The "Harvest Cycle" and Short-Term Missions

Posted by in Church & Missions

Anyone who knows anything about farming knows that, in order to reap a harvest, there are various stages you must pass through first. It should not surprise us that, when both Jesus and Paul, on various occasions, compare Christian evangelism and discipleship to the agricultural process, many of the same principles hold true for both.

The “harvest cycle” for pioneer missions usually includes the following stages:

* Choosing an appropriate field in which to work
* Removing the “rocks” of spiritual resistance
* Plowing the ground and preparing the spiritual soil
* Sowing the seed of the Gospel message
* Watering and cultivating the seed that has been sown
* Reaping the harvest
* Conserving the harvest
* Maintaining the ground for on-going planting, cultivation, and harvest

At various stages of the “harvest cycle,” there are generally different activities that prove, in the long run, to yield the most fruit. Those who labor in a particular field over an extended period of time, whether long-term missionaries or national believers, generally have a broader perspective and understanding of the work than those who come alongside them, for shorter periods of time, to help out. Sometimes, however, short-term workers come in assuming they know more than what they really do, and, as a result, end up causing more harm than help.

Imagine, for instance, in physical agriculture, someone coming into a newly planted field, in which the crops have not yet gone through the process of cultivation and ripening, and attempting to reap everything they can. The results for the harvest, from a long-term perspective, would be disastrous. The same thing can happen, on the mission field, when the Gospel is presented without adequate spiritual preparation, and appropriate contextualization of the message so that it is understood in a way that truly makes sense to the locals.

Around the world, different mission fields find themselves at different stages along the harvest cycle. As a result, the work of the long-term missionary in one field may be vastly different from the work of another long-term missionary in another field. The problem, many times, is when short-term workers “parachute” in, assuming that what may have worked somewhere else in a different context is sure to work just as well where you are.

In Spain, for example, the most dangerous workers can often be those who have had previous experience in Latin America. The language is the same (for the most part), the religious background in both places is Roman Catholic, and the culture, at least from a North American point of view, seems to be similar as well. But, many times, the missiological methods that function best in Latin America fall flat on their face in Spain.

Why is this the case? One of the main reasons is that the “harvest cycle” in Spain is at a different stage than it is in Latin America. Though I have not ever lived in Latin America myself, from what I understand, many (not all) of the contexts in which missionaries and short-term workers work there are what we would call “harvest fields.” That is, they are at a place in the “harvest cycle” in which the harvest has been cultivated, and is ripe and ready to reap. Spain, however, at least for the present, and among most people group segments, is far from what you might call a “harvest field.”

Actually, though, some of the best workers in Spain have come from Latin America. Without a doubt, their knowledge of the language, and innate understanding of Catholicism and latino culture, can be an advantage in Spain. But, the ones who have made the most impact, over the long haul, are those who have not come in assuming everything was going to be just like it was back in Latin America. The ones who come in “ready to conquer the world,” however, are usually the ones who fall the hardest.

All of this is one of the main reasons it is important for short-term workers to network and cooperate with long-term missionaries and national believers. It is also a reason why, many times, it is more strategic for churches to be involved in a few on-going projects, developing long-term relationships with those on a particular field, than in many different “hit-and-miss,” one-time endeavors.

A lot of times, when you have been somewhere, and seen something work, and you come somewhere else, and things don’t seem to be working all that well, you are tempted to start telling everyone about how it worked in such-and-such a place and such-and-such a time. And it may well be that people with experiences in other places have a lot to teach that can be very valuable. But, usually, in order to gain the right to teach, it is necessary to demonstrate first that you yourself are teachable. Sometimes, I have even seen how short-term workers can be more strategic than some long-term missionaries. This is usually because the short-term workers know they don’t know what they are doing, and are willing to learn, while the long-termers think they have it all figured out already.

One of the cultural virtues, and, at the same time, vices, we have as Americans, is a happy-go-lucky approach to things, thinking there’s a ready-made 4-step solution to just about any problem we might find. Certainly, we have accomplished a lot, as a country, because we have not let circumstances hold us back, and have ventured out to see what we might see, and do what we might do.

Cross-cultural ministry, however, is full of surprises. Appropriate and effective contextualization is many times more complicated than it appears on the surface. And, in order to be the best that we can for the glory of our Lord, and the advance of his Kingdom, we need to be ready, at times, to lay aside our cultural preferences and ways of doing things, and take on the role of learners.