Lessons for Modern-Day Sowers of the Word

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

The last few days I have been meditating on the famous parable of the seed and the sower. It is obviously important because is found in three different places in the gospels (with Jesus’ explanation in parenthesis):

Matthew 13:3-9 (18-23)

Mark 4:3-8 (14-20)

Luke 8:5-8 (11-15)

Context is all-important in understanding this parable. It stands first in a list of seven stories Jesus told in Matthew 13. Verse 1 tells us that Jesus gave these parables on “that same day.” What same day? Go back and read Matthew 12 and you’ll see that it happened on the same day that the Jewish leaders accused Christ of working miracles by the power of the devil (Matthew 12:22-32). Jesus then pronounced judgment on that wicked and adulterous generation (vv. 33-37). The die was now cast; the religious leaders had made their choice. They will now do whatever it takes to get rid of Jesus.

This story is placed first in Matthew 13 because it reveals something crucial about the response to Jesus’ message. After the public controversy with the Pharisees in Matthew 12 when they accused Jesus of doing his miracles by the power of the devil, one logical question would be, “If you are who you say you are, why doesn’t everyone believe? And why did the religious leaders reject your message?” That question rings across the centuries in many different ways. Why does a wife believe and her husband reject? Why does one brother become a missionary and the other a pornographer? Why do two children raised in the same family end up with completely different values? How is it that the same Word of God produces such differing results in the human heart?

Most messages on this parable discuss it from the standpoint of the four soils. I want to look at it in terms of what it teaches us about doing ministry today. I find at least eight principles that both challenge and encourage us.

1) Build Your Ministry on the Word of God.

Jesus said the seed is the Word of God (Luke 8:11). It’s the only thing that has the power to change the human heart. Preaching alone won’t do it because we cannot talk people into a new heart. Our words have no power in and of themselves. Programs won’t do it. The contemporary American church is mostly programmed up to its eyeballs. The typical church is stratified with programs for children, youth, adults, singles, newlyweds, newly-divorced, newly-remarried, single parents, older singles, senior adults, and we offer classes for those struggling with bad family backgrounds, abuse issues, addiction issues, plus we have sports teams, choirs, drama teams, Internet teams, and affinity groups for everything under the sun. Years ago I heard Dr. W. A. Criswell say that the church should be the social center for the congregation. We’ve certainly followed his advice–and with a lot of good results, I should add. I don’t denigrate the stratification of the modern church. It’s necessary in our day to reach people where they are. And if we don’t reach them, we can’t win them or train them or send them out to minister to others.

But it’s possible to mistake busyness for godliness and activity for spirituality.The only thing that produces lasting growth is the Word of God. Preaching and programs without the Word may produce quick growth but it won’t last. We need Word-centered ministry—and that must start from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Preachers who preach about everything under the sun except what God has actually said rob their congregations of the one thing they desperately need.

I’ve been around long enough to see the trends come and go. Here’s a short list:

Bus ministry

Sunday School campaigns

Sharing services

Church growth movement

Moral Majority

Evangelism Explosion

Charismatic renewal

The Third Wave

Contemporary worship

Seeker-friendly churches

Purpose-Driven churches

Revival of traditional worship

Cell group movement

Promise Keepers

The Emerging Church Movement

And that’s just off the top of my head. I should add that I have been deeply involved in some of those things—including the bus ministry when my brother Alan and I started a bus route for a church in Oxford, Mississippi in the summer of 1973. I’ve helped start contemporary worship and been trained in Evangelism Explosion and I went to several of the big Promise Keepers rallies.

Here’s what I want to drive home. Be a student of the trends. Study your culture. Learn from what others are doing. Don’t reject things out of hand without looking into them. But above all, never substitute a trend or a fad or the hottest new thing for the simple, systematic teaching of God’s Word. Without the Word, our churches may grow but they will not produce fruit that lasts.

2) Good ministry produces differing and unpredictable results in the hearers.

This is the central teaching of the parable. Remember that there is nothing wrong with the seed. The same seed that the birds eat is the same seed that produces a good crop. And it’s the same seed that produces a plant that withers away or gets choked by the thorns. Good ministry can’t be defined solely in terms of its visible results. Several years ago I spent a week with retired SIM missionaries in Sebring, Florida. Most of them had spent decades sharing the gospel in Africa. I heard about one man who in his early years did evangelism among one particular tribal group and saw hundreds if not thousands come to Christ. Then he was transferred to a primarily Muslim area of Nigeria where he labored for years with only a handful of converts. What happened? Had he suddenly become ineffective? The answer is no. He still preached the same Good News but the field was much harder because of the hold the Muslim religion had on its followers.

Good ministry is like that. A man may see huge results in one church and then struggle for years in another church. One tribe is open to the gospel; another is resistant. One city welcomes missionaries; another opposes them. And so it goes around the world. Today in China the door is open in many ways. Yet opposition seems to be on the increase. China is not just one thing. As more than one leader has told me, “Everything you’ve hard about China is true somewhere.”

