by Terry Johnson
Growth through God’s Word
And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows--how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."
The second half of the twentieth century saw an unprecedented interest in principles by which the church grows. When Donald A. McGavran founded the Institute of Church Growth in Eugene, Oregon in 1959, which in 1965 because Fuller Seminary’s School of Church Growth, a movement was born. The ‘Church Growth Movement’ has spawned thousands of articles and books, and has been exceptionally influential. Focusing on measurable results, it has constantly asked the question, what causes the church to grow? What practical steps can be taken to produce growth? What methods and techniques, what strategies and programs are more conducive to the growth of the church?
These are important question and answering them can be fruitful. Every church should constantly be evaluating its ministry and asking if it can’t be doing things more effectively than they are currently being done. But one of the unintended consequences of this movement has been the gradual secularization of church-building. Increasingly the business of growing the church has been understood in increasingly secular ways. The same method by which businesses and institutions grow have been applied to the church. Management and marketing principles have taken on greater and greater importance. Demographic surveys and focus groups have been used to fine tune the method by which the gospel has been presented, and even the message itself. Sometimes in the name of relating to the culture, sometimes in the name of removing what might offend, revolutionary changes have been made in the public ministry of the church, all in the name of growth. The motives have been noble, but many of these changes have been ill-considered. Most important, the line separating what God does and what we do, between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, has been blurred. At times, it has seemed that the progress of the kingdom has been reduced to a natural process that can be engineered by human agents. The supernatural and spiritual character of the church has been dismissed in the process.
Is the growth of the church fundamentally a work of man or a work of God? If things have gotten seriously confused, we should not be surprised. Most, if not all, of the error in the history of the church, from the ancient Arians and Pelagians, to the modern-day Schleiermacher-inspired liberals, to New England’s Unitarians, has been perpetuated in the name of evangelism. Positive motives do not guarantee biblical results.
The balance we have lost today can be found in Jesus’ Parable of the Growing Seed. The parable is unique to Mark’s Gospel. Its theme is the growth of the kingdom of God. ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed,’ Jesus says. ‘This is how God works out his purposes,’ R.T. France paraphrases Jesus’ meaning (Mark, Doubleday, 38). The parable’s original design was to equate Jesus’ ministry with the sower, and the temporary hiddenness of the kingdom of God with the seed that lies hidden in the ground. (i.e. the gospel was largely rejected in Jesus’ own day) This same hidden seed offers the certainty of a fruitful harvest at the end.
The expectation then, it seems, was much like it is today. It was widely believed that when the Messiah came He would establish His kingdom instantly, cataclysmically, and universally. Immediately He would vanquish the Romans, claim His throne, and rule the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2). In other words, quick, immediate, and extraordinary growth was expected. For many observers it seemed as though nothing were happening. If Messiah has come, where is the kingdom, they wondered? We understand their expectation. We want this kind of growth in God’s kingdom today, and the leaders who can produce it. We admire those who are able to ‘make things happen.’ We want results, and we want them instantly.
Jesus provides the parable to explain that this is not the way it will be in the kingdom of God. New Testament scholar William Lane says,
The parable clarifies the relationship between what was then seen of Jesus within the context of his mission and what may still be expected of him. His work was sowing; only after a certain lapse of time will there be the gathering of the harvest. (169, my emphasis).
The kingdom is sown. Then there is a lapse of time. At the end, it is harvested. In the meantime, the time between the advents, the kingdom grows. How does it grow? In hidden ways. In mysterious ways. It grows even without human agency. It grows quietly. ‘There is a hidden energy at work below the surface, says Donald English (102). It grows by the sovereign initiative of God, says lane (170). We have our part. ‘I planted, Apollo watered, but God caused the growth,’ as the Apostle Paul says (1 Cor 3:6). Christ builds his church (Matthew 16:18).
What is the human side of the growth of the kingdom of God? Jesus explains:
And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man you casts his seed upon the soil.’(Mark 4:26)
First, we are to sow the seed of God’s word.
The ‘man’ of verse 26 can be understood as either Jesus in His lifetime, or Jesus through His servants, after the ascension and before His return. We are to sow the seed. A few verses above in Mark’s account of the Parable of the Sower, the seed is identified as God’s word ( 4:14). That word is received through hearing (v v. 15, 16, 20).
Our responsibility, then, is to ensure that others hear the word. We are to be faithful in our public ministry to read God’s word, preach God’s word, echo God’s word in our prayers, and sing songs that are filled with God’s word. ‘Faith comes by hearing … the word of Christ’ (Rom. 10:17). People are sanctified by the truth of God’s word, Jesus said (John 17:17). Clearly evangelism, outreach and mission are to be filled with God’s word. Beyond this, we are to go out into the highways and byways with the gospel (Matt 22:9) proclaiming Christ from the street corners, in the taverns, and across our kitchen tables.
