What’s the process of evangelism? How does it work? What journey do people go on as they think about faith? What should our expectations be of the friendships, the strategies and the activities that we are involved in?
These are the type of questions that I am sure many of us have in our heads, and in scripture we find glimpses of answers. In this article I want to look again at the Parable of the Sower as found in the explanation in Matthew 13, from verses 3-8 and then 18-23.
In this parable there are four soils and one seed, and this story appears to provide some of the primary teaching in the New Testament on mission and how the process works. The key agent of change here is the soil. So it is important for us to know what that soil represents – and fortunately, Jesus is very clear.
This whole parable is about understanding:
- The path symbolises someone who understands very little and the Word is taken away.
- The rocky soil represents someone who understands some of the benefits of the gospel, and they receive the Word with joy, yet they don’t understand the implications and so the Word is lost.
- The thorny soil tells us about those who also receive the Word with joy and follow, but then the cares of this world and delight in money crushes the Word.
- Lastly, the person represented by the good soil understands both the benefits and implications of following, and they go on to bear fruit.
It is helpful to understand this process in the context of a journey that we as Christians and churches need to go on with people. There have been many before us who have looked at this, such as John Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress or Engel with the Engel scale.
In my book Sowing Reaping Keeping, I describe people as being like numbers along a scale from 1-10, with lower numbers indicating a person is at the very early stages of faith exploration and higher numbers showing that the person has made many steps towards becoming a follower of Jesus.
It’s then helpful to view our mission, or ‘sowing’, in three stages – and at each stage we should have a different expectation:
Sowing 1 – for people at steps 1 to 4, is about letting people experience unconditional love.
How: This love is freely given, with no strings and no expectations, and can be seen in the friendships you have: being a good neighbour, serving in Christian projects, mother and toddler groups, Street Pastors etc.
The journey we take the person on: What people understand is that God is good and that we as Christians are OK. Their basic perception of God and Christians is impacted, and they might go from step 1 to step 3.
Our healthy expectation: This is mission, and our healthy expectation at this stage is that they will see us and God in a new light.
Sowing 2 – for people at steps 5 to 8, is about the content of the gospel.
How: This is typically when we share the gospel in words – for example through Alpha, personal conversation or guest services. The parable of the sower contains a huge warning that if we just give people the benefits of the gospel – “you are forgiven”, “God is with you”, and “Jesus loves you” – without explaining the implications of walking with God, we are in danger of creating rocky-soil converts.
Many of us have looked at the reasons why so many people drop away from church in their early twenties, and perhaps one of the reasons is that they have had an experience with God, but not enough understanding of what it really means to follow God.
The journey we take the person on: This is about people having an opportunity to grasp what it really means to be a Christian.
Our healthy expectation: Our expectation is not of the person’s conversion, but of increased understanding and spiritual hunger. Often we have the expectation that we should see conversion happening very early on, so we can end up disappointed. We can think nothing is happening, when actually the person is moving forward on the journey of coming to faith in Jesus.
Reaping – steps 8 to 10.
How: Each step the person has taken so far has been leading up to this point of making a personal decision to become a follower of Jesus (10 on our scale). There is no formula as to when people will make the decision to follow Jesus – some people move gradually from stage to stage, and others may jump several stages at once.
The journey we take the person on: At every stage of this process the person has a choice, for example:
- “I have seen that Christians are OK and that God might be good, so I’ll take a step to find out more”.
- “I’ve heard about Jesus and begun to understand what it might mean to be a Christian, so I’ll take another step”.
- If someone comes to Alpha and they go on a Holy Spirit weekend, then our hope and prayer would be that they might encounter Christ.
- Or if over a period of time a friend has asked you lots of questions, and they ask to talk more about what it means to be a Christian, we can hope that they might take a big step.
We are simply providing the opportunities for them to learn more about who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of him, and for them to respond when they are ready.
Our healthy expectation: our expectation and our hope would be that the person will respond to the wonder of who Jesus is, making the decision for to become a follower of Jesus.
Then hopefully they in their turn will become disciples who bear fruit. But let’s recognise that everyone’s journey will be different, and not get discouraged if it seems people haven’t made the decision to follow Jesus as quickly as we’d have liked them to.
Let’s put this into the context of your life. Say your friend comes to a Christmas carol service, you can have the healthy expectation that they will begin to discover that God is good and that we as Christians are OK.
If they then come to your Easter service, where they know they are going to hear about Christ, then our healthy expectation is that they might understand the context of the gospel, what it might mean for them and who Jesus is.
And if later on in the year we invite them to one of the many introductory courses which are now available, which take you on a journey to reach a more concrete step, then our expectation and our hope would be that they will truly understand who Jesus is and decide to follow him. And hopefully they will go on to sow seeds themselves and see others come to faith in Jesus.
So often in our churches, one of the biggest problems is continuous disappointment of our various activities – and this often happens because we have the wrong expectation. Hopefully this reflection on the sowing process will begin to shape an appropriate expectation as we co-work with God in a person’s spiritual journey.