by Mike Stine
Last week, I told you the story of the people of northern Africa, neighboring the Sahara Desert. They receive rain only four months out of the year. They plant and harvest all within those four months. As the harvest comes in, there is much rejoicing and dancing. The people eat two meals a days, morning and evening. Then as the months go on, food becomes more scarce. Finally, the month before the rainy season a child will rush in excitedly exclaiming that they found grain in the shed and that they can eat that night.
But the grain is not for eating, it is what has been saved to plant for the next harvest. Finally the rains come and the father takes the only grain he has and scatters it across the ground. Tears stream down his face because he knows that his family is hungry and that he is scattering their only grain across the ground. But he believes in the harvest. He believes that his investment now will see benefits in the future.
Last week we looked at three values surrounding evangelism that should spur us on to a deeper desire to reach those who do not know Jesus as their savior. These are three things that we must believe fully if we are going to able to make the sacrifice to scatter the seed in hopes of a harvest. These values are: People matter to God, People are spiritually lost, People need Christ.
If we truly believe these things, we are going to be able to make the sacrifices needed to reach out. We will be willing to spend our time and our money and our talents on things that we believe will enable us to make contact with those who do not know Jesus.
Some of you are at this stage where you feel the need to reach out and you wish to use what God has given you for building His kingdom further. Some of you have tried, some of you have scattered the seed and have not seen any return. And you ask yourselves why? Some of you are frustrated because your efforts seemed to have been in vain.
The matter comes back to soil. Rest assured, the man who’s life depends on whether he can grow grain during the rainy season does not simply go out and scatter grain across the ground. The soil must be prepared. Today we know all about fertilizers and crop rotations and soil nutrients. Even without these things, the soil must be tilled. When the seed is planted is must not be planted too deeply. It must not be too shallow so that the soil won’t wash off of it.
If you simply scatter seed, some seeds are going to grow and some are not. If you take the time to prepare the soil, you will maximize your results. You will get the most return on your investment. And let’s face it, you and I, and the church as a whole, do not have money and time to waste on things that are not going to work.
Soil is a very good analogy used for non-Christians but the audience Jesus spoke to would have understood it better than we do today. As many people today live in big cities and have been nowhere near a farm, there are a few things you should know.
Not all soil is good for growing in. Sometimes soil is too rocky or hard to grow in. Other times, there are too many, or too little nutrients in the soil to grow. Other times, things are simply too hot or cold to grow some plants in. My dad was recently in Arizona and remarked how none of the homes had grass in their yards. It was simply too harsh an environment to grow grass.
Soil must be prepared before it can be planted on. Jesus speaks on soil in Mark 4:3-9. The four types of soils are four types of people. On three types of soil, the seed is planted but there is no fruit gained. Only on one type of soil is there anything gained.
“Listen! A sower went out to sow.4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
So, all of this begs the question, how do we prepare the soil if we wish to plant the gospel in people’s lives? The final four values in Mark Mittelberg’s Becoming a Contagious Church discuss how to do this.
Value # 4
People need answers
After September 11th, people were all asking the same question. How can a loving God allow such an evil thing to happen? There was an intellectual barrier blocking people from believing in God. People are willing to listen about the love of God and the forgiveness of sins. But if their concept of God is of someone who didn’t care enough to stop a terrible thing like the 9/11 attacks, then they don’t want to know anything about that God.
Other questions are, how can I believe that Christianity is the only true religion when there are so many with so many devout followers? How can we even know that God exists? Why should I believe the Bible?
The last question is one that I believe Christian have ignored far too much. We have packaged our evangelistic techniques into nice little boxes that we pull out whenever we have the opportunity to do so. We answer questions by saying Romans says this and the gospel of John says that. But if these people don’t believe the Bible is God’s word and don’t believe that it is truth, you may as well quote Shakespeare to them. While the Bible may be truth to us, those who don’t believe the Bible are not going to do something just because the Bible says we should do it.
This, of course, compounds our problem. Not only do we need to be aware of what the Bible says as truth, we need some way to back it up. If the Bible says that all have sinned, you need the person to realize what sin is and that they have sinned. When the Bible speaks of our need for salvation, you can speak about relationships. When we make a family member upset, we need to do something to make up for it or the relationship is hurt. So it is between us and God.
I run a school online and have two entire courses devoted to causing students to think through answers to common questions that unbelievers may have. At times we won’t have the answers right away. We may need to go ask a more mature Christian about a question. That is okay. Most times a person will respect that you don’t know the answer but are willing to find it out. But people need answers and we need to give them if we want to overcome boundaries in sharing the gospel.
People need community
We all want to be a part of a place where we feel accepted. We want to go to a place where everybody knows our names, to quote the theme song from Cheers. This is just as true among non-Christians as it is among Christians. Teenagers especially flock to people who are like themselves or will try to be like someone else so that they will fit in. Gangs are formed with a strict sense of community. You mess with one person from the group, you mess with all of them.
We are a very relational society. We have telephones so that we can communicate when we are apart. Now we have instant messengers and cell phones to aid us in this. What this all comes down to is the fact that people are not going to come to any church and stay if they feel unaccepted, unloved, or unwanted. The man who doesn’t own a suit and tie is not going to attend a church where everyone wears a suit and tie every Sunday because that man will not feel like he belongs where he is at.
So how does community help us to prepare the soil to plant the gospel? I have become absolutely sold on relational evangelism. This means that evangelizing is not a one time, hand out some tracts, “come to our service” type of thing. If we are to win people to Christ, we need to establish relationships with them. They must become comfortable with us before they are going to become comfortable and accepted with a whole community of people like us.
