A Reaction to the New Pew Research Center’s findings on Religion in America
Luke 10:2 “Then He said to them, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
I want you to look this picture and tell me what’s wrong.
Pretty easy, huh?
This guy is fishing in the wrong place using the wrong bait. Any good fisherman knows that you catch fish on the fish’s terms. You go where the fish live and use bait they like to eat.
The problem with this guy is that he is sitting in a place he likes to live and using bait he likes to eat. That’s good for him but bad if he wants to catch fish.
Anyone knows that if you hope to catch fish, you do so on the fish’s terms. You must go where they like to live, offer what they like to eat and do it at a time when they like to feed.
The same is true for harvesting. You reap on the harvest’s terms. Any farmer or gardener can tell you that. The harvest tells you everything you need to know about the condition of the harvest and it sets the rules as to when and how it wants to be reaped.
This week a Pew Research Center poll was released on the religious condition of Americans. The findings were not encouraging. Of those Americans who claimed to be Christians in 2007, over 10% of them are no longer making that claim. 23% of the population claim no religious affiliation at all compared to 16% eight years ago. What was a group of 36.6 million Americans in 2007 claiming no religious affiliation has now swollen to 55.8 million. During that same time, the amount of people claiming to be atheist or agnostic has doubled.
When Jesus spoke of God, He referred to Him as the Lord of the Harvest. What’s really cool is that God is not only Lord of the workers but also Lord of the harvest. He is working in both places! This is something Paul affirmed in Acts 17:26-27 when he said that God, “...has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”
Did you see that? Paul was assured that no matter the present spiritual condition of a people or nation, God was at work among them helping them, as he said, “grope for Him and find Him.” That’s reassuring in light of the present survey.
It seems that one of the assumptions the early church leaders made as they penetrated the Roman Empire was that God was already at work in the culture. Perhaps this is because Jesus assured them that when the Holy Spirit was poured out, He was not just poured out upon the few who believed, but upon the whole earth. It was the Holy Spirit that would help prepare the world for the coming message of Christ. Jesus said it this way: “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8).”
Paul especially seemed keen on this truth. When he went into a new city to plant a church, he would look for how God was already working in that city and aligned his ministry accordingly. This was particularly true after Paul saw a Macedonian man in a vision standing on the shores of his own nation saying, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us (Acts 16:9).” From then on, it seems, Paul understood how to fish on the fish’s terms.
So when he went to Philippi, he found Lydia.
When he went to Athens, he found the statue to the Unknown God.
Later, when he went to Corinth, he found Pricilla and Aquila.
Later still, he found 12 disciples of John in Ephesus.
From that point on, Paul seemed to repeat this process. Assuming that God was the Lord of the Harvest, already at work in the culture, he discovered where God was moving and became His co-laborer. Perhaps this is why he said to the Corinthians: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building (I Corinthians 3:9).”
Before we bemoan the findings of the new Pew Research poll and blame the devil, we have to ask ourselves this question: Why is the culture not buying what we are selling?
If God is at work in culture like the early church believed, then why are people not accepting our message? Perhaps we are a bit like the man fishing with pizza in the pool. We are sitting in a place we enjoy, offering food we like to eat and wondering why nobody’s biting. If the first rule of fishing is fishing on the fish’s terms and the first rule of harvesting is reaping on the harvest’s terms, then the first rule of ministry should be hearing what the fish and wheat are saying.
Could it be that what we have written off as complaints and grievances from a worldly culture is actually God trying to get our attention? Could God be communicating through our own version of Paul’s Macedonian man? Could it be that God wants us to listen to the culture and change our baits and fishing tactics? Could God be saying something to the American church through the culture?
When I teach sales in our business school, I tell students that they need to sell like the buyer wants to buy. Some people like to talk and need conversation. Some people like to quietly ponder the purchase and need time to think. Some people are intimidated and need assurance. Some people are technical and need information. Others are emotional and need inspiration. Whatever the case, the wise salesperson knows how to make the deal by selling like the customer wants to buy.
Maybe you’re not comfortable with me putting the gospel in terms of sales. If not, then go back to the fishing and harvesting metaphor. Regardless, it all helps us make sense of what Paul said in I Corinthians 9:19-22: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Paul is simply saying what I tell my students, you gotta sell like the customer wants to buy. Instead of looking for what the devil is doing in our nation, we should follow the example of the early church leaders and look for what God is doing in our nation and then align our ministries accordingly.
If there is anything the Pew survey tells us, it’s that the fish are not fond of our bait. The harvest is speaking to us loud and clear. The world is crying out for the church they want us to be. Instead of rejecting that cry, we should discerningly listen for the voice of God in it.
Could the expectation be rising for a glorious church to emerge? Could this be a season like the one when expectation arose before the coming of Jesus the first time? If we make the same assumptions that the early church leaders made – that God is at work in the culture –we might discern the voice of God among those who are turning their backs on the American church. We might be able to see that they are desperate for a real, genuine, authentic, loving and honest church to arise.
Perhaps the chorus of cries echoing from the culture has joined the groans of creation that Paul referred to in Romans 8:19-22, “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
Let us hear their cry!
© 2015 Mark Pfeifer, ICAL International Director