I think we need to rethink how we understand evangelism. When most people think of evangelism, they think of leading a person to Christ. Get them to pray a prayer, make a commitment, close the deal. You get the idea.
Jesus called this harvesting.
But there is more to evangelism than merely leading a person of Christ. To some, that might not sound right. But this, I think, only illustrates my point. Evangelism has become a synonym for harvesting. Consequently, the greater the harvest, the greater the evangelist. And, if you find that you aren’t constantly reaping a harvest of new converts, then the implication is you aren’t a good evangelist.
I want to share something with you that has revolutionized my thinking on this issue. I used to beat myself up about not being a better harvester. Compared to some evangelists, I am an outright failure. How is it that some Christians seem to be leading people to Christ all the time while others struggle without seeing any fruit?
I think the answer lies in knowing the season and knowing your role.
One Field with Two Different Seasons
Before there can be a harvest, there is always a season of gardening. There is tilling, planting, watering, and weeding. This takes hard work. But when the time is right, and the fruit is ripe, the fruit falls from the tree. Harvesting is the easy part when the fruit is ready. But it takes a lot of sweat to get to that point. Every season of harvesting is preceded by a season of gardening.
After years of speaking with people who do not share my convictions, I have come to realize that I’m a gardener.*
If you’ve done any gardening with unbelievers, you know that it takes a lot of effort. It’s labor intensive. Rather than physical labor, this involves intellectual and spiritual labor. For example, I’ve had countless conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses who have knocked on my door. Some of these discussions have lasted more than two hours. I’ve come to learn that an effective conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses takes time spent in careful Bible study. It involves defending the Christian faith against attacks from multiple fronts. It takes hours praying that God would open their eyes to the truth. It involves sacrificing part of your weekend to make yourself available. It’s labor, and it’s exhausting.
It may surprise you to learn that in all of those conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve never led any of them to Christ. That is, none of them have trusted in Jesus Christ—God the Son—as their Savior and Lord while sitting in my living room. Does that mean I’ve failed as an evangelist? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
One Team with Two Different Roles
Evangelism is a team effort. It takes harvesters and gardeners. In fact, Jesus uses this same agricultural illustration when speaking to His disciples. He says,
Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:36–38)
Please hear Jesus’ words afresh. There are reapers and sowers, harvesters and gardeners. And the gardeners play a significant role in leading people to the Savior of the world. Jesus tells His disciples that they are harvesting where they did not garden. Other people did the gardening—what He calls the labor. So it’s a team effort. Gardeners and harvesters work together for an ultimate goal. One team with two different roles. This is why the “sower and reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:36b).
Speaking with unbelievers about spiritual things can be frustrating at times. I think this is because we don’t usually see the immediate fruit of our labor. All that we see is the labor. After frequent fruitless spiritual conversations with a Muslim co-worker, or repeated debates with an unbelieving brother-in-law that appear to have no effect, we might be tempted to ask, What’s the point?
Don’t be discouraged when your labor gets hard and you don’t see the harvest. You might be a gardener, and it could be that you are in a season of gardening. Instead, be encouraged that God may be using your efforts—along with the efforts of others—to bring in a harvest that you may never see.
Always remember, it’s our job to be faithful witnesses for Christ (Acts 1:8) and then leave the results to God. Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
*As a gardener I have a modest goal in any particular conversation with an unbeliever. I want to put a stone in their shoe. I do this with the game plan outlined in Greg Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.