There is a money-grabbing preacher on television that keeps asking for so-called seed money for his "ministry" in order that God can give us health and wealth. Many churches have grown large by making such promises. The only problem with them is that their false promises contradict the Bible, which says that wealth can choke out the kingdom of God in us and that Christians ought to live lives of self-sacrifice rather than selfish materialism. There is nothing wrong with wealth per se, but it is a dangerous commodity and a grave responsibility that can lead a person away from God.
I threw out most of my church growth and evangelism books because I found them to contradict the Bible as much as they quoted it. One example is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 where Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven being like an indiscriminate sower. This contradicts many of the theories surrounding church growth like targeting statistically measurable demographics. Yet, there is no such target audience in this parable. The seed of the kingdom is sown with wild abandon. I like that. It’s like spreading of the Gospel with faith instead of using man-made formulas. A leader in the church growth movement once told me that he could build a church a mile wide but only an inch deep, only a pastor can build depth. I might differ slightly in that Jesus promised us that he would build his Church.
For the results driven church Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 puts things in perspective: some efforts will fail and some will succeed. What do we do when church programs fizzle? When they succeed does that mean that they will always succeed? Do we change or persist planting seeds where they once produced? Can soil conditions change? Is good soil always good or can it become depleted? Can former paths, thorns or rocks become good soil? What about those in the Church who once rejected the Gospel but eventually came around? Do we quit scattering seed where it previously failed or keep sowing in hope that it may eventually succeed? Are we so anxious about failure that we cautiously spread very little seed, or are we careless and extravagant in spreading the Gospel, knowing that some of our efforts will be fruitful?
An old axiom says that failure is the stepping stone to success. Perhaps the reason that most people do not succeed more than they could is that they are afraid of failure. Yet, even Jesus taught that the road to success was paved with failures (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). Before the farmer had a successful crop he failed in three areas. We too fail God in all these same areas. We allow the devil to snatch the word of God away from us. We allow the deceitfulness of wealth to choke out the word of God. We are shallow in faith and quit too easily. The One sowing the message has not quit. Paths can be plowed up, thorns can be uprooted and rocks can be pulverized into good productive soil. All our failures can be stepping stones to success.
The farmer in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 had crop failure in three areas — on the pathway, on the rocks and among the thorns. These are likewise three areas of failure in church growth. The church sows the Gospel among those who are not ready for it. The most important message on the planet is given to those who are distracted by Satan, wealth and persecution. Results are similar to those in the parable. Does that mean that we should avoid preaching to people who are influenced by evil, the rich and those in persecuted countries? The first century church flourished midst horrible evils, surrounded by wealth and experienced about 300 years of severe persecution. Yet, in the midst of failure the church grew faster than at any other time in history. Where church growth fails it also succeeds.
What happens on the path that causes the word of God to be taken away so quickly (Matthew 13:4, 19)? When we leave the message of the kingdom on the surface of our lives it can be easily taken away again. So it is when the Gospel lands on a life but does not find any depth of understanding. Such a life may even call itself Christian, but it is a label only, without substance. It is a counterfeit that lacks insight and discernment. Let us not naively follow those who to tell us to stop using our minds and blindly accept superficial fads and traditions. Such things are only an outward show and not the depths that Jesus taught. There is no substitute for the word of God. Let the word of the kingdom sink into our understanding.
What happens on rocky soil that causes the seed of the word of God to die so quickly (Matthew 13:5-6, 20)? The seed that fell on the path took no root at all. It was surface Christianity. The seed that fell on the rocks did take root, but it was shallow Christianity. What is the difference? Shallow Christianity lasts a little longer than surface Christianity, but it too dies. The reasons that it dies are different: suffering or persecution. Shallow Christianity focuses on God’s material blessings, but not his spiritual blessings. And so health and wealth are a focus of shallow Christianity. Suffering and persecution are rarely or never preached in shallow Christian circles. The Bible teaches: blessed are those who suffer and are persecuted for righteousness. Shallow Christianity cannot survive trouble and oppression. But deep-rooted Christianity lives on.
What happens in the thorns that causes the word of God to be choked (Matthew 13:7, 22)? How do the angst of this world and delusion of wealth suffocate the Gospel? Such people receive the same word of God, and it even grows for a time, but circumstances soon strangle it. What is it about anxiety and wealth that choke God’s word? Like thorns, worldly cares and affluence suck the life out of spiritual growth. We are constantly enticed to waste time and effort on materialistic pursuits. Our pursuit of worldly success becomes all-consuming. Something must suffer, like family life and the things of God. The result is that our lives become spiritually dead. On such a treadmill, we have less time to even think about the word of the kingdom. Let’s escape the stress and seduction of wealth.
The parable of the sower and the seed in Matthew 13:1-7, 18-22 seems to offer little hope for those who may be weak. What will happen to those who briefly heard of the kingdom of heaven but before they could dig any deeper it was snatched out of their possession? What happens to those who fall away because they are not grounded in the faith and have no endurance? What about those who are deceived by their wealth and choked by cares of this world and in spiritual poverty? The parable does not answer the question, but we can find some hope outside of it. For instance, the disciples all fell away for a time after Jesus’ death. Most of them eventually found strength and endured. There is hope for the weak in faith who stumble but eventually return.
What happens in good soil that causes the seed of the word of God to grow so well (Matthew 13:8, 23)? After describing superficial, shallow and worry-filled counterfeits of Christianity, Jesus briefly described a genuine, fruit-filled Christianity. How many of us in the Church are more like the first three examples than the good soil which produces much fruit? What makes the difference? Jesus’ conclusion indicated the important difference to be understanding. The Greek word originates in “put together” as in the God-given ability to synthesize the word of the kingdom into a whole picture. This perceptive ability to put spiritual ideas together produces a fruit-filled Christianity. John the Baptist also understood this when he chided the Pharisees about repentance. A genuine change of heart is seen by its fruits. So too does authentic Christianity produce a fruit-filled life.
Paul taught what the fruit of the Spirit is (Galatians 5:22-23), but Jesus taught how it develops, in the right soil (Matthew 13:8, 23). What is our spiritual environment? How important are church attendance and preaching which immerses us in the nurturing soil of God's word? The word of God is a quote of something God said. It is also the Bible. It is also the Gospel. It is also inspired preaching about Christ. Do we find God’s word in the Bible, in the Gospel and in Christ-centered preaching? Jesus said that we need two things to grow, to hear the word of God and to understand it. We hear the word in a church that preaches the word. When we hear and understand the word of God, then we will see real spiritual fruit in our lives.
Failure is an option. The path to success is littered with failures. We must learn to take chances and be willing to fail many, many times on the road to the kingdom of heaven. Ultimate success is not quitting. God wants us all to succeed.