There is just no escaping it . . . harvesting is hard work, often involving very long hours under the intense sun in order to bring the crop to market. I experienced this first-hand when I would get up at 1:30 am in the morning in order to load four trucks with twenty-five tons of alfalfa hay each, often under 110 degree heat in the Sacramento Valley of California.
Today the church, with its world-wide mandate to preach the everlasting gospel to all the peoples of all the world, is likewise faced with a similar daunting task of unending labor. I have stood in the great cities from Los Angeles to London from Shanghai to Bangkok and wondered how oh how can the Adventist church reach and disciple the teeming millions. So let’s look at the task of discipling those who have been called to work in the harvest.
When people used to ask me what “discipleship” was my eyes would glaze over a little bit and I would give an evasive answer like: “discipleship is hard to define but you know it when you see it.” Even after I wrote my dissertation on the subject I was hesitant to give the long technical definition which was: “Discipleship is the individual and corporate communion with God through the Word, prayer and worship in order to form a fruit-filled community of believers who fulfill the Great Commission through the release and incorporation of others.”
Well after loosing a few more brain cells due to the rapid onset of senility, I now simply say that discipleship is “growing people.” This growth of people can occur when there are three elements: communion with God (the vertical), community with one another (the horizontal) and the fulfilling of the Great Commission (the outward). So discipleship includes much more than soul-winning, but also embraces the entire process of growth . . . from the first signs of spiritual conversion, to baptism, to the training, maturing and positive Christian influence of the individual throughout their entire life.
After we understand that discipleship is growing people then the methodological question arises just how are we to do this. Usually, when faced with the daunting challenge to win thousands we begin with an urgent attempt to win many, many, many and often are left with less than long-term beneficial results.
Perhaps it would be well for us to listen carefully to the following statement from the pen of inspiration: “the work done thoroughly for one soul is done for the many” (5T 255). How can this be . . . working for one results in the many? A clear answer comes from the plant kingdom. It just takes one seed to grow an apple tree, which will then produce about 140 apples with 5 seeds per apple. That is to say, just one apple seed, properly cared for and matured, will result in 700 additional seeds/trees!
The secret to success in reaching the many is to produce mature disciples who will go on to reproduce themselves many, many times over during their lifetime. However, this dynamic reproductive discipleship is difficult to start at the current time because so few of the members have ever been mentored and discipled properly.
One time I wrote an article entitled “My Father Never Taught Me How to Shave.” The point of this real life story was that most of us have grown up in the Christian life without too much instruction. After a period of initial indoctrination, we were pretty much left on our own to discover just how to live the Christian life amid the toils and temptations of this world. Even if we somehow avoided gross errors, it was still hard for any of us to explain just how we were able to grow into our current state.
And this is just the reason why discipleship is so hard to start. It is very difficult to disciple somebody else unless you have been discipled yourself. And if one tries to teach themselves how to grow in the Christian life, then they will surely end up with many knicks and cuts like I did the first few times I attempted to shave. Let me relate how I stumbled across the importance of discipleship in my own life and growth.
Ever since I was a youth the purpose of my waking hours was to search for the truth. As a Catholic young person I sought for God by going to mass and communion everyday my senior year of High School. Not finding spiritual fulfillment, I spent the next four years searching for truth in philosophy and experimenting with the lifestyle of the late sixties.
When someone gave me a Bible, the truth began to dawn upon my heart and the Lord led me into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in my early twenties. Now when someone becomes a member of the remnant church, believe me, they are faced with a rather large and at times confusing array of teachings, lifestyles, institutional structures and even abbreviations! I often tell people that it takes at least three to five years for a new member to become acquainted with the SDA church.
Now although I knew intuitively from the very beginning of my conversion that I had found the truth, it took me another twenty years of searching for it to become more clear in my mind. During that time, my wife who was also a new Adventist, and myself were exposed to many facets of the church from the very conservative to the very liberal. (Today if someone asks me if I am “liberal” or “conservative” I tell them that I am conservative in my lifestyle so that I can be liberal in my relationships).
Several years ago I was invited by a church member to attend a two-day summit in Loma Linda with many of the leaders of a certain brand of Adventism. Although I attended the conference with some hope of relief from my still unclear thinking on faith, salvation, works and the like, I came away more confused than ever!
It was then that I determined to go back to the basics and study Steps to Christ with my church for Wednesday night prayer meeting. Each week I would develop study questions which were integrated into the text and this eventually became a workbook. We took our time and it took about six months to complete our study. It was during this time that I began to more clearly understand the role of the will and faith in the life of the Christian.
One day I decided to search on the words “reproduction” and “character” and came across a sentence which bolted out of the page like the brilliant sun at noontide. It was the sentence that changed my life. It is found in Christ Object Lessons, page 67 and it states a profound and absolute truth: “The object of the Christian life is fruit bearing–the reproduction of Christ’s character in the believer that it may be reproduced in others.”
Here the pen of inspiration clearly tells us what is “the” object of the Christian life. For those of you acquainted with English grammar, the word “the” is called a definite article because it points to the one thing and not to the many. It is not “a” object, it is “the” object of “the” Christian life. According to Ellen White “the” object of the Christian life is “fruit bearing.”
Now in the galaxy of Adventist belief and practice this statement is as radical as it is absolute. What it simply means is that the Bible and all of its teachings were given to us for one purpose: that we might bear fruit. To state it in more specific terms, the one object of keeping the Sabbath, living a healthy lifestyle, tithing and all the other beliefs and practices of the Bible is “fruit-bearing.”
Jesus Himself stated that “you shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20) and “by this shall all people know you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 15:33). If we want to be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect then we must learn to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). And the Spirit of prophecy plainly states that “the last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love” (COL, 415).
Ellen White goes on to tell us in COL 67 that this fruit which is the character of Christ is reproduced in the life of the “believer” (who daily abides in the vine) who not only becomes fruitful himself, but that faithful life is “reproduced in the lives of others” (COL 67). And as we have seen with the case of the one apple seed, fruit bearing is powerful. Notice what Isaiah 27:6 says: “In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.” The growth of one seed will produce the fruit which will then be multiplied to fill the world.
Lastly, this same principle is brought out clearly in this profound statement from Ellen White: “If we would humble ourselves before God [take root below], and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful [bear fruitful above], there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one” (9T 189). The message is clear. The harvesters must be fruitful themselves before they can reproduce Christ’s character in many others.