Growing up on a farm I learned to work the ground at an early age. Whether it was removing rocks from the corn field or standing behind the rototiller I was raised to appreciate the hard work involved in preparing the soil for a healthy harvest. Some soils are more naturally inclined to produce a higher yield and although the ground still needs to be worked the soil’s texture, proper aeration, water holding capacity, aggregates, compaction, organic matter present, etc., are inherent contributors for good ground to bring forth fruit (Matt. 13:8).
Our Saviour often used agricultural stories and metaphors to relate spiritual truths. He told stories about fields, vineyards, different kinds of soil, and about sowing seed. There is much to be learned from the ground when considering laboring on the foreign mission field.
In order for the seed of the gospel (Matt. 13:23) to take root, the soil of man’s heart must be prepared to receive it. The Lord uses many influences to “work the ground” and prepare hearts: people, gospel tracts, economic uncertainties, chance comments, political unrest, health issues, things that disrupt the normal routines of life, and of course being a part of a Christian family, etc., serve to open people to the gospel and move them from rebellion to faith. People with a Christian heritage or a culture based on Judeo-Christian beliefs can mistakenly think the whole world is at the same level of preparedness. We must consider that when someone is brought to a decision to trust in Christ as their Saviour in the course of a conversation or two, considerable laboring and preparation has already occurred in their life before the “soul winner” arrived.
Living in Italy is a stark reminder that not every people group is at the same point of preparedness. The ground must be worked. A thoughtful reading of the Book of Acts reveals that once the gospel began to spread beyond those who were especially prepared the rate of conversion slowed dramatically. First we find the Jews, who had centuries of religious heritage – the scriptures and the prophets – responding in great numbers. The celebration of Pentecost brought “devout men, out of every nation” to Jerusalem (Acts 2:5) that responded to Peter’s message. The Jews were well prepared. In Acts 8 an Ethiopian eunuch, a proselyte to Judaism, was reading the prophet Isaiah when Philip “preached unto him Jesus”. His heart was prepared for the message. When God spread the gospel to the Gentiles, we find Cornelius, a Roman soldier that was “a devout man, and one that feared God” (Acts 10:2) prepared to receive the message from Peter. We find Paul following a certain tactic in his missionary endeavors in which he first visited the synagogue of a city. Obviously, almost everyone found there would have some spiritual interest. However, in Philippi there was no synagogue so when Paul and his company heard there was a place by the river where people met for prayer they went there and discovered Lydia who was a person that “worshipped God” (Acts 16:14). In this case as well, they were taking the gospel to those who were prepared. In Athens it was a different story (Acts 17:16-24). This is the only recorded message given by Paul to a pagan crowd. The philosophers were intrigued by Paul’s new teaching and took him to Areopagus to speak further. The results were meager “howbeit certain men… believed” (Acts 17:34). Compare the results of Paul’s message with the results of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (2:37-41). What was the difference? Was Paul not filled with the Spirit? Was Peter a better communicator? The difference was the Jews’ religious heritage which prepared them to respond eagerly to the gospel.
This brings us back to Italy. Spiritually the ground is covered with the “weeds” of Catholicism (see blogs from March 2013), the “thorns” of materialism, the “contamination” of humanism, the “erosion” of relativism, and the “hardness” of tradition. It is a country that has lain idle with few laborers to break up the fallow ground.
The underlying influence of society cannot be overstated in regards to the shaping of a person’s ethics, values, world view and openness to the gospel. Some cultures are more naturally inclined to produce a higher “yield” of converts. Like Italy, the Philippines is predominately Catholic and the United States is a materialistic society but other societal factors contribute to their higher response to the gospel than that in Western Europe. The environmental make-up of people has always been an influence in reaching the world for Christ. Read stories of famous past missionaries like Adoniram Judson and Hudson Taylor to see that they labored for years before their ministry bore fruit. Man tends to embrace the prevailing values of his generation and it would seem that for the past few decades people are giving up on traditional religious explanation for the meaning of life. People are basically unconcerned about the existence of God and consider the Bible to be irrelevant. In addition to the previous factors, one finds some Italians professing to be Christian but in total darkness concerning the gospel of the grace of God. It is a foreign concept obscured by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Sadly many are false professors which have no “root”, misplacing their faith in religion and not understanding their alienation from the life of God. What will it take for the gospel seed to penetrate the accumulated layers of disillusionment in Italy?
Our family is in Italy to sow life and hope as found in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Before we can reap the harvest there will be times of cultivation, planting, and watering. Our hands are on the plow and we know it will take time to prepare the harvest field, but we are willing to invest our lives in this labor of love for the Italian people, trusting that God will give the increase (1 Cor. 3:7).