The balance of search and harvest
[tweetable]The tragedy of those who depart this life without hope in Christ is a horror beyond description.[/tweetable] Indeed, their eternal condition is an unending nightmare of despair and torment, made worse by the knowledge that it did not have to be. God has commanded everyone everywhere to repent and believe the good news. He has sent us into his world with the saving good news of the gospel, proclaiming forgiveness and eternal life for all who will repent of their sins and turn to our Christ. It is therefore essential that we go and preach and that they hear and repent, for there is salvation in no one else and without hearing the gospel and being born again there is no hope in this life or in the one to come.
Our awareness of this truth and sensitivity to the biblical command to take the gospel to everyone on the planet spurs us on to rescue the perishing and care for the dying, as it should. But our zeal to reach them all as quickly as possible must be tempered with knowledge; we must do as we have been instructed. Christ articulated the Great Commission with a single imperative – to make disciples. He did not command us merely to share of him; he commanded us to make disciples by teaching them all he commanded us.
Yes, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But, what is it to call upon the Lord? What is the difference between hearing and acknowledging and understanding and believing?
The Lord knows, and he is the only one who can make the saving difference. He uses the preached word, so we must reach and preach. But the Spirit who inspired the Word illumines the hearts of hearers to understand it as we make disciples, teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded us. So we must reach them, but we must also teach them.
A friend once pointed out the importance of reaching the lost who have never heard the gospel, and doing so as quickly as possible, by reminding me that more than 200,000 souls passed into a Christless eternity when the tsunami struck Asia. These unreached people never heard the gospel. Their eternal lostness is painfully clear. Some would argue that God would not send them to hell if they had never heard the gospel and rejected Christ. But, no one ever went to hell for rejecting Christ.
People go to hell because they are sinners and their sinful rebellion has separated them from a holy God. We all start out at this point. The only way back to God is through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one way that they can be saved. He has sent us to the world to reach and preach this good news, without which no one can be saved. We must reach them as quickly as we can.
However, as I thought about the staggering reality of that vast number of souls who perished in one day during a massive tsunami in Southeast Asia, feeling the temptation to strategize to reach the rest of the world to give them at least John 3:16, I remembered something else. Virtually the same number of people died in one day in Haiti, a country that is considered Christian by almost any modern standard. Indeed, even CNN coverage noted those who were praying and singing hymns in the rubble. Haiti was deemed reached and left in the hands of the nationals, while many missionaries turned their attention to the unreached areas of the world. Yet, missiologists report that about 90 percent of Haiti’s population adheres to Voodoo, the brand of paganism that emerged during the colonial era that incorporates many Christian elements, adding Jesus to the pantheon of spirits that address all needs, fears or concerns of life.
There are many sincere evangelical Christians among the Haitian population, godly men and women who are burdened by the syncretism they see every day. There are countless more whom we have considered to be believers, but who are deceived by Voodoo and blinded by demonic forces. The same number of people died in Haiti in one day as died in the tsunami in one day. One group was never reached, the other was never taught what it means to know Christ truly, to turn away from the old, to repent and be born again. Can we begin to measure which one is worse? Are they not both unbearable?
Look back a few more years, to what was arguably the most reached country in Africa, with more than 90 percent of the population being baptized Christians. Yet, while the West blinked, almost one million were hacked to death by their “Christian” brothers. Between 800,000 and one million people died in less than 100 days in the worst genocide we have known – among “Christians.” They called themselves reached Christians; we called them that, too.
Yes, we must reach the people in this world who have never heard the gospel; there is absolutely no hope for them without it, and we must do so as quickly as we can. But we must also remember that Jesus commissioned us not merely to reach them, but to make disciples and teach them all that he commanded us.
There should be no dichotomy between search and harvest, as if one is more biblical than the other, as if one is essential, crucial, imperative and urgent while the other is less important. Reaching the unreached is an absolute necessity and unquestionably the Christ-given task of the church. Teaching the reached is its twin duty – equal in importance, urgency and biblical origin.
[tweetable]Reaching the lost and teaching the saved is the task of missions.[/tweetable]
M. David Sills is A.P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology and Director of Global Strategic Initiatives and Intercultural Programs at Southern Seminary. Dr. Sills joined Southern Seminary after serving with the International Mission Board in Ecuador as as church planter and general evangelist among the Highland Quichua people in the Andes, and as a seminary professor at the Ecuadorian Baptist Theological Seminary. He also served as Rector and professor of the Baptist seminary as a missionary with Global Outreach International. Dr. Sills is the author of The Missionary Call and Reaching and Teaching, and two books on the Highland Quichua indigenous people published in Spanish by Editoral Abya Yala, Quichuas de la Sierra: Descubriendo un modelo de adiestramiento pastoral culturalmente apropiado and Capacitación Pastoral en la Cultura Quichua. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.