Relationships need to be established because it is by far what is the most effective in bring people to Christ. When a church isn’t growing, the pastor usually gets blamed for not bringing people in. However, statistics tell us that the vast majority of Christians were lead to Christ by a friend or family member. The pastor accounts for very few actual conversions. The actual numbers as to who or what drew a person to Christ:
|A special need drew them||1-2%|
|They just walked in||2-3%|
|Evangelistic crusade or TV program||0.5 %|
|A church program||2-3%|
|A friend or relative||75-90%|
Why are friends and relatives so successful in bringing a person to Christ? It is the need for community. A group of friends or a family is a small community and in that community people are going to be more trusting of one another.
This doesn’t mean that suddenly our friends and family should become “targets” for evangelism. Rather, we should be willing to discuss Christianity with them in an open and natural way. Don’t press the issue but when opportunities arise, express how you feel about certain things because you are a Christian.
Even more importantly, live your life the way you should be living it. Your actions speak much louder than your words. If your life does not reflect how much you love God, your telling a person how much they need God and how they should love God isn’t going to get you anywhere.
We need to establish relationships because people need community.
Value # 6
People need cultural relevance
If you talk to the vast majority of non-Christians and ask them why they do not go to church they will tell you they do not believe Christianity is relevant today. Church is something that their parents went to. Church is a bunch of traditions that don’t mean much to the average person today.
The church people look different, act different, dress differently, and talk differently than the rest of the world. We are called to be not a part of this world and we have succeeded admirably in some sense. Our problem is that we are sitting in our churches, dressing, acting, and talking like church people do and wondering why people don’t come through our doors. We’re the only ones with the gospel of life, why aren’t people beating down our doors to hear it?!
According to the outside, we’re weird. We don’t understand the world as it is today. When missionaries prepare to go to another country, they spend a lot of time in preparation. They learn about the people they are trying to reach. They learn the language of the people. The look at how they dress. They learn what their culture values.
Yet the church in America says this is how things should be, we are right, everybody should be like us because we know what we’re talking about.
America has a divorce rate of 50%. This means that we have a lot of single mothers trying to raise children on one income and possibly child support. Has the church taken the time to understand what these women value? Have we taken the time to learn how to best reach these women?
Do we understand the needs of teenagers and college students? Or have we said, they don’t understand God, they don’t love God enough because they don’t like what we like?
In order to be relevant, the church needs to earn the right to be heard. We think that everyone should listen to us because we are right. The problem is that everyone else thinks that they are right as well and we are all yelling our solutions at the world from our soapboxes. Our arguments can’t be heard above the din of the rest of the world.
In order to be relevant the church needs to earn the right to be heard. This means that we must show people that we care about them. We need to show people that we are concerned about their needs. Maybe we don’t approve of the way they dress, or the music they listen to. This is all superficial. If we show people that we care, they will be willing to listen to us. When they understand that we have something important to say, suddenly, the church seems a whole lot more relevant. Maybe we still don’t look and sound like popular culture but when we have taken the time to be heard, we’re understood that we have an important message. When others realize that the message is important, they are much more willing to overlook the fact that we may look and act weird. In time, they may even understand and appreciate why we look and act so weird. But people need to see the church as culturally relevant before those doors can be opened.
Value # 7
People need time
I can be a very impatient person at times. It goes along with my youth I believe. I hope. I get frustrated if the drive through takes me longer than a minute. How long does it take to collect money and hand someone their food anyway? The stuff is already cooked and just waiting to be stuffed in a bag.
But people need time. The seeds we sow are not magic beans. We won’t plant them and wake up the next morning to discover a beanstalk full of beans waiting to be harvested. Just like in actually planting, even when the soil is properly prepared it will take some time for the plant to sprout. Even after the plant has sprung up, more time is required before a harvest can be made.
So it is with sowing the gospel. We can’t expect immediate returns. Even when we’ve done all the work of establishing a relationship and causing the person to see a need for Christ, it still isn’t easy. We may feel defeated when we present the gospel and a person doesn’t understand fully or isn’t ready to accept yet. On average, a person must hear the gospel seven times before they accept it.
This means that you may never see the fruit of your labors. You may work with someone for years and never see them come to Christ, then they move away. Six months later they write to you about how they became a Christian. All of that work you did, and now someone else even gets the credit for it!
However, the work you do is still a necessary part in bringing people to Christ. Even Paul recognized that not everyone who taught was brought to Christ immediately. Instead, Apollos later came along and built on the foundation that Paul had laid. But neither one took credit for their work because it was God who caused growth.
1 Corinthians 3:5-9 says:
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
We may never know the impact that we make upon people. Words that we say may seem to never be heeded but they may be recalled to memory years later.
We may never be aware of when a person came to Christ either. For many people, salvation is a gradual process and once day a person may wake up and realize that they are a Christian. They can’t look back at any moment when they suddenly “got it” but they realize that at some point they understood.
We can’t rush the salvation process. We can’t force people into a decision that they are not ready to make. When can simply pray that God would soften hearts so that once the seed is planted, it would spring up quickly.
When a plant does sprout however, we can expect a harvest of 30, 60, or 100 times what we planted.
In conclusion, if we expect a harvest, we must be willing to prepare the soil. We must spend time and effort into making this happen. The four values that reflect the soil preparation process are, People need answers, People value community, People need cultural relevance, & People need time. If we keep these values in mind, we can expect a great harvest along with much rejoicing.