And you can’t know in advance how your ministry will be received. Past success may be a good indicator but it is not a guarantee. That’s why Jesus told this story. Our job is sow the seed but as we sow, we need to be realistic and not starry-eyed dreamers. Some seed will fall on the hard path, some on the stony ground, some on thorny soil, and some will fall on good soil. But you can’t know in advance where all the seeds will fall.

Good ministry of the Word produces differing results. That happens in every church and in every ministry. Jesus told this story so we won’t be surprised and we won’t be discouraged when things don’t go the way we expected.

2) Don’t be misled by early success.

Often when we enter a new ministry, there is a sudden growth spurt. I remember being told in seminary that when a pastor goes to a new church, there is generally a quick rise in attendance followed by a plateau followed by a period of much slower growth. This makes sense because a new pastor brings new excitement, a fresh perspective, new ideas and an infusion of energy. It’s not unusual for people to come to church to check out the new guy. So the first few months of a new ministry normally produce a bump in attendance. It’s easy for a pastor to be misled by that bump. He can start to think, “Hey, this is easy.” The ministry may be many things, but it is not easy.

I remember my first pastorate right out of seminary. I went to a small neighborhood church in suburban Los Angeles. There were perhaps 40 people there when I arrived. Within a few weeks we had doubled to 80 people. Not long after that we hit 100. I was euphoric. We were the talk of the town-—at least in my own mind. But then we hit a plateau. Things leveled off. They flattened out.

No one told me about that.

Things were very level.

Extremely level.

The plateau seemed to go on forever.

And I discovered that some people that seemed so excited at the beginning drifted away. No problems. No controversy. They just disappeared. I remember that during my candidating visit, I had already decided not to take the church. But that changed when a young couple drove me around the area, pointing out this highlight and that special place and what a good location the church had and what a fine place this was to live. They were so persuasive that I changed my mind and decided to accept the call to the church. Shortly after I came, they left the church. I never was able to figure it out. I don’t think they were upset by anything. They just disappeared. They were there and then they were gone.

But that’s precisely what Jesus told us to expect. I find it fascinating that the longest portion of Jesus’ explanation (vv. 19-21) deals with the seed that fell on stony ground. Remember, it sprang up quickly. Early success! Nothing better than that. We’re going to have a bumper crop this year. But that seed sprang up quickly because it had no deep roots. When the sun beat down, the young plants withered and died.

So let us take the warning to heart. If you have early success in your ministry, enjoy it but do not put too much stock in it. Wise farmers know that there is always a long period between planting and harvesting. The “early risers” won’t always be around when harvest time comes. Don’t be misled by early success. It’s not always a guarantee of things to come.

Think of it this way. Three of the four soils responded positively at first. But only one produced lasting fruit.

4) Don’t despair because of early difficulty.

Three of the four soils failed to produce good fruit. Is Jesus suggesting that 75% of our efforts will go for naught? No, but sometimes it can seem that way. Some churches are hard to pastor, others are easier. Some missionaries see amazing results. Others struggle for years with little to show for their efforts. Good soil can be hard to find. The flip side is that when you find it, it can produce amazing results. And some people will be thirty-fold, some sixty, and some a hundred-fold in what they produce for the Kingdom. God can do a lot with a little. That’s the encouraging news from this parable. A few seeds sown in good soil can ultimately revolutionize a church, a town, a school, a family, a neighborhood, or when God wills it so, an entire region.

5) Your initial judgment of people will often be wrong.

This truth cuts both ways. You can’t tell by looking what sort of heart a person has. That is, you can’t infallibly know who will respond to the ministry of the Word and produce the good fruit Jesus talked about in this parable. As the seed is sown in many places, it will find its place in many hearts. You simply cannot tell in advance how people will respond over the long haul. Some people you “knew” would make good elders and deacons will fall away or be tripped up by the cares of this world. And sometimes the unlikeliest people will become mature believers.

We have to give the Word time to do its own work. Eventually the Word reveals the true condition of every heart.

6) Sow widely because you don’t know where the good soil is.

The farmer in this parable “broadcast” his seed. He carried it in a pouch slung around his neck and threw handfuls in every direction. He knows that a certain amount of the seed will fall on the beaten path where it cannot take root. What the farmer doesn’t know—and can’t know—is where the stones and thorns are just under the surface. And therefore he also doesn’t know where the good soil is that produces lasting fruit. So it is in his own best interests to sow his seed as widely as possible. The same is true in the ministry. The best way to reach more people is to sow the seed of the Word in as many ways possible, using every avenue open to you, reaching out to every age and every interest group you can find.

7) When you find good soil, cultivate it.

It’s easy for a pastor to be sidetracked into a thousand things that don’t really matter in the ministry. I meet pastors all the time who work hard, stay busy all week long, and have their hands in a thousand things at once. That’s generally a recipe for eventual burnout. No one can do it all.

