I just read a great post over at the SlowChurch blog called Becoming Good Soil. It is all about how churches should cultivate an environment for growth – be good soil. Chris Smith, the writer, quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together (love, love, love this book) to say that we too often try to inject our own idealistic dreams into church that will lead to the death of the community in spite of some quick, short-term growth. It’s like the toxic fertilizers used around the world to boost crop output while destroying the soil and not to mention the surrounding the ecosystems. Instead, churches should strive to become good soil that nurtures and sustains diverse forms of life in a particular place. He lists several corporate practices that can help:
- Theological Reflection
- Rejection of Authoritarianism /Hierarchy
- Internal Evaluation of our life together
- Caring for one another and our neighbors in REAL situations (not idealized ones)
- Real commitment (not romanticized/idealized) to faithfulness
One of the cool things about this post is that it wasn’t just some abstract idea. It grew out of conversation at his church… I like ideas with integrity.
All this talk about soil reminded me of a great talk I heard earlier this year by Tim Downs at the Fellowship Bible Church. Tim spoke on a passage that is often overlooked because it comes right after a passage that is studied quite a bit – the Samaritan woman at the well. The Apostle John records these words of Jesus given to His disciples just after that event in chapter 4:
36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (ESV)
Churches love, love, love to talk about the harvest. The fields are white! Go gather up them sinners! Bring in the sheaves! etc, etc… Since most people don’t farm, we kind of miss a big part of this harvest imagery – sowing. Just as Jesus confirmed in v37 about, one sows and another reaps. We pretty much get what “reaping” or “harvesting” means; it is all about evangelism. Sowing – what is that?
Well, basically if you’re a farmer and you’re not harvesting – you’re sowing. Just try to think of everything that goes into growing something: work the soil, prepare the fallow ground, fertilize (naturally of course), plant, pull the weeds, water, and many more. Sowing is the everyday, ho-hum, back-to-the-fields work that is absolutely essential to growing food. We sometimes forget that harvesting is cyclical. The fields may be white right now, but that doesn’t last forever. Harvesting is a yearly event that lasts maybe a few weeks. It is not perpetual. The harvest ends; the seasons change; the sowing starts again.
Of course, the harvest is absolutely dependent on the sower. But, we want results and usually we wanted them five minutes ago. Sometimes Cassie and I like to go pick our own fruit at these pick-your-own fruit stands. Ever seen a plant-your-own fruit stand? No, you haven’t. Why? Because that would actually be work. You couldn’t just drive up and walk away 30 minutes later with 10 quarts of fresh blueberries (yum). In the church, we like to focus on quantifiable results: new members, new believers, attendance, and money just to name a few. For the most part, we think the “professional” ministers are responsible for these results, for bringing in the harvest. If nothing grows, the clergy must be bad harvesters. We too easily forget the liturgy – the work of the people – of sowing that calls each and every one of us to the fields. We have ALL been made ambassadors of reconciliation in Christ. This is not an optional calling. How will you begin sowing?
As I just mentioned, sowing is hard. In fact, Jesus says it is harder than reaping. Just look back through that list of practices that Chris included in his post for developing a church with good soil – not many things on that list are easy. Rejection of hierarchy (aka priesthood of all believers), internal evaluation, caring for neighbors – this is hard work! Lawddamurcee, having a conversation sometimes is hard enough! Jesus tells us in Matthew 10 to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves… really? Because a dove and a snake are so similar? But that’s the point… We are called to live in this tension with our world, our culture, where we must take the time to listen and understand, even in hostility. We must engage our culture; the real people just down the street.
Maybe the hardest part about sowing is that it puts us, the sowers, in a position of weakness and dependence. We can’t forget that sowing does NOT cause the seed the grow. I may plant, you may water, but the Spirit brings the growth. And the Spirit… Lord knows He is on his own schedule. He is so out of our control we just don’t know what to do sometimes. In addition to being humbled by the Spirit, we are humbled by our cultures. Bonhoeffer would remind us that we cannot just show up and know the answers. We have to ask questions, to place ourselves in a posture of learning, and be teachable by others. The soil around us is full of deficiencies, but finding out what those are will take time and tedious effort.
We know this: there will be no harvest, no Kingdom in our midst, without faithful sowers in the fields every day. Sowers cannot work alone. They need good soil. We need good churches, full of good sowers, to work the ground that His Kingdom might sprout up in our midst!