"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.' " Matthew 9:37, 38
This week's topic is close to my heart. Meeting together in small groups can be a real blessing to inspire, encourage, and grow believers in the faith of Jesus. In this week's Insights I'd like to share some of our personal experiences with small groups.
We wouldn't have known about the 1888 message were it not for the invitation of a friend to attend a seminar on Romans and a subsequent invitation to attend a weekly Bible study in which the facilitator (an excellent teacher, by the way) introduced us to the major concepts of the 1888 message in a crowded apartment living room. With Bibles spread across our laps, we felt like the disciples on the road to Emmaus as we discovered Christ in the Word as we had never seen before. "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?" Yes, theirs did. And so did ours. The thing that kept us coming back to that study week after week was a hunger for the righteousness of Christ. The fellowship was wonderful, too, but it was our shared appreciation of the 1888 message that forged deep bonds of friendship that now span more than three decades. We get the sense as we read Paul's letters that he, too, enjoyed fellowship with a core group of like-minded believers and evangelists who worked with unstoppable zeal to carry the gospel to distant lands.
In our next stage of life, we relocated to a new community where many Adventists lived. Hoping to rekindle our previous experience, we started a Monday night study group at our home. We invited friends and fellow church members. They brought other friends. Attendance waxed and waned over the years. We were blessed to have Elder and Mrs. Donald Short present at many of these gatherings. His insights were succinct and profound. Eventually, we also planned activities for young children in the middle of the room, providing coloring pages and crayons so they could do something with their hands during the study. We did this for 11 years, seldom missing a night.
The result? In retrospect, I am not aware of any real fruit for the kingdom of heaven that ensued from those meetings. Only eternity will reveal for sure. It just seemed like our efforts were unavailing. Our study was sabotaged on numerous occasions by emissaries of distraction. One older gentleman who attended faithfully seemed to have another agenda. Apparently representing an offshoot, he worked insidiously to draw people to the movement he was a part of. Others also came regularly to disrupt our study and push their own agenda. Several were adamant that God saved people one way in the Old Testament and another way in the New. Eternity will tell the rest of the story.
At any rate when we moved to another rural community with few Seventh-day Adventists, we decided to change our approach. The first small group we started consisted of one couple from church and another couple who had not been active Adventists for more than 25 years. Our study format was simple. We decided to read through Patriarchs and Prophets together. After a couple of years of growing our friendship during our weekly meetings, our backslidden friends said, "You know, we really should go back to church." Their family had been through some very unfair and hurtful experiences at the behest of a church entity, and their trust in the organization had waned even though in their hearts they still believed the message. As we read Patriarchs and Prophets together, little did we know the work that the Holy Spirit was accomplishing in their hearts. They have been welcomed back into church fellowship with much joy, and they are now both among the most active members.
There are many out there like these friends who have been hurt in the church or by the church. Often these grievances were never dealt with appropriately, and the wounds never healed. As we understand the gospel principle of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), we can express corporate repentance for the wrongs committed on behalf of the church, even if those who committed the wrongs never personally apologize. If the hand strikes someone and injures them, the mouth (another part of the body) can confess the wrong and ask forgiveness. That's how a body works. Together. There's no use in pointing fingers at the body because we are one.
In this new location, we found that even though we were no longer having a large study group in our home, the devil found other ways to attack. This time, prayer meeting at church was the target, again through unconsecrated individuals who interrupted the meeting. The most egregious example was a man (not an Adventist) who came for several months who became threatening to several participants in the class. Eventually, for everyone's safety and to stop him from continuing his work, prayer meeting was shut down. That was really unfortunate.
What to do? For me, the answer was sharing in the home with those of other faiths (and often one or two church members as well). Even then, there have been challenges, but personal, in-home Bible studies have produced the most fruit (apparently) more than any other approach I have experienced. As we sit at the table or by the fireside, I have learned to watch the face of the Bible student light up after reading a Scripture and exclaim: "Oh! I never saw that before!" The thrill of seeing heaven's light dawn on a mind is an experience I crave! I am helpless to generate it, but I can certainly see evidence of it when the Holy Spirit is working.
