By Rick Weinert
My grandpa had a large garden. One spring he showed me how to cut seed potatoes so that each piece had at least one eye, and we planted them in the soil behind the house. The waiting was agony. At first there was no progress at all, but Grandpa encouraged me to be patient. When the first green plants started growing, I was ready to start digging. If there is a plant, then there must be potatoes, I thought.
Grandpa had to gently dig up one potato just to show me it was too early. As the potatoes began to form, he would gently brush back the dirt and show me that the potatoes were there, but they weren’t ready yet. A few new potatoes were good to eat, but if we were to have enough for the coming year, we needed to let them grow to maturity.
The process was so long that I gave up checking my potatoes. It wasn’t exciting anymore. It took too long.
But on the day Grandpa announced the harvest, we unearthed sacks of potatoes. The harvest was exciting! Every mound was a new discovery. And I found more than potatoes that day. The lesson I learned has served me well in ministry. The harvest was worth the wait, but without the wait there would have been no harvest.
Premature Harvest – Everything has a season
As a young pastor in northern California, I had made a habit of visiting the local cafe for lunch. The owner grew to know me, and we began to talk. One day she asked me, “Do you do any counseling?”
I was inexperienced, but I had Bible College training, a couple of counseling classes, and a couple years in the ministry. “I haven’t done a lot, but I do some.”
We set an appointment, and she and her husband came to my study. Their daughter had gotten in with the wrong crowd, and they were worried about her. What could they do to help her?
I listened carefully, trying to think what I was suppose to do next. For some reason I kept thinking, always present the gospel, always present the gospel. So I began, “The only way you can help your daughter is by making sure that your relationship to God is right. If you were to die tonight…”
It was the strangest sensation. The more I talked the bigger that little room became and the farther from me the couple seemed to be sitting. It began to feel as though an immeasurable gulf divided us. No one got saved that day, and I was of no help to them whatsoever. I pulled up everyone of the seeds I had planted in my lunch counter conversations. And I preempted the possibility of any future harvest. I continued to eat lunch in their cafe, but they avoided me. The next pastor in that community had no better response. They were closed to the gospel. I had mistaken planting season for harvesting and ended up with nothing.
An Almanac Of Excuses
If a premature harvest is so dangerous, why do we insist on plucking up sprouts before the fruit is ripe? One reason is zeal.
While attending Bible College, a friend and I decided to make an evangelistic foray onto the local university campus. We wandered around until we saw a student who seemed like a good prospect. We gave little prayer to this effort, and there was no plan for follow up, let alone building relationships beforehand. We were going to turn that campus upside down for Christ!
The evening ended a dismal failure. Our student preferred to discuss fascism rather than Christianity. If we presented the gospel at all, we did so poorly with no positive response. We had zeal, but no experience, no wisdom, no preparation, and worst of all, no harvest.
A second reason that we sometimes harvest too soon is lack of faith. As a child I had to trust my grandfather to know the proper time to dig the potatoes. As a believer zealous to see souls won for Christ, it is sometimes difficult to trust that God will bring it about in his time, not mine.
A young woman began to attend our church with her children. Occasionally she and her husband would invite me for supper, and we began to develop a friendship. As I shared the gospel with her she told me, “We prayed something like that once. We were trying to rent a house and they told us to pray this prayer. We just thought it was something we had to do to be able to rent.”
As a result of their previous confusion and her husband’s disinterest in spiritual things, I didn’t push the gospel with them, but I discussed spiritual things as the opportunities arose. Eventually the husband was saved, and the entire family became active in the church-but only after I had moved on. The next pastor was able to reap where I had sown.
Another reason for a premature harvest is attempting to be someone we’re not. A friend used to tell the story of his first preaching experience: When my friend was a teenager, his father told the boys in their small church that he would like some of them to try their hand at preaching. My friend claims that he memorized one of Billy Graham’s sermons word for word and preached it like his own. Everything went great until he came to the part where he said, “Thousands are coming down to the front …”
True or not, my friend’s story always draws laughs and it makes a point: Trying to fit someone else’s mold will never work. It is better to discover your own style of ministry.
Knowing When To Dig
My wife and I planted a garden just after we married. I was so eager to harvest that I dug up the first thing that sent out green shoots. I asked my wife to cook it. I learned from my mistake. You only eat a rotten seed potato once.
I learned to watch closely as the mound grew. I learned to probe gently. I came to understand the subtle changes that occurred as the plant developed and the potatoes grew.
In one community I developed a friendship with a young man who did not attend church. I helped him remodel a storefront for his business, and I worked with him on the fire department. I occasionally went ‘coon hunting with him late at night.
One evening, as we were listening to his hounds bay in the distance, I decided it was time to probe. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” He agreed, so I probed a little deeper, “How do you view your relationship with God?” He gave an honest and open response, so I was encouraged to probe deeper still, “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” Before morning, I had a new brother in Christ.
Sometimes we need to push back the dirt gently and see if the crop is ready yet. If so, it’s time to dig. If not, we back off and trust God for the right time. We also need a bigger view of God. When we believe the harvest is largely dependent on us, we find ourselves fearful and anxious, and we usually fail.
At one point in my ministry I made it my goal to knock on every door in our little town to share the gospel. It was a knee-knocking, heart-pounding experience for me as I raised my knuckles to each door in that community. I never did finish, although I came close. Unfortunately, the harvest basket was empty.
I struggled for years after that feeling that there must be something wrong with me. Then one day I discovered that I was sharing the gospel with people without even trying. I went to a chiropractor for several months. We developed a relationship, and I found myself spending twenty minutes being treated and an hour talking with the chiropractor and his staff at every visit. Out of that grew a Bible study. The gospel was shared, marriages were strengthened, commitments were renewed, and seeds were sown.
The difference was God. In the first situation, sharing the gospel was something I determined to do. In the second, it was something God did.
In my first full-time pastorate, I developed a friendship with the local sheriff’s deputy. The first time we met, we went horseback riding. He had a question on his mind. “Why don’t you drink?”
It wasn’t the gospel, but I had an opportunity to give a non-condemning answer to a loaded question. From that time on, a pattern and a friendship developed. He would pick me up in his patrol car or in his pickup truck and we would drive-sometimes into the mountains, and sometimes to another town. And there would always be a question.
I never pushed. I just prayed and answered his questions the best I knew how. One day he picked me up in his truck so we could head for the mountains “to look for bear.”
We drove for a couple of hours, and then headed back into town. I thought it strange that there had been no questions. In front of my house he turned to me and said, “I’ve decided to give my life to the Lord.”
God brings people to faith in his time, but we must trust him enough to wait.
This article “Premature Harvest” by Rick Weinert is excerpted from ninety & nine web site, Nov. 2006.