I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
After all, our church has been in sustained evangelistic prayer for more than a year. We followed Jesus’ instructions to “pray the Lord of the hardest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
For the past year our church has been serving needs of those living in a part of town that most people try to avoid. Previous forays have been been seen an average of 8 to 10 church members participate.
So yes, I was surprised when 30 people showed up last week. He didn’t warn us ahead of time, but that was the day the Lord of the harvest answered our prayers!
And therein you will find 1 key to turnaround church leadership: lead them to pray for laborers!
Pray for Laborers
Jesus urged to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” on several occasions (Matthew 9:35-38; Luke 10:1-2). The different details in those two passages – when Jesus spoke, to whom, the occasion, and the purpose – suggest this was a frequent admonition.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
Jesus’ growing popularity was growing in and around Nazareth and Galilee (9:1, 9). As news of his miracles and gracious manner spread, ever larger crowds seek him (9:8, 26, 31). Indeed, they become “multitudes” (36). Their desperate plight was heart-wrenching. Jesus was moved to deep compassion (9:36).
After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. 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.
This occasion happened during Jesus’ later Judean ministry. The instruction wasn’t given in response to the multitudes who were already seeking Jesus. It is a strategic move to prepare people in the regions he would soon visit. This time his instructions weren’t given just to The Twelve. This was for the 70 who would go ahead to prepare the crowds for Jesus’ arrival and ministry in new regions.
The Apostles’ Role in Jesus’ Mission
Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 9:35-38 was a means to two ends; to recruit immediate help with the burgeoning demands of ministry, and to prepare The Twelve for a larger role in his mission.
Up to this point they have followed Jesus on his tours of Galilee (Matthew 4:22-23). Soon they would be sent out to proclaim that the Kingdom was at hand to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:5-15). Their responsibility and authority is noted in the fact that they are, for the first time, called apostles (Matthew 10:2).
Jesus’ instruction linked his Galilean ministry to the apostolic mission which follows. He saw the people in Galilee as sheep abandoned by their shepherds, or as a field of ripe grain in need of immediate harvest lest it spoil. His apostles would now help Jesus with the ingathering. This is a variation on the theme that they would be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). They would become agents in Jesus’ mission.
Prayer Precedes Ministry
The need for help with the ministry was overwhelming. Their physical ailments weren’t the only thing demanding care. They were in desperate spiritual condition. Israel’s spiritual leaders, appointed to provide spiritual comfort and direction, had abandoned them. The work had become spiritually, emotionally, and physically draining.
Help was needed. He must do something, a fact signaled by “therefore” in verse 38. But instead of sending them out into the field to join in the harvest, he first sendt them to prayer. Before leaning into the work, they must kneel before the Father to ask for help in ministering to those who were seeking Jesus.
This leads to an important insight for pastors of plateaued and declining churches: prayer precedes ministry. If your objective is to mobilize the members of your church and deploy them into the labors that will revitalize the church, you must begin by teaching them to pray.
Passion Precedes Prayer
Most in your church will answer your call to prayer. At least that stolid band of prayer warriors will rise to the occasion even if the majority will find it hard to commit to your prayer initiative.
It is likely that after a short while everyone’s enthusiasm for evangelistic prayer will wane. If that happens, take another clue from Jesus. “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest (Matthew 9:37-38).”
Let’s stop for a minute and try to envision what that moment must have been like. Perhaps Jesus and his disciples stood on a slight rise on the Galilean countryside. Spread out all around them, pressing in on every side, were a teeming multitude of the halt, the lame, the blind. They were overcome with the physical and spiritual suffering all around them. Jesus, always compassionate and gracious to those who seek him, was profoundly moved. His disciples, ever concerned for his safety, felt besieged by the throngs.
In the midst of the clamoring, Jesus turned to his men. With an outstretched arm he swept across the crowd, asking his followers to behold the vast crowd. What a spectacle! There stood thousands upon thousands, streaming out from the surrounding towns and villages to seek Jesus’ healing touch, his comforting words of hope.
Jesus said, “Look!”
On another occasion, this time at Samaria, the Lord told them, “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look (John 4:35)!”
No doubt the disciples followed Jesus’ lead. They beheld the vast expanse of need, suffering, and hopelessness. They turned their heads in every direction. They saw desperate humanity begging for release.
Only then, when the full weight of human suffering had assaulted them, did Jesus direct them to pray.
Show them the plight of those who are without Jesus. Make them feel the need of those who are trapped in darkness. Don’t recite statistics, tell them stories. Dry data about what percentage of the local population are unbelievers may inform minds but it won’t inflame hearts. True stories about people trapped in a living death, alienated from God and without hope will grip them and drive them to their knees in prayer.
Polish your persuasive skills, assemble a creative team of designers, photographers, story tellers and other artists that will put together a steady stream of attractive, engaging images and stories that will help the congregation see and feel the needs out there in your harvest field.
