In the summertime, I regularly visit Texas to teach Scripture at a summer camp for abused children. We describe our work as a “ground-tilling, seed-planting ministry.” Because we work with secular and civic groups to source the children for our camp, we commit to them that we won’t do altar calls or other invitations to come to Christ. We till the soil; we plant the seeds, but we don’t harvest the crop.
Frankly, this is sometimes a bit frustrating. We only have a week with these children, and there’s no guarantee that we will ever see them again. We love them so much that we want to know for certain that they will join us in heaven. And because we are often sending them back into family situations that are less than ideal, we desperately want them to go with some spiritual protection.
A few years ago, I thought I had found a clever loophole in our agreement with the groups who help us source the children. I decided that we could do more than we were doing to win the children to Christ. We could till the soil, plant the seeds, water the seeds and bring the children to the edge of the field, where we would hand them the sickle so that they could reap the harvest themselves. In practical terms, this meant that I presented the Gospel message several times and tried to convince the children that this was the most important decision that a human being could make.
A month before camp, we started praying as a group for twelve decisions for Christ. So we were overjoyed when the first little girl approached me after the teaching time and said that she wanted to ask Jesus into her heart. (We were not allowed to invite them, but we could lead them if they initiated.) Before the end of the day, she brought two of her friends who also wanted to become Christians.
I was so excited that I fell right into the Enemy’s trap. Thinking that we should celebrate these three new believers, I invited each of them to come up on stage and share their decision with their peers. These announcements were met with thundering applause and tears of joy, hugs and encouragement.
The following day, we had conversions four and five. The next day, conversion number six. And on the final day, conversions seven through twelve! Twelve prayers for Christ! We were ecstatic!
A few weeks later, a dear friend who also volunteers at the camp invited me to breakfast. In his gracefully tactful way, he shared with me the consequences of my exuberant semi-evangelism at camp that year. One of the mothers of the children who had accepted Christ at camp was very upset with us. In fact, she was complaining to the state agency through which we sourced many of the children. She wanted to know why, when her daughter had already received Christ in her heart, we were pressuring her to make a second decision. Ironically, the child was one of the first three who had made decisions that week.
As we unpacked the events of the week and my influence on them, I realized that I had created incentives for confessing a decision for Christ – individual attention, praise and encouragement, status (they got to hold the microphone), approval, applause… This presented a troubling problem. Could we be sure that the twelve decisions for Christ were genuine? In retrospect, no. They could have all been motivated by the incentives I added to the process. These were abused children, who often lived in homes where they shared the attention of adults with as many as a dozen foster-siblings.
I was humbled and convicted. As I reflect, the main mistake I made was valuing the harvest above the processes for ground-tilling and seed-planting. All three are evangelism. No one part is less valuable than the others.
We live in a culture where we want to measure everything. Some would say, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” But that’s such an evil deception in evangelism. All parts of the process are valuable and necessary. The missionary who serves for a dozen years with no converts to Christianity hasn’t wasted her time. She has broken up the rough ground. The man who preaches the Gospel to a handful of comers under a tent in a hot and dusty Texas town hasn’t wasted his time. He has planted seeds that will grow long after he has left.
Just because a compelling message is presented that draws hundreds to the altar doesn’t mean that the evangelist deserves credit for all those souls. He has benefited from the hard work of many others. And, truth be known, none of those others deserves the credit, either. It’s the Holy Spirit who draws people to Christ. Our role is to be faithful at the part that we’ve been called to do and not to argue with each other over who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.