Thoughts on releasing workers for the harvest

At the second General Council of the Assemblies of God, the leaders of our fledgling movement committed the organization to “the greatest evangelism the world has evder seen.”[1]More than a century has passed since that declaration. The task before this generation is even greater than that envisioned by those founding fathers. Our world is four and one-half times as large as theirs and filled with complexities they could not have imagined. As educators we are enjoined to train the workers necessary to achieve the lingering goal they set for us. We face a situation that Jesus described as a ripened field ready for harvest, but for which the labor force was insufficient to complete the task.

Jesus used the agricultural term “harvest” as a means of describing and measuring the completion of the missionary task assigned to his disciples. On one occasion, he was surrounded by a large crowd in need of healing and orientation. He described them as harassed and helpless while likening them to a flock of sheep that had no shepherd. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” What is needed is an additional supply of harvesters. Go to the harvest manager and ask him to find more people and put them to work before the harvest spoils in the field. How does this apply to theological education in LAC? Our Former AGWM Executive Director, Loren Triplett frequently reminded us that “The harvest is not finished until all the grain is out of the field and into the barn.”

This short essay will explore means by which the “Lord of the harvest” answers the prayer for the laborers needed for an abundant harvest (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). The discussion will be less academic than philosophical shaped by much reflection. It will largely presentinformation and insights gained as a church planter and as the initial Director of the FRAHMAD Evangelism and Church Planting Commission (CEPI).

Why Is this topic under discussion?

Several years ago, Rodrigo Espinoza underscored this for me. He then served as the Superintendent of the Asambleas de Dios del Perú. He spoke to me of his conviction that the Lord was leading him to plant two hundred churches in Lima. When asked about the availability of the necessary two hundred church planters, his response was negative. He judgedthe churches and the Bible Institutesto be incapable of responding to the challenge in even a minimal way. In that light, his vision lost feasibility. You simply can’t plant churches without church planters.

However, my further research into demographic and socio-economic condition of the city projected that Lima’s population would continue to grow, reaching twelve million people by 2025[2]. New data gained in the research indicated the need for more than five hundred new Assemblies of God congregations to evangelize and disciple the growing population. That discovery drove me back to Jesus’ instruction. But my initial reaction was to ask the Lord, if there are not two hundred, how will we ever have five hundred? I seldom have sensed the voice of the Lord as clearly as this, but his response was a quick, “that’s no problem, I already have them! They are seated in the pews of the churches in this city. I have equipped them with the gifts they need and called them. But their pastors will not release them to that ministry.” I was left with the assurance that the necessary workers were in place. All that was needed was to provide a way for their pastors to discover them and release them to fulfill their calling.

Urbanization has outgrown the ability of national churches to keep pace with the burgeoning population of our cities. At its formation, the Directivaof FRAMHAD[3]cited church planting as the priority for the decade. CEPI discovered that in the process of building awareness among pastors and national leadership that there was unanimous consent that the need for multiplying the number of congregations was of great urgency. But, once again the issue became the deficit of prepared workers to plant the new churches.

Is LAC ready for harvest?[4]

630.5 million people call the countries of LAC home. Of that number 523.3 million people are still outside of Christ, meaning that five of every six persons have not been reached with a culturally comprehensible gospel message. Each one needs to be introduced into a Spirit-filled group of believers. Our population growth rate for the Region has slowed to 1.075 percent. However, that still means that 6.78 million people who have to be evangelized are born each year.

As of this writing, LAC has in excess of 220 thousand churches and preaching points[5]to our credit. However, 74 percent of them are in Brazil which has only 32 percent of the population. This leaves Spanish-speaking Latin America and the Caribbean nations to accomplish 68 percent of the task with 26 percent of the churches.

Latin America, without effort, has adopted much of post-modern philosophy though indoctrination in the educational system combined with public communication and social media. The spiritual vacuum left in its wake has produced a generation devoid of a basis for morality or a defensible epistemology. Naturalism cannot provide them with moral reasoning. They are spiritually aware and desirous of spiritual experience but without any means of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Social confusion is amply demonstrated by the way in which the LGBTQ agenda has claimed the high ground in the moral debate over gender and sexuality. Millennials have been described in many ways, but an underlying value is their demand for authenticity.