1 Key to Turnaround: Prayer Leads to Ministry
The reports in Matthew and Luke draw our attention to another sobering fact, one that pastors should rely on. Those who pray diligently usually end up serving Jesus in his mission. Both texts show the same sequence. Prayer leads to ministry.
Matthew doesn’t state how much time elapsed between Jesus calling his men to prayer (9:35-38) and his sending them on first missionary journey. The mention of opposition and persecution (10:16-26) may hint at the fact that a bit of time elapsed between the call to prayer and their commission to the field.
Whether the time lapse was a matter of days or months, this sequence illustrates another important truth. When their hearts were readied in prayer, they went into active mission service.
This is what you should expect, pastor. In fact, you should count on it!
Those who pray with evangelistic intent eventually join the mission. They become influencers who will you lead the church off the plateau. They spark the turnaround and pave the way to become ing a vital, life-giving church that celebrates the joy of conversion growth.
Gary McIntosh writes of an illuminating visit to a rapidly growing church. The pastor attributes the church’s flourishing ministry to prayer.
Sensing my interest, the pastor explained how the church met every Friday evening for an all-night prayer meeting. A few hundred church leaders assembled each Friday to seek God’s face and to ask for his blessing on the church ministry. Ministry leaders also met for prayer in the early morning each day of the week. From the senior pastor’s viewpoint, the reason the church had grown so dramatically was due to the prayer of the people. While the pastor, staff, and members of this church worked hard in the ministry, through their emphasis on prayer, they demonstrated trust in Christ as the builder of his church. The leaders understood a crucial fact of biblical church growth—God is the one who builds his church.
When people pray with evangelistic intent, they demonstrate faith in Jesus as the true builder of the church. Their prayers are answered and in the process their hearts are transformed. They become the very laborers they had been praying for!
Many churches stuck on the plateau or trapped in a death spiral are initially reluctant to make the changes necessary for a successful turnaround. But pastors can move these churches from unwillingness to willingness by leading these churches in sustained (read “many months, perhaps years”) evangelistic prayer initiatives.
Start with the evangelistic prayers in the BIble. Lead them in exercising the many prayers for laborers, for open doors, for wisdom and boldness, and for evangelistic success. Create a number of prayer initiatives that gather the people before the Lord.
- 24/7 prayer weeks
- Quarterly prayer summits
- Recruit, train, and motivate small group leaders
- Feature prayer as a significant part of the worship services
- Model the prayers for your congregation
- Identify key influencers who will share their stories and ask others about their participation in these prayers
- Preach these prayers in a sermon series
Jesus’ instructions that his disciples should look at the harvest and pray for laborers suggest several important preaching themes. Jesus’ love, the overwhelming task, the motivation for prayer, putting the Father first, and the sequences of prayer then service all provide rich preaching themes.
Matthew 9:36 tells us that Jesus was “moved with compassion for them.” Compassion (Gr. splanchnizomai) is an emotion of deep affection or pity for another who is suffering. It grows out of empathy, which is the ability to understand and vicariously experience the feelings of others.
Jesus knew the suffering, hopefulness, and longing these poor people were experiencing. He felt it with them!
Compassion was a central motive for much of Jesus’ ministry, often in contrast to the uncaring Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. (Think for a moment what the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us about the religious leaders of that day.) The term “compassion” is used 12 times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
- Compassion led Jesus to heal the sick. “And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14; see also 20:34, Mark 1:41, Luke 13:12).”
- Compassion motivated Jesus to comfort the grieving, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep’ (Luke 7:13).”
- Jesus fed the hungry because he was compassionate. “Now Jesus called His disciples to Himself and said, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way (Matthew 15:32; see also Matthew 14:14-16).”
- Jesus use the term to describe the Father’s love for every wayward sinner in the parable of the Prodigal son.
The term “compassion” is not used in the Book of John’s, but the Lord’s empathy and compassion is evident throughout the Fourth Gospel.
- The classic reference is John 3:16, “for God so loved the world…” The adverb “so” (houtos) in this verse probably functions not only to introduce the words that follow, but is a “marker of a relatively high degree.”
- Draw attention to the Father’s incomparable love by contrasting it with “the world.” The world hates God (John 7:7, 15:18) and his representatives (John 17:14). The world prefers darkness to light (John 3:19) and thus cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it has not known God (John 14:17). And yet so great is God’s love that Jesus Christ has been sent as the propitiation for our sins – but not for ours only. Indeed, he is the Father’s propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
- Jesus was deeply moved by Mary’s grief over her brother’s death. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled (John 11:33).”
- He was concerned for his mother’s welfare, even in the midst of being crucified. “When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ (John 19:26).”
Expand beyond sermons about Jesus’ compassion to remind your congregation about the love, compassion, mercy, and grace of God.
- God is “full of compassion and mercy,” Psalm 86:15.
- God’s compassion prompted him to repeatedly warn Israel that the Curses outlined in the Mosaic Covenant (see esp. Deuteronomy 28-30) were about to be invoked, 2 Chronicles 36:15.
- God’s love for lost humanity is the essence of his motive for sending Christ to suffer in our place, John 3:16 and Romans 5:8.
- God’s love extends far beyond Jesus’ atoning sacrifice; it extends to comforting us in our suffering, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
- His sympathy for our plight is the basis of Christian confidence to approach him in prayer, Hebrews 4:14-16.
Finally, the Church is both beneficiary of, witness to, and channel for God’s compassion for all people.
- The parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20) are examples of God’s people responding compassionately to the loss and suffering all around us (Philippians 2:1, James 3:14-20; 1 John 3:17, 4:7-11).
- This is why Paul urges Christians to “clothe” themselves with the compassion of God, which then works out on acts of practical Christian charity toward our fellow believers (1 Peter 3:8-19) and toward the world (1 Peter 3:16).
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:12-14).
A second preaching theme which emerges from the picturesque language in Matthew 9:35-38 and Luke 10:1-2 concerns the daunting task before us. We read in these texts of the “multitudes” from “all the cities and villages” that were “truly plentiful.” The task was too much for the meager resources available to those “few laborers” who were with Jesus. The need was so great that divine provision was required. Thus, their first order of business was to pray. If the mission was to be accomplished, they would need the Father to send help.
Both of these texts are wrapped in the context of Jesus sending his disciples into the mission. “Go your way (Luke 10:3),” the mention of “send[ing] out laborers (Matthew 9:38),” empowering them for service (Matthew 10:1), and explicit instructions about where they would go and whom they would serve, what they would do, and what they would endure (Matthew 10:5-42) hint at the enormity of the task. The full scope of the mission is finally made explicit in the Great Commission:
- “Make disciples of all the nations… even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).”
- “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).”
- “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all the nations (Luke 24:47).”
- “The Lord has commanded us: ‘… That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts 13:46-48).”
- God’s mission to bless “all the families of earth” (Genesis 12:3) is a major theme in the Old Testament, Indeed, this may be the unifying theme of the Bible. It is found in the historical, poetic (Psalm 22:27, 67:2-7, 86:9, 98:1-3, 117), and prophetic (Isaiah 2:1-3, 11:10, 19:24-25, 42:6, 49:6, 52:10-15, 60:1-3, 66:18-21; Jeremiah 31:34; Hosea 2:23; Micah 4:2; Malachai 1:11) literature of the Old Testament. It is found throughout the Gospels (see above), Acts (1:8, 13:46-48, 18:5-6, 28:28) and the Epistles (Romans 10:12-18, 15:8-16, Galatians 3:8, Ephesians 3:8, Colossians 1:27).
There’s a potential “gotcha”, a hidden curve that could sneak up on you when you focus on the theme of the vast mission. When you focus the church’s attention on the enormity of the task, you may inadvertently let them off the hook. By focusing solely on the big picture (being instruments of God’s mission to bless all the families of earth), you position people to see and acknowledge the need. But because the task is so big, they probably won’t feel any sense of urgency.
The task will be abstract for them. They won’t feel the problem. If that happens it will be hard to generate the passion they will need to stay the course through the transition that you’ll be proposing.
Jesus deftly handled this potential problem by focusing his disciples’ attention on the people in front of them. When they had rejoined Jesus at the well In Samaria, after the woman left, he forced them to look at the villagers who were then approaching Jesus. “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! (John 4:35).”
He drew their attention away from the vast scope of his messianic mission. He didn’t let them entertain ill-focused notions about ministering throughout the length and breadth of Israel. Rather, he forced them to see the people who were right in front of them. “The time is now. It’s these people right here. They are receptive, the are ready. Let’s bring them into the family of those who have eternal life.”
It’s a delicate balance. On the one hand, you’ve got to make sure that your church understands (and has passion for) the worldwide mission. But on the other hand, you’ve to to make sure that they actually care about and minister to the people who live in the same zip code. Although we share responsibility for the mission in the uttermost parts, the work begins at home (Acts 1:8). Anchor the worldwide mission to the people within your church’s ministry area.
Show them the political refugees, single-parent households, special needs families, the impoverished, the addicted. Make them look at the people in your community who live in chronic anxiety just trying to cope with the insurmountable challenges of daily life. Draw their hearts to the people who live across the street, the barista who pulls their coffee, the server who delivers their means, and the cashiers who bag their groceries.
Negotiating this requires your best communication skills. It calls for wisdom and discernment.
Polish your preaching skills. Learn to inflame hearts as well as persuade minds. Hone your sermons so they cut; don’t let them escape empathizing with the pain of the nameless people around them.
When they see it and feel it, they’ll be overwhelmed by the daunting task before them. There will be an urgency in prayer. They will beseech the Father for laborers. They will begin to feel God’s compassion for the lost, and it will become theirs.
If you want to lead turnaround, a great place to start is to teach the church about the evangelistic prayers in the BIble and lead them in a sustained evangelistic prayer movement.
Then one day the Lord of the harvest will surprise you.
 Gary L. MacIntosh, Biblical Church Growth: How You Can Work With God to Build a Faithful Church, Loc. 1185