I’ve become convinced over the years the least considered most important passages of Scripture when it comes to church growth is the parable of the soils, or sower (Mark 4). You remember the story: a farmer scatters seed. Some falls on rocky soil, some among the thorns, some on fertile soil.
Only one kind grows sustainably.
When it comes to growing churches, far more attention is given to “spreading” the Gospel than preparing the soil. Some churches are rather prolific seed throwers. They throw massive amounts of money at missions or carry on an exhaustive level of ministries only to find themselves continuing to stagnate or decline.
Each church’s journey is different, and it’s hard to get down to the level this can be talked about. However, someone needs to put on the table: The reason some of us aren’t growing is because our soil is sick.
I’ve been in such churches. None is perfect of course, but there are places where legalism, corruption, unwillingness to change, abuse of power, contentiousness, or a culture of dishonesty simply will not allow the Gospel to flourish. Contrast those with places where leadership functions well, there is an atmosphere of joy, and the Gospel is flourishing. Have you ever noticed how people tend to gravitate toward those churches? My question is, do they gravitate there, or did the seed fall on fertile soil? Are they gravitating there randomly, or does God draw them there?
God has a bias toward growth. I know it’s popular these days to question that, but if God wants all to come to repentance, he is for growth in some form. Growth isn’t a dirty word. It’s a beautiful word that typically becomes pejorative on the lips of those it eludes. It’s easier to dismiss growth as shallow than to admit growth, more often than not, actually signifies health–and grapple with the questions that poses for us.
The parable of the soils wasn’t directed first at churches. However, the same principles seem to apply: the Gospel flourishes on fertile soil.
What if we directed our energies toward church health in all it’s forms, and the watched it grow. It’s not as hard to grow grapes in Napa. In fact, if you spit out a grape seed, you might just start a new vineyard. The soil is fertile, the climate is right. Perhaps if we focused on preparing the soil more, and throwing the seed less, growth would happen more naturally.
Three further thoughts on this:
1) Don’t just assume you and your church are fertile soil. Do a serious soil test: integrity, leadership, passion for God and love for one another…how are you really doing with these? If something needs work, spend the energy you might spend being discouraged about it on repentance and holy resolve.
2) Aim at health, not growth. If you get healthy, you’ll get growthy.
3) Don’t make the mistake of thinking health is easy, or it’s impossible. It’s neither.
I’m not suggesting there aren’t helpful ministry methods out there to help churches grow. I’m saying if you want to grow the right way, you can’t make it grow. You need to prepare the soil so you can let it grow. There’s a big difference.