Mark 4:26 – 29
“All by itself”
Since Donald McGavran introduced the concept of “church growth” in the 1950's everyone has been looking for the “silver bullet” that will make a church grow. Actually churches had been very aggressive in developing ideas and programs to help churches grow even before then.
We’ve worked hard to develop programs and models to cause churches to grow. Some think that the way churches grow is thorough “faithfulness.” In fact the early church growth guru’s used to say that “all churches could grow if they wanted to grow.” That’s about like saying doctors know a cure for cancer but do not want to tell us.
Some have proposed churches grow through revival. The model expressed by Wesley Duewel is one of intense corporate prayer. Historically he has a point and his research is sound. Revivals do come out of intense prayer. However, intense prayer does not always lead to revival. Others have suggested a charismatic answer, possibly mistaking a charismatic appearance with the Holy Spirit. Remember just because something is emotional means it is of the Holy Spirit. Don’t believe me, funeral are a time of great sorrow for some and joy for others. That doesn’t mean a funeral is inspired by the Holy Spirit. A new front has been opened into the concept of “spirituality.” In essence this is a reviving of the ancient monastic practices and disciplines. Obviously this is not without merit either.
Donald McGavran’s legacy has been to search for models that are reproducible. It comes from the American faith and belief in science. If someone is doing it in California, then it must be reproducible in Michigan. You can stop laughing now... The search for reproducible models extends into leadership patterns and personalities. As a result we give a psychological test because we think leaders are only certain types of personalities.
I hope you are surprised by this, but my personality inventory leans heavily toward what my seminary mentor, Dr. Joy called a “control freak.” His counsel to me was to be aggressively brutal in losing that part of me or I would aggressively brutalize those around me. I have to be very deliberate and disciplined to not do, take charge, or micro-manage everything. Put me in a group of pastors and my instinct is to be the alpha dog or take the alpha dog down. It’s just how I’m hard wired. If you don’t believe me, just ask my chess students, my son, or my wife. It “drives me nuts” to see things done in ways I don’t like. However, God has given me the grace, hopefully wisdom, to see that my way is not necessarily the best way. In fact, if I’m honest with myself, my way will generally push people beyond their limits of what they can tolerate. If you don’t believe me, just ask the church I served communion to, on one World Communion Day, in just black shorts and bare feet. And we had sweet potato for the bread and water for the wine. After communion we passed a globe around and announced how many people were not saved in the countries I called out. I’m guessing now would not be the best time to announce we’ve postponed communion until next week? (Joke) In case you are wondering, that was about 60 pounds ago. I’m just glad my son was too young to remember it!
I had a chance to talk to the person in charge of another conference’s “church growth.” They were in the process of changing direction. The plan was for their established churches to plant other churches in the large population centers where they only had one church. They discovered the pastors and churches would not cooperate. I told him, “You did this to yourself.” (They have a reputation.) “How?” He asked. “Think of the personality types you’ve recruited. They are highly competitive and don’t share well.” He admitted I was right. Trouble is that these models come from a business world perspective that has some questionable moral practices.
On the flip side, there has been an increase in expectations. I once was talking to Dr. Donald Hamilton. He said on the first day of (preaching) class he would have students list ministerial expectations. Over the years he’s collected over 200 expectations. With a sad voice, he leaned down to me and whispered, “How many of them are Biblical?” I had no idea and told him so. The modern dean of preachers didn’t even blink and said, “Six.”
These concepts are based on the belief that God wants EVERYONE to be saved at ALL TIMES. As strange as it may seem, that might not be exactly correct. The Bible does say, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) But the Bible also says “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie  and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” [1 Thessalonians 2:11 – 12] I know, it’s a terrible thought. But it is a possible thought. We are not the judge but God sets the boundries.
I have been the pastor of four churches in my 20 some odd years of ministry. In three of the four churches, I have followed pastors who have vanished, left (at lest temporarily) or were forced out. The first church, I followed a pastor who had been student body president at his Bible College and leader of the campus prayer movement. He and his family vanished, leaving all clothes, pets, and children’s toys behind. In all fairness it should be noted that he had been shot at on at least two occasions at his office and many not have vanished on his own.
The next church I followed a pastor who had once had a church for 17 years. He had taken the church from 30 to 300 people in that time. Then he moved and was at the church in question for only one year. This was the only church I met where I can promise you, the church did not “want” to grow. It was run like a secret society. If they didn’t like you, it was improbable you would be allowed in the door your second visit. On the first visit my Mom and Dad packed in tears immediately following a Sunday service, they were scheduled to leave on a Tuesday. Wondering if I had done something wrong, I asked Dad. He said, “It’s not you, it’s this church. In all my missionary and pastoral years I’ve never felt anything like it. I have to leave now.”
I’ve also been in a church that the pastor was essentially forced to leave by those in authority above him. The year before I arrived, the church supposedly averaged 144. They had suffered a “split.” The six months before I arrived, they were running in the 30s. I asked the church who the 144 people were, they could only name 70. Turned out the pastor before me was the second one in a row that had to be sent away. I’ve prayed consistently for both those pastors and families. As far as I know, the one is back and doing well in the ministry.
In case you are wondering, the first two churches closed...
The moral of the story, I know what a sick church is... I have a decent idea on how to right the ship, get on track, and find the center. Start by thinking of it this way:
If you were giving up your baby for adoption and you had the ability to choose, would you place your baby in a home that was unhealthy or healthy? If you would choose “healthy” then why would we expect God to put his new believers into unhealthy churches?
Christian Schwarz suggests there are universal principles that are universal and necessary for health and growth. Dan Spader introduced the idea that true growth must be healthy. Some have mis-read that to mean unhealthy churches do not grow. That’s NOT correct. Unhealthy churches grow, effectively spreading its disease. (A bit like the flu I had this week.) That’s why one study (quoted by George Barna) suggests that HALF of the people sitting in what we could consider “Bible believing” churches ARE NOT SAVED.
