Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hard Soil

A few years ago, a colleague and friend of mine, who was a missionary at that time in the city of Ibi, Spain (pop. 20,000), over a period of several years, knocked on every door in the city of Ibi at least twice, and in some cases three times, with the intent of sharing the plan of salvation to those who came to the door. When I first heard of this, I was amazed, and I continue to be amazed at the boldness, faithfulness, and dedication of this dear brother in Christ.

After several years of doing this, my colleague shared with me that he had not seen one person give their heart to Christ as a result of his efforts. Upon arriving in Ibi, he did not know of one single evangelical believer in town, and upon leaving, several years later, he still did not know of one single evangelical believer.

In a technical sense, you could say what my friend was doing was “sowing”. He was literally “spreading the seed” of the Gospel.

In the city of Mérida (pop. 50,000), where my wife and I worked for 5 years, we began in a similar situation to that of my friend in Ibi, though there were a handful of believers in town. For the first couple of years, we did (with the help of a number of other people) extensive literature distribution, open-air preaching, and door-to-door work, lending videos of the Jesus film. However, we saw no real response from these “sowing” attempts. A few years later, though, we were blessed to be able to leave a congregation of about 25 baptized believers, and an average Sunday morning attendance of about 70, in the hands of a team of local leaders.

The difference? First of all, I would point to the sovereign grace of God, who chooses to work whenever and wherever He wills. Next, I would point to massive efforts in prayer, through various prayer-walking teams, and other methods of prayer mobilization. Finally, I would point towards personal relationships, social ministry, and pastoral care of needy and hurting people, which are the areas from which we saw the most fruit during our time there.

Why am I making this comparison? To build myself up, and cut my friend down? By no means. If rewards in heaven are based on our faithfulness here on earth, I am pretty sure he will have more than me. Compared to many contexts in other parts of the world, neither one of us saw much fruit from our labors.

But I do think there are some lessons to be learned in regard to how we approach evangelism in different contexts. Following the agricultural analogy, it is often necessary to “plow” the ground, and add “fertilizer” to it before spreading valuable seed on hard, unproductive ground.

Jesus, in the Parable of the Sower, tells us there are different types of soil. In a “micro” sense, I believe the soil is the hearts of individuals. But in a “macro” sense, I believe it is also true that the soil is the cultural context in which we live and work. And, for some reason, there appear to be some “cultural context soils” where it is a lot more difficult to find “individual heart soils” ready to receive a “one-off” Gospel presentation, and respond positively, than others.

Some would point out that the sower in the parable spread the seed in all different kinds of soil. But I wonder whether, in unproductive, hard soil, there is something better we can do than just “spread seed”. Matthew 13:23 says “But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it.” I think that individuals’ understanding of the Gospel is often clouded by their cultural context. We can help to “plow” and “fertilize” the “soil” of their hearts, first and foremost, by prayer, and next, by building personal relationships, and seeking to understand their cultural context better, in order to make sure the message we are intending to communicate is really the message that they are “understanding”.

11 comments:

David Rogers said...

I hope this post addresses some of the issues brought up in comments to the last post.

If not, let me know. I don't pretend to have all of the answers, and am very open to pursuing further dialogue on these questions.

I will probably also dedicate another post or two in the near future to related concerns.

OKpreacher said...

David,
Awesome post.

Okpreacher

tim rogers said...

Brother David,
The last two posts have really made my outreach thought juices flow. I am heading to a new ministry in part of North Carolina that was rural but is beginning to expand because of parts of Charlotte growing.
One thought that came was setting up a strategy using this agricultural analogy. In other words, designing categories in order to place the current structure in that would facilitate change without forcing change.
How would we prepare the soil for this change? Then what strategy would we clasify the different committees in, in order to sow the seed. Then what strategy would we place the other committees that would help us deal with the Harvesting aspect?

I know that some may say I am doing nothing but trying to place new wine in old wine skins, but I feel that in order to begin you need to start where people are and transition them to where you feel God leading. What do you think?

Publius said...

Not to stretch your analogy too far, but... I'm going to anyway. :)

OK, so you're saying the soil in some places is hard, not because the individual heart-soil is hard, but because the cultural context there is not conducive to traditional methods of evangelism? And that perhaps a better approach would be to incorporate relationship-building and service to "fertilize and loosen" the cultural soil? Did I get that right?