Second, we are to gather the fruit of God’s kingdom.
We skip to the last verse.
‘But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come’ (Mark 4:29).
When the crop is ripe, it is harvested. The ‘he’ of verse 29 is the same ‘man’ in verse 26, and ‘he of verse 27. Ultimately this person represents Jesus sowing his word, and then at the end of time using his ‘sickle’ to gather his people (cf. Joel 3:13; Rev 14:15). Is is also, in the meantime, His servants acting as His agents in sowing the seed and harvesting the converted into churches. We are to sow the word. Those in whom the word takes root (cf. 4:20) and bears fruit ( 4:28) are then to the gathered into the church. We are responsible to build biblical churches with biblical polity, biblical worship, and biblical doctrine into which believers may be baptized (Matt 28:18ff). We are to gather saints into the churches where they can be nurtured until the day when they are finally and completely harvested (at death) or when Christ returns. The church is responsible for more than just increasing church attendance. We have not fulfilled the Great Commission until believers have been baptized into the church and been taught all that Christ commands (Matt 28:19, 20).
It is readily apparent that the church does not play a secondary role in God’s program. It is God’s preliminary gathering place for his people. He has no other. Christians should not allow the church to develop a secondary role in their programs either. We keep hearing of people who claim to be disciples of Christ, and yet feel no obligation to be involved in a church. They’re busy. Rarely do they come. They show no love for Christ’s church, which itself is problematic. If Christ loves his church, whom He calls his bride, whom He nourishes and cherishes, and for whom He shed His blood, those who love Christ will necessarily love His church as well. God’s plan for believers does not end with the word planted in their hearts. It aims at their being harvested first into the church, and then finally on judgment day into the consummated kingdom of Christ.
We speak imprecisely when we speak of God’s part and out part, of human and divine responsibilities. There is a true sense in which everything is God’s doing. Jesus said, “I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18). There are aspects of the church’s growth for which we, as enabled by the Holy Spirit, are responsible, as we’ve just seen. There are also some aspects in which we play no part at all. In particular, this has to do with the growth itself. It is not our responsibility to make the seed of God’s word grow, whether in individuals, or in the church as a whole. Jesus said that the man ‘casts seen upon the ground,’
‘and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows – how, he himself does not know. (Mark 4:27).
Look at what Jesus is emphasizing. Realize as we examine Jesus’ words that what he emphasizes we must incorporate in our methods of growing the church.
First, Jesus emphasizes human passivity.
What does the sower do after he sows the seed? He ‘goes to bed.’ He is responsible to sow. The seed is responsible to grow. The sower is not responsible to make the seed grow. While he sleeps, the kingdom of God grows. The sower doesn’t assist it. He doesn’t even understand it. How it grows ‘he himself does not know.’ He can’t help the process, or assist it, or encourage it, or manipulate it because he doesn’t even understand it.! Jesus detaches him completely from the growth of the seed itself. This is not a lesson on farming, we should note. Jesus might have said something about watering and fertilizing and weeding, that is, He might have described those things that one might do to enhance the environment of growth. He omits all that in order to focus attention on the mystery of growth. When I fly to the west coast I have one job; get on the plane. I cannot help the plane or pilot. I don’t understand how it works. I just get myself on board and take a seat. Our role in growing the kingdom is to sow the word and gather the fruit. Growth is not our responsibility. ‘A higher power than (man’s) must do the real work,’ says T.M. Lindsey (110). The sower ‘goes to bed,’ says Jesus, clearly emphasizing human passivity with respect to the growth of the kingdom of God.
Second, Jesus emphasizes divine sovereignty.
“The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.’ (Mark 4:28)
How does the earth produce its crop? ‘By itself,’ Jesus says. Jesus uses the word automate, from which we get our word ‘automatic.’ It is used in Acts 12:10 of a gate opening by itself. The seed grows ‘spontaneously.’ Lane renders it (169). That is, God has constituted His word with inherent properties, so that of its own accord it converts the unbelieving and sanctifies the saints. ‘It possesses its own power to germinate and bear fruit,’ says Sinclair Ferguson (57). ‘The ultimate effect is wholly independent of man’s industry and care, however necessary these may be,’ says Alexander (103). We sow the seed. We do so by preaching the gospel. Then God takes over and empowers that proclaimed word. That gospel itself is the ‘power of God for salvation’ (Rom. 1:16). The word is ‘able to build’ (Acts 20:32). It ‘performs its work’ (1 Thess. 2:13). It causes spiritual rebirth (1 Peter 1:23-25). It is ‘living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Heb. 4:12). It is not a dead word. It is living and has its own dynamic. Through Jeremiah, God says,
‘Is not My word like fire?’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’ (Jer. 23:29)
God’s word is like a fire that burns and a hammer that shatters. It does not ‘return void’ but accomplishes all that God has for it (Isa. 55:11 KJV). The Scriptures ‘equip’ us for ‘every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16, 17; cf. 1 Thess 1:5; Col 3:6; 1 Pet. 2:2; Eph. 6:1ff). The word goes right on doing its work until the last day, when Christ harvests the fruit of His kingdom.
