A Perspective on the Parable of the Soils
by Neil Cole
Posted on November 23rd, 2010
One might find this parable (found in Mark 4) discouraging, as only one of the four soils actually bears fruit. I find it encouraging and life-affirming, because it reflects my true experience. I have now come to expect two-thirds of those who accept the message of the Kingdom to fizzle out and not bear fruit. This has given me hope. Why? Because I no longer feel responsible for the fruit, or lack thereof, in the lives of disciples.It sounds harsh, but maybe Neil Cole has a word of tough love for those of us in ministry: Jesus wants disciples, not spiritual workers who fuss over bad soil.
If ten people accept the Gospel and only two bear fruit, I no longer babysit the unfruitful eight. Instead, I invest my life in the two. These two will be much fruit.
I am convinced that we have made a serious mistake by accommodating bad soil in our churches. When we see people come to Christ and then slip away, we assume a responsibility that is not ours. We would not take it on if we truly listened to this parable. We assume that we must be doing something wrong if so many people fall away from following Christ. We then doubt our ministry efforts and search for other ways to keep people. The results are often devastating to the local church.
Because we think that the number of people is a sure sign of fruitfulness and success, we do everything we can to keep people. We try to woo people to come and keep coming. What we end up with is an audience of consumers shopping for the best "services." We cater to this sort of thinking by trying to compete with other churches with a better show.
We compromise the life of the church if we keep bad soil in our membership. We make church a show that requires the audience to make little or no effort. If someone is willing to come to our service once a week for a little more than an hour and sit passively watching others do the work, then they are considered members in good standing, no matter what the rest of their week is like. One can be totally uncommitted to the Kingdom, distracted by the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things, and still be a member....
....Our churches are full of bad, unfruitful soil. A common refrain of pastors is that 80 percent of the work in church is done by 20 percent of the people. Reread this parable and you will understand why....
....We must invest everything in the few who will bear fruit. Life is too short and the potential yields are too great to spend our lives babysitting fruitless people.
This paradigm shift will change the way you do ministry. We must regain the lost art of wiping the dust (bad soil) off our feet. We might consider such a thing unloving, but this is what Jesus did. Perhaps it is indeed the most loving thing we can do. People must be confronted by the consequences of their choices if they are to get to the heart of their need for Christ. To do otherwise is not more loving; it is cruel, selfish, and counterproductive.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays His life down for the sheep. He will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one lamb who is lost. Nevertheless, He would never force himself upon those who are not interested, nor cater His message and ministry to trying to hold on to those who are more interested in other things. Although most churches today would be enamored if a young and wealthy leader came seeking salvation, Jesus was not (Mark 10:17-31). He gave the man some things to chew on and sent him on his way dejected. The Scripture points out specifically that Jesus really loved the man. In other words, this was the most loving thing he could offer the man (Mark 10:21-22)....
....I have always been amazed at what can happen when we simply plant the good seed of God's Word in the good soil of broken people. We have an expression in our movement: bad people make good soil-there's a lot of fertilizer in their lives."
(Excerpted from Organic Church in the section on "Good Soil" pages 68-72.
Preview chapter from Organic Church)
Josef Pieper wrote eloquently about work and "leisure," (that is, stillness, or contemplation) in his brief, brilliant work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Pieper argued that human beings are more than just workers: that they are beings whose ultimate purpose is to enter into the "leisure" of the beatific vision, the life of God. He was worried that if the 19th century tried to reduce human beings to "proletariats" --people busy producing material things-- the 20th century was trying to broaden that definition, taking people to also be "intellectual workers," people busy producing ideas. Were he with us now, I wonder if Pieper might not decry the way we have also allowed ourselves to become "spiritual workers," rather than disciples.
And yet, Christians today have not resisted that transformation, we have embraced it. In trying to increase spiritual market share and grow our consumer base, we are forced to become spiritual workers. We think if only we have the correct techniques, programs, marketing--the right fertilizer-- we will be able to grow the Kingdom, no matter what the soil. But this is not what Jesus intended. Christ calls us to be disciples, not spiritual workers. Spiritual fruit is not the product of merely supplying the right things, or just passively receiving the right things, but of being in a relationship with Christ (and by extension, his Body.) Relationships are both-and affairs: both doing and being.
In a culture that demands that human beings identify themselves as "workers" and "consumers," (flip sides of the same coin,) it is especially necessary for the church to offer the good news that Christ offers us an identity that transcends the workaday and the world. Neither workers nor consumers spend time loving and serving that which they produce or consume. Instead, workers making products focus on achieving certain quotas and quality standards. They do not have time to contemplate and enjoy their work. Consumers purchasing products focus on getting the best deal, and using their product for their own ends.
But the Jesus cannot be "sold," and He refuses to be a means to an end. He is the Alpha and the Omega: the Beginning, and the End. Jesus calls us to become His disciples, those who spend time with, learn from, and imitate Him. In order to do that, we must focus on Him. In return, He gives us a new identity: we become His friends, His own beloved children. We know and are known.
Postscript: Look here for the website of the Spiritual Workers Association: "Our ultimate aim is to offer the public a credible organisation that gives them a list of members to choose from who they know will not set out to defraud them. In other words, spiritual workers they can trust. We also hope that one day the law can be changed to better work with the spiritual industry....The term ‘Spiritual Worker’ as far as the SWA is concearned applies to all persons who in any capacity, whether professionally or voluntarily, offer any kind of mediumistic, psychic, holistic, spiritual, therapeutic, complementary or esoteric services to the public"