Now, bear with me here as I stretch your analogy (please don't break please don't break), if the hardness of the soil has less to do with the spiritual receptiveness or "save-ability" of the individual than with his cultural context, do you think maybe we're just using the wrong kind of seed? Not that we shouldn't preach the true Gospel, not at all, but... maybe we're broadcast sowing, say, turnip seeds. And turnip seeds grow great in western North Carolina, heck, all you've gotta do is just throw them out there and they grow. And maybe you can fertilize and aerate and irrigate all you want, but turnips just don't do well in southern Spain. On the hot, dusty, hard soil of Spain they don't grow turnips, they grow, I don't know, olives or something. And olives work well in that soil, you don't even have to fertilize them, you just stick the seed in the ground just so (ask a southern Spaniard, he'll show you the technique).

Paul said, in I Cor 9:21-23, "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."

Don't get me wrong, by no means am I suggesting we preach any gospel other than that of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. But maybe it's time we give up on the turnips. And if it is, what does an olive seed of the Gospel of Christ look like?

[[SNAP!]] (sound of David's analogy breaking under the strain of my tortuous manipulations)

Uh, sorry dude.

Joe said...

Thanks for the stories - your personal story don't seem a bit self-congratulatory. In fact, I think it's very aimed at Christ.
There seems to be a mystery in Evangelism about the receptiveness of people. For the life of me, I can't even begin to figure out why Europeans got so excited about the Gospel (historically), why it's appealing to Africans and particular Asians now, and why it's so impotent in certain parts of the world.

I continue to think about Japan and how it's among the hardest ground in the world - and that's in a rather free society. It must be more than our strategy or the politcal climate. As someone who struggles with the efficacy of prayer, I know it has more to do with this than any other aspect.

David Rogers said...

Tim,

Sounds like a good idea to me. We have just had Allan Karr, from Golden Gate Seminary, with us for a church planting workshop. He drew a diagram of a cycle that included: 1) Field choosing, 2) Plowing, 3) Fertilizing, 4) Sowing, 5) Waiting, 6) Reaping, and 7) Vintaging or Processing.

In our group, we added "Removing the Big Rocks" before plowing, and "Watering", and "Weed-pulling" somewhere along the "Waiting" stage.

Publius,

Yes, it looks like you got my basic premise more or less correct. And while, we wouldn't want to change the pure Gospel seed for something else, maybe there is a lesson in what you are getting at about models of church and evangelism styles.

Joe,

I would say the main part of the plowing stage is prayer, and that prayer also plays a key role throughout the entire process.

Dave said...

I agree that prayer must be the main part...unless the Lord build the house they that labor, labor in vain. There have been times I took time away from evangelism to pray and saw positive results.

Baptist Theologue said...

In regard to adapting to culture, I recommend reading Roland Muller's book, "Honor and Shame." He discusses the three predominant cultural types in the world: guilt-based, fear-based, and shame-based. His book is an easy read and a free download at the following address:
http://www.rmuller.com/hs.pdf

mr. t said...

The apostle Paul said, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (I Cor. 3:6,7).

He is Lord of the harvest, it is His mission, His work, and the results will come because of Him. Our part is to sow the word widely (prayer is also a part of the sowing process) until a person and their oikos responds to the Holy Spirit's work. Then we stay with that new group cultivating until they reproduce. God will work through them to reach their own people (Mt. 13:23).

Publius has a point about sowing indigenous seed that will work in the indigenous soil. Could explain what happened with your colleague. Or, maybe your colleague was not following the pattern Jesus gave us for finding the man of peace (Mt. 10 and Lk. 10). It is difficult to know what happened there, not knowing any more details.

The Lord is "not willing that any should perish" (2 Pet. 3:9). I believe there are those persons of peace and worthy households out there among every people. God is already having a conversation with them and when we discover them, we become part of the conversation. God is drawing them to Himself and we are part of His plan to save them. God is the one who prepares the soil, that is His work (Jn. 6:44). We just have to be faithful in obeying what the Lord commands.

I don't find any commands for preparing the soil. I only see our part in the sowing and cultivation. I used to use human needs and other means to "prepare for the harvest", but found that it didn't matter. God already has people prepared. We proclaim, make disciples, baptize and teach them to obey. Then the indigenous church does the ministry (if we let them).

sembrador said...

very well stated!

Anonymous said...

Agreed! It is all about understanding. Too many people read too much into this simple but profound parable. Jesus was simply saying that people would react and respond in various ways to the hearing of the Good News. This is usually one of the first stories that I share with people when I begin to share the Gospel. It also serves as a warning to the hearers.