And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” (Mark 4:26–34)
We live in an age of ‘how to’ books and television. Not sure how to change the oil in a 1968 Ford Cortina 1600E? A quick search on the internet will give you a video of a man with oil-blackened hands showing you what to unscrew, and where to pour. Want to make a Pineapple Upside Down Cake? Once again, tap away on the keyboard and up comes a recipe complete with a photo of what should come out of the oven an hour or so later.
This happens with the church too. Here are five steps to church growth, and eight top tips to increasing your reach. You need a new and improved service book, and a vicar with a rainbow guitar strap. Or perhaps snip off those bits of the faith which look a bit dated, and adopt whatever issue was current in the wider society six months ago.
In contrast to all this Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who scattered seed on the ground: “he sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear”.
Now, before local farmers throw up their arms in protest, knocking over their coffee onto a half-read copy of Farmer’s Weekly, I should say that I know that farming is more than simply sleeping and waiting for things to happen! The point of the parable, though, is that in the end you cannot give life to the seed. The yellow-flecked fields, brimming with buttercups, bears testimony to the truth that things just grow. The fluctuating markets also give their witness, demonstrating that it is hard - impossible? - to predict the crop. You get good years and bad years.
Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God has its own life, and it simply grows. The life of God spreads, and vicars (being some sort of spiritual farmers) cannot fake the life or force it. The essentials have to take place, of course. The seed has to be planted - and the Christian must pray, worship and read the Bible - but growth is God’s business.
This, I hope, is a message of some comfort in a time and a place where Christianity is not strong, and the church looks small. The second of these two parables demands we do not despise the day of small things. Mustard seeds are small, but they grow into large plants. Today’s billion strong church began with a dozen disciples, and one of those betrayed Jesus.
Small beginnings are very much the stuff of the Kingdom of God and there is no such thing as a lost cause. When God took flesh and dwelt among us, he came as a baby. Hungry, crying and helpless. Now grown, Jesus began by calling four followers. At Pentecost the small band of believers were soon joined by three thousand more, and so the growth began.
The key in all of this is to retain confidence in God, and not try to help the old man out. Don’t think of him as some sort of out-of-date grandparent. Both grain and mustard plants have small beginnings, but they contain in their seed all that is needed. You may feel the church is small - you may feel that you are small as a Christian - but that is because you cannot see the end from the beginning.
In 1813 the Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson arrived in Burma, having been told it was a place impossible to evangelise. It took him three years to learn the language, and another year before he felt able to hold even a semi-public service. Given that a death sentence awaited any Burmese who changed religion, it was a challenging place! In 1817, he finished translating the Gospel of Matthew. The following year he began his efforts in evangelisation, sitting by a road and calling out “Ho! Everyone that thirsteth for knowledge”. The next year he baptised his first convert, and by 1822 there were eighteen Christians in the country. Soon after, he had finished translating the New Testament and had written a grammar of the Burmese language.
In 1850, Judson died having translated the entire Bible and written a large part of a Burmese-English dictionary. There were over eight-thousand believers and a hundred churches. Remarkably, there are more Baptists in Burma than any other country apart from the United States and India. His translation is still much read in the nation, and in the 1950s the then Prime Minister of Burma was not impressed with the suggestion that a new translation was needed: "Oh no, a new translation is not necessary. Judson's captures the language and idiom of Burmese perfectly and is very clear and understandable”.
In the end the key to church growth demonstrated by Judson and many others like him is a mixture of faithfulness and patience. It is a long obedience to Christ, and a deep trust in his timing. The history of the Church is one of ebbs and flows, but not one of being extinguished. Often periods of decline are prompts to long neglected prayer, as initiatives give way to a reliance of God (sometimes even born of frustration).
So Christian, fret not! We may be weak but God is strong. The Gospel is still good news, and the scriptures still have their power. Mustard plants need mustard seeds, and revivals in the fortune of the church need small starts. Maybe what we are experiencing now is just the beginning of that small start.