All of this has opened the door for the greatest opportunity the church has been presented since the first century. The only answer for this generation and the multitudinous social problems of the urban complex is a fully Pentecostal New Testament Church. The question arises again at this point, do the churches in our movement have the human resources and the motivation to rise to the challenge?

Is there a sufficient number of “harvesters?”

However, it is not the responsibility of educators to find or to call the workers. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, IBAD receives persons who sense a call to serve God in some capacity of ministry. The educator orients them and prepares them by introducing them to the tools needed to succeed in fulfilling that calling.

The Lord has given us the instrumental task of shaping and training those he discovers and calls. Some whom he has already selected for ministry to this generationwill be found in the pews and in positions of leadership in local churches. Because he is the God of the present who also fills the future, he has plans to save and call a multitude of new workers who at the present time are under the domination of the “god of this age.”Others may be awakened to new horizons in the aulas of our Bible Institutes.

This discussion arose in the 2017 Educators Dialogue in Panama City, Panama. The consensus placed the blame for the scarcity of workers to plant needed new churches squarely at the feet of the pastors. At the same time there seemed to be agreement that the Bible Institutes were not the progenitors of church planters. Rather, local congregations had taken on the role of “mothering” churches.

What do we mean by “releasing” workers into ministry?

No one is born a pastor, an evangelist, a missionary, a teacher, or a church planter. Each of these is the product of a chain of discipleship that occurs in a local church under the direction of its pastor. The pastor has a vested interest in those in whom they have invested their ministry. They sense a responsibility to guide the spiritual development of each member of the congregation. Thus, there is a natural reluctance to surrender their disciples into the control of another person or entity.

In our context, this can also produce a sense of “ownership” over the congregation. The pastors desire to be involved in decisions affecting their disciples. This may lead to their refusal to release members into ministry outside of their control. It is also true that dependable workers are a key element in the functioning of local church and most churches do not have any to lose. The release of a valued and loved leader is a considerable loss to the ministry of the local church. This is compounded by the absence of systematic preaching about the call of God and presenting opportunities for members to respond to his calling. Often the brightest youth and most promising youth are encouraged to pursue professional careers in the university with no consideration given the option of ministry as a vocation.

Filial or annex churches that remain tied to mother church indefinitely have been cited as another aspect of the problem. This prevents them from self-determination, development of new workers, and multiplication of that new body as part of the denominational structure. Among the reasons offered are the capacity to assure the growth of the outstation and the continued training of the worker. Also, the annex creates additional resources for the mother church. At times, a distrust of national leadership also is part of the equation.

On occasion, we have observed that even students who enter ministerial training with their pastor’s full approval are not free to pursue their own ministry path outside their home church.

The word “releasing” carries some interesting contexts. The thesaurus provides the following synonyms: freeing, discharging, liberating, and emancipating. These are very strong words indeed. This needs to be placed in the biblical context of calling and discipleship. The disciple is freed to follow the calling of the Lord who is directing the harvest and assigning the worker to the place of their greatest value to the advance of the kingdom.

This was the case when the “prophets and teachers” who led the Antioch church were instructed by the Holy Spirit to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work to which he had called them. The Spirit revealed to them what God had already called their coworkers to do. These two were valuable members of the leadership team and were instrumental in the growth of the work. The Spirit’s The leaders prayed over them and released them. They were “sent out by the Holy Spirit. “Effective Christian leaders will likewise see the need to discern God’s gifting for ministry in others, to support (and where necessary train) thosewhom God is leading to local ministry or mission elsewhere, and to affirm them by acts of ordination or commissioning.”[6]

What are the scriptural principles that undergird the concept of release?

Jesus’ initial invitation to his disciples was, “come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” He had a goal in mind that the disciples would have had a difficult time defining at the beginning of their journey. His purpose is revealed in Mark’s account, “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”[7]

All of Jesus’ discipling time spent with the Twelve pointed toward releasing them into ministry in his absence. However, on at least two occasions he gave them practical assignments of individual or shared ministry, then spent time with them receiving their reports and imparting additional instruction.[8]

His discipling of the Twelve did not end at the cross. Post-resurrection, the Lord continued preparing them, teaching them about the kingdom, until his ascension. Still, after that, though fully prepared and empowered by the Spirit, their ministry exhibited a continuing dependence on the Spirit and the guidance of the Lord Jesus.

