A few years ago I read A Narrative of Suprising Conversions by Jonathan Edwards, and there is one particular paragraph that God used to shape and change my heart. Edwards is talking about his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who preceded Edwards as pastor of his church. Listen to how Edwards describes him: “He was eminent and renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry, in the conversion of many souls.” Edwards explains that this happened in five seasons or “harvests" spread over Stoddard's 60 years in ministry. Edwards tells us exactly when they happened:
Harvest one erupts, and many are saved… Four years pass… Harvest two comes, and a great number of people are converted… Thirteen years pass… Harvest three happens, many come to know Christ… Sixteen years pass… Harvest four comes about, people flock to faith in Jesus… Six years pass… Harvest five errupts, and many are saved.
Years passed - sometimes more than a decade - between the times in which this church saw God bless them with great seasons of numerical growth by conversion. This great man of God pastored in the same place for nearly 60 years, pouring his life out for the sake of Jesus, working hard to make disciples, and was blessed to see amazing things.
We like to talk about those periods when growth is happening. It’s exciting. It’s energizing. We love to tell stories of churches that are seeing many people coming to faith. New services are started. Locations are multiplied. Baptisms are happening. But my question is: what about the seasons in between? What was happening in Stoddard's congregation then?
For every harvest there must be a sowing. When you add up the numbers, for 39 of his 60 years in ministry Solomon Stoddard didn’t see extraordinary growth. To be sure, people came to faith. Undoubtedly, the Spirit of God was at work. But, by most standards today (at least those we use in the American Church), Solomon Stoddard wasn’t much of a success.
At the heart of his ministry is a quality that is unfortunately all but forgotten by many: faithfulness. If Stoddard had been evaluated today, he might have been told to give up. To reevaluate his call. To change things up, try something new, adopt another strategy. Why? Because we are so tempted to trade the call to faithfulness for the allure of success. It is not sexy or glamorous to spend decades faithfully preaching the Word of God, investing your life in the people God has entrusted to you while seeing very little visible fruit.
But for a true harvest to come, there must be seed sown. Cared for. Watered. Tended to. Protected. Nourished. It is only after this hard work of faithful care has been done that a lasting harvest can come.
My prayer today is that God would give us the long view of ministry, and that our desire would be to give our lives in faithful service – trusting God to bring a tremendous harvest!
Bill Streger serves as the Lead Pastor of Kaleo Church, an Acts 29 Network church in Houston, TX. Born and raised in Houston, he attended Houston Baptist University and is currently pursuing his M.Div. from Reformed Baptist Seminary. Bill is a husband to Shannon, daddy to Mirabelle and Levi, and a life-long Houston Rockets fan. Twitter @billstreger