January 6, 2013

The parable of the sower in 21st-century America

When we’re taught evangelism or church development, the early church is held up as an example. One church development movement, The Acts 16:5 Initiative, takes its name from this verse:

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.
seeds sower parable word of god
Photo by Razief Arlie • bit.ly/sxc-hu-adlie

There’s a fundamental problem, though, with modeling 21st-century congregational growth on the first-century model. And the problem is the church.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus taught that the seed of God’s word can fall on different sorts of soil, and different types of soil yield different results.


When Peter preached in Jerusalem, he was working with fertile soil; the Jews were prepared and waiting for the Messiah. When they gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of first fruits, what we call Pentecost, Peter could convert 3,000 people with one sermon by quoting the prophet Joel, because his listeners all knew exactly what he was talking about.

We focus on the Jews who rejected the Messiah, but we forget that most of the early followers in The Way were Jews who accepted the Messiah. They did not see themselves as Christians, but as what we would now call Messianic Jews.

The main objection Peter had to overcome was, “How do we know this Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Messiah we’ve been waiting for?”


When Paul preached at the Areopagus, the soil was not as fertile. It was rocky ground, cluttered by a profusion of deities. Rome was similar, having imported all sorts of gods from other cultures, including Greece and Egypt.

We get all worked up about mimicking the church-planting practices of the early apostles, but we forget that they were talking with people whose culture was inclined toward philosophical and religious inquiry.

The main objections Paul had to overcome were, “Jesus of Galilee? Never heard of him. Who is he and where is Galilee?” or “How is your one God any better than all the gods of Olympus?”


When we preach in 21st century America, we don’t have soil. We don’t even have rocky ground. We have pavement.

We focus on our God of love and forget that for many people, the worst hurts they’ve received have come at the hands of people who called themselves Christians. They were ripped off by a televangelist, or bullied in a church youth group, or were shunned by churchgoers who disliked their dress or lifestyle or ethnicity.

The main objections we have to overcome are, “You Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites,” and “How can we believe you when you can’t even agree amongst yourselves?”

People in America have been so hurt by the church in so many different ways that they have paved over their wounds. They are armored in asphalt. They won’t be converted by sermons or teaching or tracts passed out on street corners. To reach people like this, we have to wait patiently for the cracks to appear. That takes patience.

Of course, sometimes God plows under people’s pavement with a great crisis: illness or unemployment or some other tragedy. When that happens, we can be there to provide support. But only if we’ve already been walking authentically, living out a faith devoid of hypocrisy and full of love.

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