I was reading through Romans from the beginning while I was in the Czech Republic. The first thing I ran into? An apostle Paul who very much shares my mind on the desire for a harvest.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. – Romans 1:8-13
For all Paul’s reputation as a man of echoing words and fist-pounding exhortation, it’s a little surprising to see him opening his letters in such a tender and plaintive way.
He’s got a huge heart. He loves the people he’s visited. Indeed, Paul’s life often seems to be a mix of groaning loneliness and quiet frustration. Sometimes it’s not so quiet (Romans 9:2-3). He pines for the companionship and comfort of his churches, not seeming to enjoy goodbyes any more than I do, and he longs for a harvest of both salvation and the righteousness that should follow.
I can identify. It’s been eight years since I first started participating in English camps in the Czech Republic, and I can tell you harvests are slow-burn things there. Decisions for Christ are rare. This isn’t like American preaching, or evangelism efforts in third-world nations, where you can sneeze and someone will publicly accept Christ (I exaggerate, of course, but the difference is real). I know missionaries who have labored there since the fall of the Soviet Union let them in, and they haven’t seen much more harvest than I. Europe is rock-hard spiritual ground, for a variety of reasons, and Czechs in particular are a private people. Spiritual matters are deeply personal to them. Even if one does accept Christ, their closest friends might not know it for years.
Instead, fruit is gradual. Signs like seeing a skeptic asking questions, securing a Bible, or even simply spending more time with Christians become the steps to be celebrated.
This sort of thing takes a lot of patience. We in America are used to looking for snap-your-fingers decisions for Christ. Such things simply do not happen in deeply secular or atheist environments, whether in American cities or in Europe. If you want to evangelize in those places, you have to be willing to accept that God moves at his own pace with those people, even if he certainly agrees (through Scripture) that only faith in Jesus Christ alone will ultimately make the eternal difference.
It helps to appreciate such gradual progress if you buy into the “Five Thresholds” model of spiritual journeying, first put forth years ago by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp in their 2008 book I Once Was Lost. Written from experience, it depicts stories of people moving from closed to trusting to curious to seeking to salvation. It grants an appreciation of the small signs of interest in spiritual things and a willingness to build meaningful, lasting friendships with those for whom we are praying.
With that model in mind, you can better appreciate the patient work of God in places like the Czech Republic.
I will be honest: it is true, from a certain blunt point of view, that we spent thousands of dollars to minister in this country this year and did not see any decisions for Christ we are aware of. Yet the effects of our visits reverberate in the other 51 weeks of the year. The friendships built through the camps keep our unbelieving friends connected to the Czech believers, where they can continue enjoying the love of Christ passed on through those believers. The partner church continues to slowly grow, as do Bible studies in nearby cities. There have even been reports of miraculous healings. The signs of pursuit by God clearly seem to be there.
Every once in a while, I find myself longing to hear stories of these friends finally just captured by God’s love through faith in Christ. I realize that this longing is, to a certain extent, selfish. These friends of mine have their own decisions to make. They don’t yet see things as I do. I must long for their sake, not to validate my own efforts.
Yet I still long.
So it is comforting to see Paul, apostle to all us Gentiles, preceding us in the angst of evangelistic patience. He was used to planting seeds, watching others water them, and never getting to see the fruits in this life.
May we all remember that God is the one making all things grow (1 Corinthians 3:6).