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”.