-found faith in Jesus. Many more came the next day to the very first Sunday service to hear the new believers testify. Two new churches and a YWAM Discipleship School were planted out of that outreach.
We have all witnessed good and bad efforts at evangelism these past years. Since I work with thousands of young people who are very eager in their enthusiasm for winning the lost, I am used to criticism. I must say that we try in our training to teach responsible evangelism and I personally make a very big point of discouraging our workers from giving altar calls, especially in schools and street outreaches. I can't say that I have always been successful, and zeal sometimes still prevails over cultural sensitivity.
I really have been surprised recently at the kind of criticism leveled at almost all evangelistic efforts, from the church in the East and the church in the West, levelled at Billy Graham and The CoMission, at many famous and not-so-famous evangelists. After all, who hasn't gone to Russia or the other former Communist lands in these last years? The questions indigenous churches ask are very valid and I have to say that I agree with some of what is being voiced. After all the stadium crusades, school and prison outreaches, and all the thousands of hands that were raised to accept Jesus, what is there to show for it? How many churches were started after some of these outreaches started meetings in theaters and culture centers with hundreds of people? A number of these meetings are now down to a handful of people. And these are the small percentage that actually came to church out of all those who heard and responded.
Now that the dust is beginning to settle, we can see a little more clearly. But as we look toward the future things don't look too hopeful and there are a lot of questions as to who should have gone and what should have been done. Many are now looking at these last few years as the golden years of evangelism that are now over or coming to an end. Is the harvest over?
My question is, was it really a harvest? Let's look at the ministry of Jesus which lasted only a few years and in many ways was similar to what we are experiencing now. Jesus had a tremendous following. Thousands crowded around him wherever he went. But how much did he harvest? At his death even his disciples were not sure where they stood. The problem was in their understanding of the gospel, or misunderstanding. It was not until Jesus stood before them after his resurrection that their understanding became clear. What he had told them about the temple being destroyed and in three days being restored was finally understood. He was talking about himself, not the temple. They had thought so much in the physical realm. They sought to make of him a political figure while all along he was sharing with them a gospel that they just did not comprehend. In Russia people have also followed our lead out of curiosity, or even out of economic interests. Some were intrigued by the politics. Partially it was our fault. We gave them a very limited view of the gospel. After all, how much of the gospel can you really give in a five-minute message, or even a half-hour one. That's revivalism, not evangelism.
So did we fail; should we not have gone at all? No, I don't believe our mistake was in going. It has been our misunderstanding of our task. If we consider this the harvest, then we did badly. Jesus talked a lot about this, and he gave us some good illustrations. The best was in the picture of the sower who went out to sow. He sowed seed that fell on different kinds of ground: rocky ground, parched ground, and birds snatched up some seed. But some fell on good ground and that produced fruit a hundredfold.
I believe that these last years were not the time of harvest but of sowing. I think of all the seed that was sown in a variety of evangelistic activities, the thousands who went into schools, prisons, and stadiums. Think of all the literature that was distributed and the Scriptures that were translated for the first time in so many of the Slavic and non-Slavic languages. Also, the message of love went forth through tons of humanitarian aid that was sent. All of that was seed that was sown. Now we can stand and question the sowers like the disciples did when they asked Jesus to stop the people who were not part of their group. Or we can judge the harvest, about which Jesus said that the tares should not be separated from the wheat, but that God in the end would be the judge.
In the end, it is the Lord of the harvest who gives the increase; we are the sowers and the waterers. The seed was sown and is still being sown. I personally believe that right now is a time to water the seed, and I admire those who have taken to this task by their long-term efforts--the church planters and those involved in training.
Years ago when it was very difficult to evangelize in the Soviet Union, we had teams working in a variety of places. One of those was Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. It was a large seaport with three or four Russian ships in port on any given day. The young Russian sailors were friendly and had nothing to do in port but shop and sit in the many cafes. We only had several days to reach out to them. Basically all we could do was share our testimonies and give them Bibles: sow the seed. Years later we got a letter from the son of a missionary in Las Palmas. He told how he had travelled to Russia and visited a church where he was asked to give greetings. He said he was from Las Palmas, at which the pastor stopped him and said, "Las Palmas! I was a young sailor and was in Las Palmas. A group of young people gave me a Bible and told me about Jesus. I read that Bible on my way back to Russia, I gave my heart to Jesus, and found a church. Today I am a pastor because of that incident in Las Palmas." This man was one of the good seeds and today he is producing a hundredfold.
In fact, as I consider the work of the last few years, what comes to my mind are the individuals that stand out. I think of the Nenets people who live in the far North, reindeer herders. There may be only three believers among them. Yet two of these have just been trained to go back as missionaries among their own people. That is good seed that will bring a hundredfold. I think of a young lady who came up to me after I spoke in a large church in Estonia. She was the daughter of a diplomat in the Kremlin. She told me how she always wanted to sneak into a church but was afraid to. Finally, she managed to sneak in that night and came to find out how she could become a believer. Today she and her husband are studying for the ministry at a seminary. She has already produced wonderful fruit. But how much more is yet to come?
You see, the harvest has not yet happened. That is yet to come in Russia and Eastern Europe. We are yet to see the hundredfold. We often want to see our work grow by addition. God instead works by subtraction, then multiplication. Our work will be pruned, but the branches that remain will bring more fruit. Like an expectant farmer after a busy year of preparing the soil, tilling the ground, removing the rocks, and planting and watering the seed, I look forward to a season of harvest that will be unlike any other we have ever seen in history.
Al Akimoff is director of Youth With A Mission Slavic Ministries, Salem, OR.
believers (not observant)
once a week
once a month
on religious holidays and family occasions
hard to say
believers (not observant)
© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies