Over the 35 years that I have been working in cross-cultural missions, I have seen mission organizations highlight many different needs, opportunities, and strategies. Countries open and close. New methods gain prominence while others are abandoned. Younger generations are motivated by different themes. But one characteristic of mission work never changes. We need many, many more workers to address the opportunities before us. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” as Jesus said.
According to Joshua Project, 7,423 people groups with a total of 3.37 billion people remain unreached.1“Unreached” is defined as less than 2% evangelical. Joshua Project: People Groups of the World | Joshua Project Missionaries and local Christian workers to these unreached people total about 32,200 people.2 from Missions Statistics — The Traveling Team. Therefore the ratio of UPG workers to the total unreached world is 1 Christian worker or missionary for every 105,000 unreached people.
The weakness of the kingdom
I have been thinking about the kingdom of God and particularly what Jesus called the “secret of the kingdom.” As I explained in my previous post, the secret of the kingdom is that it came in weakness despite it being the power of God. The majority of the Jewish people did not recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. This movement he started did not conform to their expectations of what God’s kingdom would look like.
Jesus did not have enough staff
One aspect of the Kingdom that highlighted its weakness was the scarcity of workers. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed did not have enough servants to meet the needs of the people who needed help. Note what Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 9.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”Matthew 9:35–38
In those early days, Jesus could count his workers on one hand. Actually, the number of qualified shepherds was only one. Jesus himself was the only one ready to meet the needs of the people. Jesus might have said that John the Baptist was also a qualified shepherd. Definitely he also pointed to the Kingdom and to the King. So if we include John, then there would have been two workers.
In the following chapter, Jesus commissions his 12 closest disciples and sends them as apostles to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 10:6). But when Jesus asks his disciples to pray for more workers, they have not yet been sent out.
A huge task
Jesus had decided that his strategy would be to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in all the towns and villages of Galilee (Matt 9:35). D.A. Carson notes that this was a huge task.
Galilee, the district covered, is small (approximately seventy by forty miles); but according to Josephus, writing one generation later, Galilee had 204 cities and villages, each with no fewer than fifteen thousand persons. Even if this figure refers only to the walled cities and not to the villages (which is not what Josephus says), a most conservative estimate points to a large population, even if less than Josephus’s three million. At the rate of two villages or towns per day, three months would be required to visit all of them, with no time off for the Sabbath. Jesus “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38; cf. Mark 1:39; 6:6). The sheer physical drain must have been enormous.D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1984, 8, 120–121.
So we fully understand why Jesus commissions the Twelve and sends them out. But the workers were still few – even after he sent out the Twelve. For in Luke 10, we find the same plea from Jesus for more workers.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.Luke 10:1–2
Jesus had significantly multiplied the number of workers but the situation remained the same. Many more workers were still needed.
As is clear from the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, in Jesus’ day, there were always more people looking for work than there were available jobs. Even at 5:00 pm, the landowner continues to find unemployed men waiting in the marketplace. They were still hoping for a job that would enable them to bring food home to their families.3 I am indebted to Kenneth E. Bailey in his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes for this insight.
But Jesus’ kingdom did not have enough workers. Jesus was a superb trainer and coach for his disciples. He was not reluctant to empower them to go out and serve. But nevertheless, he observes that the workers are few.
An unusual king
What a strange king! Kings are not supposed to be short-staffed. In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel warned the Israelites that if they were to choose a king, the king would take their sons and daughters to be his servants.
He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.1 Samuel 8:11–13
This is exactly what the first king, King Saul did.
All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.1 Samuel 14:52
But Jesus, the King of kings, had staffing issues. He could have had at his disposal 12 legions of angels (72,000 angels!, Matt 26:53). But he chose to make do with the disciples whom his heavenly Father gave him. According to Jesus, the harvest was being negatively impacted by a lack of harvesters. Those who were ready to serve were not sufficient in number to fully take advantage of the great opportunities before them.
Jesus’ remedy for this scarcity of workers is to ask his disciples to pray to his heavenly Father to send out more workers. Prayer, not conscription, is the solution that Jesus adopted. Jesus chose to demonstrate his dependence on God, rather than to exercise his kingly authority, in this critical area of staffing shortages.
The scarcity of workers continues
So did this “weakness” of the kingdom of God continue to show itself after the church was born? Or did Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit with the subsequent addition of thousands of new disciples solve this problem once and for all? We do not find the apostles asking the believers to pray for more workers for the harvest field, at least not as directly as Jesus did. But there are still signs that the shortage of workers continues to characterize the Jesus movement after the church is born.
Acts 6 describes the widow ministry in the church as under-staffed. The apostles said that they could not take care of “serving tables” and still keep their focus on their primary calling of prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-4). So they appointed seven capable, Spirit-filled men to take on this responsibility.
Few cross-cultural workers
But if we look at those working among those who had not yet heard the Gospel, the scarcity of workers was much more apparent. Only after persecution broke out did the believers leave Jerusalem. Those who fled the persecution ended up spreading the Gospel widely and starting new churches. But the apostles largely stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). However those who scattered focused primarily on preaching the Gospel to fellow Jews (Acts 10:19).
Yes, the church in Acts sent out cross-cultural missionaries. But their number was few. Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the Antioch church to preach among the Gentiles about 15 years after Pentecost. As far as we know, this was the first planned missionary endeavor by Jesus’ disciples. The apostles had heard Jesus give Great Commission a decade and a half earlier. But only now does the church plan to send out workers.
The territory before Paul and Barnabas was vast. The entire Roman Empire stretched before them. So, the first missionaries chose an itinerant strategy. Rather than staying in one location and thoroughly discipling and training those who came to faith, Paul and his team travelled from place to place. Often they stayed only a few weeks in a particular town or city before being forced by persecution and need to move on to another place.
Not enough team members
After only a few months, they appointed “elders” to lead these new-born churches (Acts 14:21-23). The missionary team was generally not large enough to allow someone to stay behind to nurture the new church. This was not always the case in later years. In the case of the church on the island of Crete, Paul left Titus to finish up what he had not completed (Titus 1:5). But even when the church in Corinth was going through major turmoil, Paul chose not to return to the city for an extended period of time. In his place, he sent co-workers like Timothy and Titus to Corinth, but only for short periods of time. We get the impression that Paul did not have enough co-labourers to permit them to permanently reside in one location.
Paul had a deep commitment to working with a team. When Barnabas and he are no longer able to work together, he enlists Silas to join him. Paul then invites Timothy to join them when they come to Lystra. The team eventually adds Luke and other co-workers. But despite this strong commitment to teaming, Paul traveled to Athens and Corinth by himself without companions (Acts 17:15). Why would he choose to start his evangelism in these major cities on his own? Likely because he just did not have enough people on his team to allow him to have a companion during this initial phase.
An apt description today
As noted in the beginning of this post, this scarcity of workers among the unreached continues to this day. Have you ever heard of a mission organization laying off staff because there was not enough work to keep everyone busy? On the contrary, there always seems to be more work than people to do it. Why is this? Let’s go back to Matthew 9.
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”Matthew 9:37–38
We believe Jesus’ prayer request for workers to be valid for today. We continue to pray to the Lord of the harvest for more workers. It is my prayer almost every single day. No one is suggesting that this prayer request’s validity has expired. If this is so, then is it not reasonable to conclude that King Jesus is describing an on-going reality within his Kingdom? The harvest will always be plentiful and the workers will always be few.
In fact, could we not say that the Lord designed his kingdom to be like this? Is this scarcity of workers not part of the weakness or secret of the kingdom? When we talk about the shortage of workers, we tend to put all the emphasis on the church’s lack of obedience to the Great Commission or lack of love for the unreached. There is clearly some truth in that. But maybe there is another side to this perpetual need for more workers. Could this actually be part of God’s intentional design for his Kingdom in this already/not yet era?
Why does the Lord of the harvest not send more workers?
Why has the Lord of the harvest not provided an abundance of workers in response to the fervent and incessant prayers of his church over the past two millennia? A couple of OT passages come to mind.
The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’Judges 7:2
Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”1 Samuel 14:6
Little is much
The witness of church history is clear. The kingdom of God is expanding despite a persistent lack of workers. How do we explain this phenomenon? Growing up, a hymn we sang in church had the refrain, “Little is much when God is in it”.4 Words and music by Kittie Suffield, 1924. That is a principle that we find throughout Scripture.5 See 1 Sam 17:37-47, 1 Kings 17:11-13, 2 Kings 4:2-7, Mark 6:38, Mark 8:4-9.
The weakness of the kingdom, as demonstrated by the scarcity of workers, teaches us dependence on God. It moves us to prayer. It demolishes our reliance on our own efforts in marketing and recruiting.
When we see the expansion of the kingdom of God, we can only stand back and marvel. So much has happened and in comparison we did so little. The results in the long term are far beyond what we could reasonably expect from the number and kind of people involved. God gets all the glory and we get the joy of participating in something much bigger than ourselves.