I grew up in Lancaster County, PA, home to some of the most picturesque farming in the world. Contoured farming is practically an art form, with swaths of corn, wheat and soy beans gracefully rising and falling over gentle hills. Winter wheat starts out green, next to tilled fields planted with corn or soybeans. The tender green shoots sprout, turn golden and dance with the wind. Corn sprouts, and grows quickly next to the soon to be harvested wheat. Corn begins to turn brown as soybeans become bushy. A cycle of growth and fruitfulness, and a glorious one at that, unless you have allergies!
A lot of work goes into preparing the soil. Fields are plowed, tilled and fertilized. The nutrients in the grass and chaff of the previous crop helps prepare the soil for the next planting. Farmer work hard, then pray for rain, but not too much; sun, but not too much. The whole process is supernatural. Jesus said a lot about crops, and seeds in particular. An agrarian society is perhaps more prepared to understand spiritual principles. When an iPhone wears out, you buy a new one. If the nutrients in the soil become depleted, a farmer will struggle for years.
In church planting, soil preparation is important. I would argue that for church growth, it is also. Seeds need to come in contact with good soil. Of course, we never know really who the “good soil” might be. So we have to sow seeds. But along with seed sowing, the soil needs to be prepared. Some of this preparation, perhaps most of it, we have little or nothing to do with. God’s Spirit is bombarding those who would be saved in a million big and tiny ways, through a conversation, through a testimony, through a world full of God’s truth. But some of the preparation is ours to do, and we need to do it better.
The first step is simply being with those who don’t yet know Jesus. The field is the world, and the seed is the gospel. How can we expect seed to germinate and bear fruit if it is not put into contact with the soil? Jesus could have appointed angels to communicate His good news, but He didn’t. Salvation proclamation is a uniquely human endeavor.
We do the church of Jesus a disservice if we only relate to family members. We are being negligent in our great commission if we have no contact with those outside the fold. As Neil Cole says, unbelievers make great soil because there is a lot of fertilizer in their lives!
Interaction with those who do not yet know our Father is of utmost importance. We prepare the soil when we relate to people with genuine friendship, with all the love and respect that the word implies. Can we be “friends” with non-family members? Jesus apparently could.
Being with those who do not believe in God, who do not believe in Jesus; with those who are simply distracted by this world or downright antagonist to our faith…this does not and indeed cannot “contaminate” us any more than darkness can conquer light. It should be fun, because we possess an infinite power and an outrageous hope. We do not share because we are afraid we will somehow be influenced by evil. Television and Internet are far more effective at negative impact than relationships anyway. We do not have significant, spiritual contact with those who do not believe because we either do not have enough faith in Jesus to make any difference in our lives, or we are reticent to leave our nice little Christian comfort zone.
We are like a farmer filling up his planter, and going back and forth across an unplowed field, never releasing the seeds, and never intending to, simply going through the motions.
The local church does not exist for itself, but to empower God’s family to impact a lost world with love and courage. Church growth, the real and exciting kind, comes from people being reached out of their boring lives of self-centeredness and sin. This Biblical focus, this divine pursuit, is something the church must take seriously, must constantly bring to the forefront. Otherwise, a spiritually condemned world can afford to ignore us…and who can really blame them? We’ve ignored them first. It is the prerogative of the spiritual to take the initiative. It is the strong who must approach the weak. The church must act, and Christians must befriend their society, with the purpose of redeeming it. Jesus left heaven. We decided and He acted, for our good will. It’s our turn now.