The parable of the sower speaks deeply of my experience of church growth and vitality. In the parable, seeds were sown. Good seeds. It is not far-fetched to assume that somewhere there were likely many unnamed seeds planted in nice neat rows with plenty of room for plants to expand — that would be only expected. But in this parable, it was the seeds that fell to the ground by accident that seemed to make an impact.
This is a very unsettling story in many respects, not least of which is that 75 percent of the seeds spoken of in the text are lost. Most of the seeds were either eaten, scorched, or choked out. So we don’t really know exactly how many seeds and effort were lost in this story. All we know is that most of the seeds sown or scattered or accidentally spilled produced nothing. And yet, as if by complete surprise or simple dumb luck, some seeds fall into receptive soil and the harvest turns out to be thirty, sixty, even one hundred times what was planted! Exponential growth comes where and when you least expect it.
The message of the Spirit continues to encourage us, saying “you just scatter the seeds, and leave the growth to me.” When we give the Spirit an opening to work in our churches, that is when growth takes root even in the most unexpected of ways.
This parable reads like a page right out of our experience at Norwell United Church of Christ. It was as if the Holy Spirit refused to be controlled. The message of the Spirit continues to encourage us, saying “you just scatter the seeds, and leave the growth to me.” This is not the most comforting message for people like me who like to be in charge, but it is the kind of miraculous response that has a way of inspiring faith. The effort to grow, no matter how misguided, uniquely opens us up to the possibility and potential of the Holy Spirit. When we give the Spirit an opening to work in our churches, that is when growth takes root even in the most unexpected of ways.
As a pastor, even though it made me uncomfortable, this became my answer to church growth and vitality. Scatter seeds. Toss them everywhere. Cover the ground with the word of God. Don’t leave a patch of earth unsown; then sit back and wait for the Holy Spirit to give growth. Marvel at the unexpected nature of where growth springs up. Learn to trust that even though much of our efforts will be lost, there will be an exponential increase somewhere that will be gloriously shocking in its impact on our community. That is exactly what is happening in our community; and to this day, I go to bed not fully understanding it.
This article is excerpted from Stephen’s book Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality with Jerry Thornell, with permission from the Alban Institute. Copyright © 2011 by The Alban Institute, Inc. Herndon, VA. All rights reserved. For more information, visit: http://www.alban.org/scatteringseeds.asp. The book is also available from Amazon and Cokesbury.