‘But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest is come’ (Mark 4:29).
The emphasis that Jesus is giving to human passivity on the one side, and divine sovereignty (through the words inherent power) on the other, has to mean something for the ministry of the church. The great German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said of his extraordinary work, ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing.’ Indeed, it was ‘while I slept,’ he said, obviously alluding to this parable, that God reformed His church. ‘I did nothing. The word did it all.’ This old biblical and Reformational perspective, if true, has to affect how we go about ‘doing’ church. We have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. Upon what are we going to focus or concentrate? Let me elaborate.
First, the truth of the parable will lead us to concentrate on proclamation.
It could hardly be more ironic that the biblical content of worship services in the last hundred years, and especially in the last twenty-five, has been drastically reduced. The word-content of public services has been reduced by those whose motive is to grow the church. This is the equivalent of removing gasoline fro the gas tank of cars by those whose motive is to empower automobiles. The unchurched and various seekers are put off by Bible reading and exposition, they say. The answer to this problem for many has been to eliminate them. Sermons are no longer expositions of Scripture, but psychological, financial, career, and familial counseling. Felt needs for improved circumstances in this world are addressed. Little or no Bible is read. Seekers don’t like to sing, they say, so the music ministry has been transformed into performances by professionals that the audience watches. However, the mythical seeker does like the rock/pop genre, so praise bands are ‘in.’ The biblical content of the songs has been reduced because ‘unchurched Charlie’ can’t understand the language of Zion. Seekers are turned off by prayer, so prayer has largely been eliminated. The net biblical content of the church’s public services today has been fatally reduced. What do we call services in which the Bible is not being read, preached, sung or prayed? What can we hope will be the effect of such services in the long run? If we are born again, sanctified, and made wise by God’s word, what will remain of such ministries once their goals of popularity subsides?. Despite the fact that Evangelicalism is America’s largest religion (Business Week, May 23 rd 2005), having a larger share of U.S. population (26%) than Roman Catholicism (22%) or mainline Protestantism (16%), it is far too shallow to sustain itself for long,.The decline of interest in the Bible, knowledge of the Bible, and public use of the Bible spells catastrophe for the church’s future. No, if Jesus’ words mean anything, then know that we much remain faithful to our task to sow God’s word.
One senses a kind of frenetic panic about growth out there in churchland. This panic betrays a lack of confidence in the word as God’s appointed means of growing His church. Again, (for the third time), we remind ourselves of Jesus’ words: ‘I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18). Will He? How? By His word. If we believe that Jesus builds the church through His word, we well sow the word and leave the results of our sowing and harvesting up to God.
Instead, we see today widespread vulnerability to every trick and gimmick that comes down the pike promising a growth that it cannot deliver. I’ve been around long enough to see program after program come across my desk promising ‘success’ in ministry. Most of these novelties transform ministers of the word into managers of people and movements. Shortly after I arrived in Savannah I received a large packet promising eye-popping growth through a field tested telemarketing program. Mobilize your people to telemarket the neighborhood, they urged. One silver bullet after another has followed suit, promising spiritual or numeric growth. Small groups were once the key, then discipleship groups, then a Scripture memory program, then praise choruses (74% of al U.S. churches now use ‘praise and worship’ songs), then the Prayer pf Jabez.’ More recently we’ve had ‘Forty Days of Purpose,’ then ‘the Passion of Christ.’ The latter was touted by one evangelical leader as the greatest evangelistic opportunity in the history of the church. Our response should have been that faith comes by hearing the word of the Christ not by seeing the wounds of Christ. We’ve been told that what we really need is a praise band. The praise team, in one sense, is just the bus ministry of thirty five years ago. Then it was, send out your fleet of yellow buses. This was thought to be the key to the growth so many American churches were desperate to experience. Now it’s the worship team. It’s the latest silver bullet. According to a recent article by Sally Morgenthaler in Fuller Seminary’s Theology, News and Notes (Spring 2005), video clip usage has increased 625% from 1999 to 2004, with 29% of all U.S. churches using video clips at least once per month, and 21% using them once per week (vs. 4% in 1999). At the same time, actual church attendance for any given week in 2003 stood at 18% nationally, and is dropping among evangelicals (from 9.2% to 9%), mainline Protestants (from 3.9% to 3.4%), and Roman Catholics (from 7.3% to 6.2%). Still, hope springs eternal that finally, at last, video clips will grow the church. Or maybe not. The Business Week article cited above describes mega-churches offering food courts, coffee shops, athletic programs, even banking services and auto repair. They’ve taken a page from Walmart’s playbook – put is all under one roof.