Discipleship does not have as its goal the formation of new believers into good church members, but mature disciples who understand their spiritual gifting and embrace their ministry role in the body of Christ and in the world. The end-product of the discipling process is not just a disciple, it is a disciple-maker.

The following bulleted list outlines the relationship of every believer to the calling of God into service within the kingdom. All the workers belong to the Lord of the harvest.

  • Every believer is called to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23).
  • Every believer is commissioned (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; John 20:21).
  • Every believer receives the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:1517; 16:13; Rom 8:9,14).
  • Every believer is expected to experience with the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:38-39).
  • Every believer is gifted by the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:7).
  • Every believer has a ministry (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 4:12; 1 Peter 4:10).
  • Every pastor has the responsibility to guide each church member to discover and exercise their gifts in ministry (Ephesians 4:11).

Current arguments concerning the “five-fold” ministries in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church have provided as much confusion as clarity. The bottom line is that Jesus has gifted certain individuals to function in specified roles within the body of Christ. The apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors-teachers Christ gives to the church all have the same single, common goal: to equip the members of the body of Christ for ministry.[9]

Why Release them?

An answer to the question of return on investment lies at the root of the problem of holding on to potential workers. How does releasing a member of the church benefit my ministry and my congregation? Pastors must be enabled to see the work of the church in their city and nation with kingdom eyes. This will make it possible for them to see the setting apart and sending of their workers as gain rather than loss.

CEPI has seen growth using lay workers who plant churches under the supervision and mentorship of their pastor. CEPI gained trust by making the pastors partners and participants in the training process. They wanted to be involved, and to have a share in the direction, training and supervision of the members they chose to plant churches. They rejected previous church planting programs that sought to train their workers without their participation and sometimes without their permission. However, as they experienced the development and success of their disciples in winning people to Christ and developing the nucleus of a church plant, the release of the worker became a joy rather than a loss.Seeing one’s spiritual progeny grow and prosper in ministry produces a sense of satisfaction and validates the ministry of the pastor.

When a pastor disciples and sends out workers, he or she multiplies the reach and effectiveness of his or her ministry. This results in the joy of participating with the Lord in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

An additional benefit is that when a pastor invests in the kingdom by training and releasing valuable workers, he will be rewarded as the Lord sends new disciples to train and shape. There is a law of reciprocity in play here. God gives more to those he can trust with little. And he takes away from those who refuse to invest the little they have.[10]

The training and releasing of a new worker into ministry assures the pastor that the knowledge and experience gained in a lifetime of ministry—the investment of God in the life of his servant—will live on and not go into the grave with him, but will continue to bless the church in future generations.

Remember the words of Abraham when faced with what seemed to be the probable loss of his only son, “God will provide…!”

 What Is the Role of Theological Education?

There are no simple answers for the question we have raised. The problems are complex and defy ready-made solutions. Perhaps the discussion should be broadened and made the subject of serious reflection, waiting on the Lord of the Harvest for his direction. I would like to make a couple of observations and suggest a few questions to stimulate reflection and dialogue.

When Jesus named the Twelve, his first purpose was to have them with him.[11]Discipleship can never be a long-distance relationship. It demands close interaction and observation. Getting to know Jesus through being with him was prior to being sent to preach and cast out demons. It is likely that students will capture more from being in your presence and developing a relationship than merely hearing lectures.

Ideally, missionary educators should cultivate friendships with pastors, and regional and national leaders. Such relationships are crucial for building confidence in our ministry as educators. Being cultural outsiders in Latin America, our real authority is based on relationship over position.

Somehow, the focus of students and pastors should shift away from their potential role in the local church toward their role as disciple makers who expand the kingdom of God. All of us must come to see the local church in relation to its role in the growth of the kingdom rather than church health as an end-in-itself. A truly healthy church will have an interest in multiplying its ministry and fulfilling the Lord’s commission.