Schwarz suggests that true growth happens “all by itself.” In other words, it is not of human origin or by human will or knowledge.
Let’s look at this closer. The word used in verse 28 for “all by itself” is “automatos.” It is were we get the word “automatically.” This fits with what Jesus said in verse 27, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” Notice that the factor for the crop is the soil condition. Growth from the planting through the harvest is on “automatic.”
Let’s admit this up front. Since Jesus’ time, we’ve discovered a lot about how plants work. We know they need water, sun, good soil, protection from bugs and weeds, and proper nutrients. We know a lot to set the right conditions.
Then again, so did the farmers of Jesus’ day. The knew how to work the ground, they knew when to plant and when to harvest. Yet Jesus is talking about something much deeper. Even though the farmer does everything right, ultimately, the farmer is not the one to cause the crop to grow or not grow. Fruit is not a matter of desire, although it helps. Fruit is not a product of energy expended, although that contributes. Fruit is not a matter of knowledge, but knowledge does seem to help set the conditions.
Fact is we can manipulate the ground, but we cannot manipulate or violate the free will of the individual person. The ground we are working will dictate much of what is possible. The knowledge we have and employ will dictate much of what is possible. The effort we exert will dictate much of what is possible. But, “possible” does not mean it will happen.
Jesus told the story of four types of soil (See Matthew 13:1 – 5, 18 – 13). They four soils are: The path, the shallow, the thorny, and the good. Each one tells us reasons for how and why the soil does or does not produce a crop. The first reason is active satanic opposition, as represented by the birds stealing the seed. The second falls away due to persecution, again we have loss due too outside pressure. The third reason the soil does not produce a crop is more practical, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” [Matthew 13:22b]
Notice that parable in Matthew 13 is followed by a sobering thought nobody wants to entertain. It is the parable of an enemy who sows weeds. These weeds supposed look very much like wheat but do not produce grain. The problem with the weeds is they take up space and energy needed for the wheat to produce a crop without producing any fruit. Where God is at work, it seems like someone is working to stop it. Sometimes this is deliberate, but I suspect that mostly it is not consciously done. Thus, we have real wheat that does not bear fruit and weeds planted by the enemy. They look exactly alike but the real wheat STILL has the potential of bearing fruit, if the conditions change. The problem with extracting the difference is you create an immoral inspection of the “old berries” and the “new berries” that will damage the real wheat and its true potential. Again, we are talking about unhealthy patterns. Weeding is MORE detrimental than allowing the weeds. Jesus’ instruction was to let it go because the harvest is coming when everything will be sorted out by someone who knows.
Getting back to Mark 4 we can make a few more observations.
Jesus points out the routine of sleeping and getting up. However, I want you to notice the context of this illustration. Jesus has just uttered these words, “Consider carefully what you hear," he continued. "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you--and even more.  Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” [Mark 4:24 – 25] In other words, Jesus is saying that we must put to work what we know. The results will only be in proportion to what we know to do and what we do. So let’s say we do NOT use our spiritual gifts. What we receive from our church experience will be unsatisfactory because we have NOT invested ourselves into the church. The American proverb is, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Jesus then goes on to say, in our illustration, that we do what we can do but have to trust God for the fruit. The results are natural, or in churches or individual lives, supernatural. They operate beyond our “scientific” understanding. They are beyond programs and models.
If we want to stretch the “harvest” motif a bit we can also see that results are seasonal. In other words, quick results can be counter productive for long-term effects.
We could also note that Jesus said the harvest comes after the stalk grows, the head is formed, then the kernel matures into a crop. In other words, it is progressive. One phase leads to the next. What works for the harvest at one point must be replaced by something else. If the plant only produced stalks, it would be no different than the weeds. What separates us is the harvest.
So what are we to make of all this. First, we have to deal with the information. The center of all things is the fact that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (See 1 Timothy 1:15) This salvation was accomplished through Jesus shedding His blood on the cross, in effect reconciling us to God the Father (See Colossians 1:20). Do you understand this information?
Next, what have you done with this information? Do you believe in it like you might believe in Chicago or the place where you live? There is a difference. Here we believe in Chicago but it doesn’t effect us or make a difference. It’s something we know but it doesn’t change us. Where we live on the other hand, makes all the difference in the world.
The real question is, what difference does it make? Salvation must on every level transform us. It changes how we see ourselves. It changes how we see others. It changes how we speak to and about each other. Our thinking process is transformed, even if we are hard-wired in ways that make this difficult. The Bible’s word for this is “metamorphoo.” (See Romans 12:2) In English this is metamorphose, “change completely in form or nature.” [Oxford] Or as the Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” [2 Corinthians 5:17]
In church it is going to mean that common is common and holy is holy. What do I mean when I say that? Common is what is done and practiced in our own strength, own wisdom, and our own commitment. Common does not need God to work. It is reproducible and predictable. It manipulates circumstances, people, and beliefs.
Holy on the other hand is completely dependent on God. It is the quality of what can happen when God does it. It is understanding, “For the battle is not yours, but God's.” [2 Chronicles 20:15c] Holy is doing God’s things, God’s way, for God’s glory. It is the ability to “ ... not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” [Galatians 6:9] It is recognizing that you many be sowing what others will reap (see John 4:35) and you may be planting while others need to water (see 1 Corinthians 3:6).
Holy is the increase (crop, fruit) given only by God (see 1 Corinthians 3:6).
We must be responsible for what God has give to us to do. We see this in our spiritual gifts. We must trust God to do what only God can do. We see this in transformed lives. We must let God be right about everything.