Many of us were launched from seminary or Bible school with the tacit assurance that our congregations would lean on our judgment, follow our counsel, trust our values, listen to what we have to say and move toward intimacy with God. But then we discover it isn’t so. Most folks have little or no interest in spiritual things, no matter what we do. It’s then we may begin to lose confidence in ourselves, our call, and our confidence in God.
It’s for that reason Jesus served up the parable of the Sower and the Seed for his followers. It was his way of helping them come to terms with apparent failure. It teaches us that most people are not interested in pursuing godliness and may never be and there’s not much we can do about it. Their disinclination is due to factors beyond our control.
Our task is not to change people, but to sow—to scatter seed whenever and wherever we have an opportunity. There’s life in the seed and if it is received it will produce fruit. However, the response is dependent solely on the condition of the soil in which the seed is scattered. Hard hearts, divided hearts, distracted hearts deflect the seed, or deny it an opportunity to take root and grow. Even where the soil is soft there will be varying yield—“a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:8).
Is the condition of the soil permanent? Not necessarily. God rains his grace on every soil; he harnesses the plow of suffering and breaks the hardest heart. (It’s worth noting that our word “tribulation” comes from the Latin word for plow: tribulum.) God never gives up, nor should we. We must keep loving, serving, praying, proclaiming, but the hard truth is that many if not most of the people we serve will remain carnal, cold and spiritually indifferent. It’s from these folks that most of our stresses come—the dysfunctional families, the marital infidelities, the immoralities, the addictions, the harsh and unjustified criticisms and the other difficulties that make our work so tiresome. (I wonder how much of our counseling is supporting folks who do not want to follow Christ in obedience?)
So what’s the answer? Work harder? Work longer? Work until we burn out, or decimate our families, worry ourselves sick and out of the ministry? No. The answer is to keep sowing—prayerfully, lovingly, proclaim God’s word. Many will not receive it, but there are a few “good and noble hearts,” as Luke would have it, in which the seed will take root and begin to grow. These are the men and women who have prepared their hearts for God. This is the fertile soil—all of which leads me to another thought: “Go to those who want you and especially to those who want you the most.”
John Wesley said that and it’s pure wisdom. Preaching and teaching are the means by which we appeal to the many, but there’s more: that quiet, hidden work of equipping the few.
Richard Baxter, the Puritan Vicar of Kidderminster, wrote, “I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to so many at once, but it is far more effectual to speak it privately to a particular person.”
It does no good to pursue people that have no interest in following the Lord. Lavish love on them, pray earnestly for them, teach them as long as they’ll permit you to do so, but spend your premium time with those “particular people” who will lend God their ear. Look for those who want to grow in grace and prayerfully invest in them. There may be only one or two at first, but these are the “faithful” souls whom Paul encourages us to instruct (2 Timothy 2:2).
The main thing is the individual person. We can’t move the masses; only individuals. God wins hearts not en masse but “one by one” (Isaiah 27:12). Change can only occur in the individual soul. “The whole gathered mass is nothing but a heap of sand except in proportion to what is awakened in the hearts of individuals,” George MacDonald said. “If individuals don’t know God no gathering of multitudes brings anyone nearer to the throne of God.”
Though a quiet ministry to a few may seem improvident (it will always seem more efficient to speak to the masses) it was the method Jesus chose to bring the gospel to the world. He taught the crowds, but his primary work was done with a few and, as Jesus drew near the end of his ministry on earth, he spent more and more time with fewer and fewer people. That’s backward from our point of view, but there’s something to be said for doing things Jesus’ way. Never despise “the day of small beginnings” (Zechariah 4:10). No one who hopes to accomplish, or does accomplish, anything great, will do so.
“Small is beautiful,” a friend of mine says. God has always done his best work through a remnant.