In response to the needs presented above a basic question must be answered. “If we keep doing what we are doing will we accomplish the evangelistic task?”

Have we developed an educational philosophy of ministry that reflects our commitment to the primary task of the church and the missionary endeavor? The role of theological education is to shape and change the next generation of leaders to inculcate in them a philosophy of ministry focused on the missio Dei. Do our entrance and exit requirements reflect this philosophical commitment?

Are we training the right people? The elders that Paul and Barnabas left in charge of the fledgling churches they planted were mature adults who already had a standing as leaders within the community. To what degree have we excluded these people from our theological education program? Is our ministerial training program accessible to mid-career adults who seem to be leading the way to the church planting movement?

At this point several thousand lay-workers have entered the ministry as church planters. With the mentorship of their pastor, they pass through a one-year practical training program. However, few of them have received any formal theological education. They present an urgent need for innovative methods to provide the basic tools they will need to lead a seedling church into viability and to efficiently disciple their converts.

In the Epistles, Paul sees the teacher as a person who is a gift to the church. The teacher is placed in the classroom, or any teaching situation to act in Christ’s stead, as his representative to achieve his goals for the persons to whom we minister. Our natural gifts and spiritual gifting will be enhanced through his anointing and will accomplish his purpose for the educator and for the learner. We do not choose teaching because we are good at it, but in obedience to the One who calls and sends laborers into the harvest. We can never forget that we are his agents to prepare and sharpen the tools of those he has chosen to send into the harvest with authority over evil spirits, to preach the gospel of the kingdom, and heal the sick.

I believe that first-year students must be exposed to the basic practices involved in church planting as part of their ministerial training. Students should be provided with opportunities for outreach. Whenever possible this should be accompanied by pasantíasor internships in which learning is enhanced through serving alongside of experienced pastors and church planters.

Recent data tells us that we have 54,000 students enrolled in our theological education institutions. That statistic would tend to disprove the allegation that pastors are unwilling to release their members for ministerial training. The overriding question we must face is “How do we effectively channel these precious resources into the master’s harvest field?” The needs presented are overwhelming. But the resources the Lord has called and trusted to our tutelage is far greater than we could have imagined. This is the hour in which with God’s help we must arise to the challenge with an army far greater than Gideon’s.

 


 

[1]https://ifphc.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=history.main

[2]Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática de Perú. 2011.

[3]Fraternidad Hispana Mundial Asamblea de Dios

[4]The data in this section is drawn from a variety of sources that include AGWM annual reports, the CIA World Factbook (www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook), the World Bank and countrymeters.info. These were accessed in April 2018.

[6]David G. Peterson (209:377) The Acts of the Apostles: Pillar New Testament Commentary. Erdmann’s. 2009.

[7]Mark 3:13-15

[8]The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman is the classic manual on Jesus’ discipleship method. It was originally published by Revell in 1963, but its detailed analysis of Jesus’ training process remains valid today.

[9]Ephesians 4:11-17. Gordon Fee’s commentary on this passage provides a thoroughly balanced pentecostal exegesis on the nature of Christ’s gift. (God’s Empowering Presence (Hendrickson 1994:702-708)

[10]Matthew 25:14-24

[11]Mark 3:14

2 Replies to “Thoughts on releasing workers for the harvest”

  1. Thanks Jerry, for your passion to empower, equip, train and send workers into the harvest. Like you, I am thankful for every form of training we provide-in homes, the local churches, and Bible Schools. You always stir my heart when you talk about the need for church planters. And I am thankful for the 10 city churches you planted in Ecuador. Let’s work together to provide a plan for those in ministry who need more on-the-job training. As we discussed in Panama earlier this month, Faith & Action books are easy to study and preach on the same day! Let’s map out a program to help church planters who are not taking the traditional path of attending Bible School, but head straight to the harvest.
    A grateful friend,
    Quentin

  2. Thanks Jerry! Awesome article challenging the general tendency toward focusing inward on church growth. I LOVE your emphasis on releasing them, and your references to the Master Plan of Evangelism (my favorite leadership book).

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