Any one of the above-named items considered in isolation and in the right context might not be a concern. But taken together they represent a tendency to grasp at fads, to turn to gimmicks, to jump on the latest growth bandwagon, rather than to trust in God and His gospel. No, God’s word will build the church. How? We don’t know how (v. 27). It is a mystery. It grows ‘by itself’ (v. 28). We don’t need to manipulate the process or distort it.
And we certainly don’t need to change our message because of what a focus group says. This just in: the unchurched don’t like to hear about sin, declarations about right and wrong, warnings about hell, or calls to surrender to Christ. A new flash this isn’t. We are not surprised by this. Again, the business week article cited above also points out that the impact of the new methods on attendance has been negligible or negative: ‘despite the megachurch surge, overall church attendance has remained fairly flat.’ It then adds, ‘And if anything, popular culture has become more vulgar in recent years.’ In other words, for all the gimmicks and fanfare, we are not reaching more people, and those we are reaching are being influenced only superficially. A compromised gospel cannot produce change.
Second, the truth of this parable will lead us to concentrate on gathering and perfecting the church.
The expansion of the mission of the church (in Day Care, athletics, fast-food, auto-repair, banking) inevitably involves the corruption of the mission of the church. The church is not called or qualified to do these other things. They are distractions. They deflect our time and energy from our calling, which, put simply, is worship and witness. They consume our resources on tasks for which they are neither called nor capable. Let the church be the church. The church has a simple assignment: offer to God the public worship that He requires and desires, and bear witness to the world of His grace in Christ Jesus.
A church that believes the gospel will be content to preach and pray, and ‘let the chips fall where they will,’ as the saying goes. We have our responsibility – to faithfully proclaim God’s word - and through the word to gather and perfect the saints. God’s part is to cause the growth. When we sow, we can be sure that God’s efficacious word will grow God’s kingdom, and the harvest will be rich.
When I began my ministry at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah on the first Sunday of 1987, I was asked, ‘What are you going to do to make the church grow?’ The question had in mind a description of the various programs that might be implemented to attract attention and bring in the crowds. Attendance was quite low and funds were drying up. Something, anything, needed to be done, quickly, if the church was to survive. Having thoroughly experienced and been convinced of the inherent power of the word by the ministries of John MacArthur in Southern California, and William Still of Aberdeen, Scotland (whose Work of the Pastor is priceless), my answer was, we will preach and we will pray. Of course we also renovated the nursery, replaced the organist, and added another minister. We are not blind to practical concerns. But we never lose sight of that which is central and crucial. We must never lose our sense of perspective and proportion, or allow ourselves to dissipate our energies on lesser endeavors.
Let’s gather the saints. Let’s nurture and perfect the saints. Let’s offer to God the public worship He requires and deserves. And let’s leave it at that. Don’t manipulate the process. Don’t force results. Be patient. Trust God. He has given us more than enough to do.
Third, the truth of this parable will lead us to pray
We will ask God to do that hidden work of grace that only he can do. We will sow the word and then call upon God to do the supernatural work of regenerating and sanctifying sinners. Let’s put it this way: if we think that we can change human hearts and grow the kingdom, then let’s go ahead and do whatever it takes to produce results. Let’s rework the message and make it winsome to unbelievers. Let’s redesign our services to make them attractive to seekers. Let’s take what is ‘foolishness’ to the unbeliever and make it to him seem wise (1 Cor 1:18-25). But if it is God’s work to convert and transform, then we better be less ambitious. Let’s concentrate on sowing, gathering and praying for God to make his simple, ordinary means effectual. This, after all, is exactly how the Apostles prayed. They did their work and then prayed that God would enlighten the heart, that love, knowledge, and discernment would grow, that worthy walking and fruit bearing would result (Eph. 1:16-23; Phil 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12).
J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), that wise old saint, once Bishop of Liverpool, summarizes the lesson of this parable admirably. It ‘supplies and admirable antidote to overcarefulness and despondency,’ he says. ‘Our principle work is to sow the seed. That done, we may wait with faith and patience for the result’ (75).
Chapter 11 from the book, The Parables of Jesus: Entering, Growing, Living & Finishing in God's Kingdom by Terry Johnson, posted with permission.