Now we must admit that our church and our world are facing challenges the likes of which we have never seen before. Masks, social distancing, a stealthy disease and (worst of all) fear have changed how we live our lives and relate to each other. Is now the time to stop Bible studies? Is now the time to curtail personal ministries? To discontinue our health and outreach programs at church? To stop speaking to our neighbors? No!
This pandemic has the attention of the world. People are desperate for answers. Not a few want to know what the Bible says about what is happening now. This is a heaven-sent opportunity (not that God caused the disease but that He can work all things together for good) if we can open our eyes to see it as such. Let us not let this situation stop us from sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ! The world needs to hear and see, like never before, of the self-giving agape love of Christ. We should be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. The antidote to the fear and injustice is the most precious of message of Jesus and His righteousness. Protests may effect outward reforms, but the gospel goes deeper and heals the wounds of the heart.
This situation has not caught God by surprise. He still has a work for us to do, and we will be doing this until every last soul on earth has heard the Good News:
"The plan of holding Bible readings [studies] was a heaven-born idea. There are many, both men and women, who can engage in this branch of missionary labor. Workers may thus be developed who will become mighty men of God. By this means the word of God has been given to thousands, and the workers are brought into personal contact with people of all nations and tongues." CH 192
And in our virtual age, personal ministry is still the best: "The more direct our labor for our fellow men, the greater good will be accomplished. Personal influence is a power. The minds of those with whom we are closely associated are impressed through unseen influences. One cannot speak to a multitude and move them as he could if he were brought into closer relationship to them." CH 192
"The best work you can do is to teach, to educate. Wherever you can find an opportunity to do so, sit down with some family, and let them ask questions. Then answer them patiently, humbly. Continue this work in connection with your more public efforts. Preach less, and educate more, by holding Bible readings, and by praying with families and little companies." CH 193
"Wherever you can gain access to the people by the fireside, improve your opportunity. Take your Bible, and open before them its great truths. Your success will not depend so much upon your knowledge and accomplishments, as upon your ability to find your way to the heart. By being social and coming close to the people, you may turn the current of their thoughts more readily than by the most able discourse. The presentation of Christ in the family, by the fireside, and in small gatherings in private houses is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in the open air, to the moving throng, or even in halls or churches." CH 193
Heaven's methods are the best! "In visions of the night representations passed before me of a great reformatory movement among God's people. Many were praising God. The sick were healed, and other miracles were wrought . . . . Hundreds and thousands were seen visiting families, and opening before them the word of God. Hearts were convicted by the power of the Holy Spirit, and a spirit of genuine conversion was manifest. On every side doors were thrown open to the proclamation of the truth. The world seems to be lightened with the heavenly influence. Great blessings were received by the true and humble people of God." 9T 126
May it be us -- God's people in this generation -- that our dear messenger of the Lord saw in vision!
In closing, I'd like to recommend a couple of resources that may be of value: The Glad Tidings and Waggoner on Romans. Written by E. J. Waggoner, both books contain many rich gems of gospel truth, present truth for us today.
Amazon's description of Waggoner on Romans is as follows:
"Paul's Letter to the Romans proclaimed a gospel that turned his world upside down, set Europe ablaze in Luther's day, 'strangely warmed' Wesley's lukewarm heart in England's cynical eighteenth century, and ignited the soul of our (sic) young Ellet J. Waggoner just before this [20th] century began. Inspired by refreshingly unique insights into the Romans concept of Christ's active drawing of 'every man' and justification by faith, Waggoner proceeded to challenge the legalistic thinking of his revered elders in the ministry. His mature thinking crystallized into a year-long series of articles on Romans in the Signs of the Times from October, 1895, through September, 1896. Buried in the archives ever since, these studies now for the first time see publication in book form. Waggoner's The Glad Tidings, his verse-by-verse study of Galatians, has gladdened many hearts in recent years. This new companion book will meet with a hearty welcome from friendly thousands who have discovered what Ellen White discovered—something 'most precious' in his message."
If you are spiritually starved for food that will warm the heart and heal the soul, please check out these resources (Bookstore) and share with wisdom as God opens the way. And pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to His field!