"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few."
This is probably the 2nd most famous Biblical passage used when preaching about missions. We read these words that Jesus spoke to His disciples and to us. They are beautiful words that give us an illustration we can hold onto. We hear these words and automatically take them into consideration. We automatically assume this is the current situation when it comes to the mission field today. We assume this is the status right now. The natural conclusion is that we need to send more missionaries to the mission field. Therefore, this verse becomes such a great missions mobilizer.
Have we ever stopped to consider the verse in a logistical manner? Have we ever broken it down by the numbers? Let's do that...
When Jesus said this, there were about 72 'workers' for a 'harvest' of about 300 million people (world population ca. 30AD)
That's about 1 worker per 4 million people.
Today, there are about 400,000 missionaries serving in the world (Operation World 7th Ed., pg. 951). The 'harvest' is about 2 billion unevangelized people.
That's 1 worker per 5,000 people.
It's a huge difference, right? One person trying to reach 4 million people is daunting. However, one person trying to reach 5,000 people doesn't sound bad at all. That could almost be completed in a year. So if we interpret Matthew 9:37 in the context of our current situation, it would seem as if the workers aren't few.
Let's dig deeper...
In addition to the current 400,000 missionaries serving worldwide, there are literally tens of thousands of native missionaries ready and willing right now to go into the harvest field. The primary thing keeping them from doing that is a lack of finances. If you were to add up all the potential missionaries that have been identified by mission organizations like Christian Aid, Surge, Advancing Native Missions, Partners International, Empart, etc., you would discover that there are perhaps 50,000 additional workers ready to go through training and start evangelizing unreached areas. They just don't have the financial resources to be missionaries, so they are stuck working in fields and factories.
So is the harvest plentiful, but the workers few? The harvest is certainly plentiful. No one's going to dispute that. Are the workers few? Yes and No. If you play the numbers game, the workers aren't few, since 1 per 5,000 people isn't that bad. The problem is that too many of the 400,000 missionaries aren't engaging the unevangelized people of the world. Instead of going after the harvest, they are going after the gleanings. Instead of going after the loaf of bread, they have decided to go after crumbs. Another factor is that many of these 400,000 missionaries aren't trying to evangelize and plant churches. Instead, their primary objective is some kind of humanitarian work, like orphanages, clean water, AIDS prevention, fighting human trafficking, etc. If you factor in these issues, the number of workers becomes fewer.
In any case, the number of unevangelized persons in the world continues to grow, so the current workers must not be doing their job very well. To be precise, the percentage of people who haven't heard the Gospel is shrinking, but the overall number of people who haven't heard the Gospel is growing according to the most recent data I've looked at.
Another thing to consider is that Jesus was looking for hardcore workers. He wasn't just looking for Christians with a good heart and willing to share the Gospel, He was looking for people He could send out to heal the sick, raise the dead, drive out demons in order to show people who God really was. This becomes obvious when you study the surrounding passages in Matthew 9, Luke 10, and the Great Commission passages in Mark 16, Luke 24, and Acts 1. In all honesty, many of the 400,000 current missionaries are not of that caliber. However, a good number of the 50,000 potential native missionaries could be. A lot of evidence seems to point to this.
So, after the full consideration of these issues, it turns out that maybe the workers really are few. However, if we work together to bring the focus of missions back to its original intention--the unevangelized, we can soon have a many workers in the harvest field. We can try to shift some of the 400,000 missionaries to unevangelized areas. However, this isn't the best strategy, since some of them will be foreign missionaries and not suited to reach the unevangelized areas. Plus, it might take a while to get through to them and get them to pack up and move. That's time we don't have. Time is of the essence. Millions die each year without ever hearing the Gospel. If we want to send workers into the harvest as quick as possible, while sending the right people, we should consider supporting the native missionaries who are waiting to be trained and sent. Like I said, there are about 50,000 of these native missionaries available and willing right now. For this, you can look into ministries like these. Also, don't overlook internet missions, radio missions, film missions, etc. Technology is a wonderful thing that is hastening Jesus' return in these end times.