When you find good soil, cultivate it. That’s what Jesus did. Though he spoke to the masses, and though he had time for individuals, he gave the majority of his time to training the twelve. He found them, he called them, he trained them, and he allowed them to come alongside and be with him up close and personal. He poured himself into that small band of men knowing that after his departure they would become the leaders of the movement he had started.

Don’t miss the point.

No one really knows what the pastor’s job is. Even if you have a job description, it’s usually so general as to be almost useless. I don’t know a single pastor who consults his job description in the morning to figure out what he should be doing during the day. If you have 300 people in your church, you’ve got 300 bosses, each with their own perception of what you should be doing. If you fall into the trap of trying to please them all, your ministry is bound to fail or you will end up frustrated and ineffective. And it’s not as if I can tell you, “This is what you should be doing,” because churches and ministry cultures vary so widely. Part of it you’ll have to figure out on your own. That takes time and patience and prayer and wisdom from on high. Plus it helps if you listen to your wife and to a circle of trusted advisors.

I don’t think we can improve on Jesus’ plan for reaching the world.

He preached to the masses.

He ministered to individuals.

He poured himself into a small group of key followers.

He called an even smaller group to be his apostles.

That small group of 12 men (which eventually became eleven after Judas defected) was the real focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry. After he returned to heaven, they became the foundation for the church he was building (Ephesians 2:20).

Every pastor needs to do the same thing. Find a group of key men and women and pour yourself into them. Teach them. Pray with them. Listen to them. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Challenge them. Encourage them. Meet them early in the morning. Call them late at night. Send them a weekly email. Bring them into your confidence. Let them see your heart.

There is only one thing wrong with this plan. It takes a long time and it takes a lot of energy and you have to be really committed to it. This isn’t a quick-rewards program.

I was meeting with a few pastors when the discussion turned to the importance of pastors meeting with a group of key leaders, men and women who seem to be good soil capable of producing much fruit for the kingdom. One pastor who is already very effective in his ministry said, “I’d like to do that but I just don’t have the time. I’m overwhelmed with too many things to do already.” That wasn’t an excuse because he’s not an excuse-making sort of man. It was a sober statement of reality. He really didn’t have the time. One of the other men in the room commented, “It must not be very important to you or you’d find the time to do it.” He didn’t argue and he wasn’t offended. When I saw him a few months later, he said, “I want you to meet my men.” And he introduced me to a group of 8 men, each one handpicked and prayed over. They were meeting weekly to read theology and pray together. And after some period of time, each man will pray about it and handpick his own men to repeat the process.

Again, this isn’t fancy or flashy but it’s exactly what we ought to be doing. The best ministry is always life on life. A passion for God is better caught than taught.

When you find the good soil, cultivate it! Work with it so that eventually there will be a multiplied harvest for the Lord.

8) Without prayer your ministry cannot be effective.

We do the sowing, the seed must do the work, but it needs a receptive heart to bring forth fruit. What does a farmer do with unproductive soil? He plows it up, throws out the rocks, pulls up the weeds, waters the ground, and plants it again. God farms the human heart like that. Jeremiah 4:3 says, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” Things don’t have to stay the way they are today. Remember what God promised to disobedient Israel in Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

A new heart!

A spiritual heart transplant!

That goes beyond the parable Jesus told and it takes us into a realm of enormous spiritual promise. The farmer cannot of himself transform rocky soil into good soil. If you’ve ever seen the hillsides of Galilee, you know that they are more rocks than soil. You could never get rid of all the rocks.

But God can!

And this is why the final word in the ministry belongs to the Lord and not to us. After all, we were all once like the seed sown by the path. But God in his mercy intervened. He removed the heart of stone and gave us a heart of flesh. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He gave us a brand-new heart.

If God can do that for us, he can do it for anyone. Many years ago one of our shepherding couples received a letter from someone who had recently visited the church I was pastoring. Here is his story in his own words:

First of all, I need your prayers. I am a thirty-four year old single man who became a Christian and was born again at the age of eighteen. I have since fallen back into the ways of the world and the flesh, and am now suffering greatly as a consequence of my faithlessness and folly. Like the Prodigal Son in the parable of our Lord, I have squandered the inheritance I received from my Father, and am now turning back to him empty and destitute. Pray that the Father in His mercy may “Restore to me the joy of (His) salvation” and “Renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
I suppose that for many years those who knew this man despaired that his life could ever change. You may have a prodigal son or daughter in your life at this moment and it seems impossible that they could ever return to the Lord. But with God all things are possible. This is why we keep on sowing, keep on watering, keep on praying, and keep on waiting. We believe God can do things that are far beyond our expectations. He’s done it before. He can do it again. And he’s doing at this moment all over the world.

This parable teaches us both patience and hope. We need patience because some of the seeds we sow will never produce the fruit we hope for. But others will produce one hundred times more than we expect. And this is why we preach and pray and keep on sowing the Word. There is good soil out there even though it’s not always easy to find.

If we keep on sowing the Word, we will reap a harvest in God’s time, by his grace, for his glory. Amen.

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