Charting a Course for the Church
Part VI: Cultivating Souls by Faith

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (I Corinthians 3:7). Agricultural imagery, involving farm life, crops, and herds of animals, is among the most common in the parables and metaphors of Scripture. Certainly one reason for this is that agriculture was the most common occupation in Palestine in Biblical times. People were familiar with farming and understood spiritual lessons presented with agricultural themes. In addition, agricultural imagery conveys certain spiritual truths very accurately.

As we read through Scripture that uses farming themes to convey Christian truths, we find lessons concerning two primary areas of Christian life: ministry and spirituality. When Jesus told His disciples, ". . . beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Luke 10:2), Jesus was speaking of ministry. But when Paul wrote of "the fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22 he was speaking of spiritual life, of character and holiness. Often the two are intertwined, so that if we find a verse about one area, we can also learn something about the other. When Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5), He was surely speaking of both.

In both areas, the Christian life is shown to be one of cultivation (or husbandry if we are speaking of raising animals, such as sheep). A farmer must work in a very specific manner. Every farmer knows that each seed or animal that is healthy and whole has within it the ability to grow. Healthy, mature plants will also provide new seed and healthy, mature animals will have young. These are God-given abilities. Neither plants nor animals can be forced to grow or multiply on command. The task of the farmer, then, is to provide the conditions under which each plant or animal will thrive, in other words, to cultivate them.

In Jesus' "parable of the soils," Jesus speaks of four specific groups of people (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15). It is important to notice that this is very much a matter of conditions. In the first group the seed lies near the surface and is easily stolen by birds. In the second group, the soil is shallow, so that the roots aren't deep enough to provide sufficient moisture when it is hot and dry. In the third group, the soil is deep enough, but there are strong plants, with thorns, already established, which prevent the new plant from growing to maturity. In the fourth group, the conditions are exactly right, so that the plant thrives and is fruitful. We should not try to put a measure on this and think that Jesus is saying that each group represents exactly one-fourth of the people in any place or in the entire world. The percentage people in each group may change from time to time and from place to place. Also, nothing here says that each group is fixed - that a person cannot move from one group to another. Jesus is telling His disciples to expect four different kinds of results in their ministries based upon four different kinds of conditions.

This is why the "means of grace" are so important. They create the proper conditions for spiritual growth. The "means of grace" - abstain from evil; do good works; pray alone and with others; read, study, and meditate upon the Scriptures; take part in public worship with other Christians on a regular basis, being baptized and taking part regularly in the Lord's Supper -- are the means by which we cultivate our souls and spiritual lives (see "The True Worship of God: The Means of Grace" and "A Quest For Spirituality" from our March 1997 newsletter, "A Focus for Ministry" from our April 1997 newsletter, and John Wesley's sermon "The Means of Grace" -- which is available on the Internet at the web site of the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene College). "For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:8).

It follows that Christian ministry is the cultivation, or husbandry, of souls -- which, if we observe the state of the Christian community today, does not seem to be widely recognized. Theologian David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell seminary, in his book No Room for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmann Publishing Company, 1993) describes how the traditional task of the pastor has been replaced by other tasks in modern times. The pastor has become a psychological counselor, a manager, a marketer of the Gospel; but too often not a theologian, teacher, and spiritual leader - at least not in Biblical terms.

Certainly one reason for this it that many Christians today are simply unaware that the cultivation of their souls is basic to enabling spiritual growth. Certainly there is also some lack of appeal in this teaching in a society oriented towards "instant gratification." However, growth in Christian maturity is a process that cannot be rushed, just as there are no shortcuts to establishing a herd or bringing a crop to harvest. Plants and animals grow at their own pace. But if you are a farmer, the better you are at providing the right conditions the more certain you are of optimum growth - and optimum fruit. Ultimately, the church that grows is the one that cultivates its membership through consistent practice of the means of grace.

This does not diminish in the least the importance of salvation by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) or the instantaneous manner in which God can regenerate and cleanse us (Titus 3:4-7). But we must also recognize that growth in Christian maturity occurs over time; which is why in "The Great Commission" Jesus presents the task of the church as the making of "disciples" - continual learners (Matthew 28:19) -- and the author of Hebrews encourages his readers to progress from "milk" to "solid food" in learning and applying spiritual truth (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Just as importantly, spiritual growth, and the growth of the church, do not come without faith. Certainly one reason the church runs after psychological methods, and management and sales techniques, to build itself, is a lack of faith in the Gospel the church is here to proclaim. David Wells has written,

". . . it is surely a matter of poignancy for us to realize that at the very moment when our culture is plunging into unprecedented darkness, at the very moment when it is becoming so vulnerable, the evangelical church is losing its nerve. At the very moment when boldness and courage are called for, what we see all too often is timidity and cowardess. Instead of confronting modernity, we are capitulating to it." i

It is just such a "loss of nerve" that has caused many Christians to go "shopping" in secular disciplines and to be willing to pay nearly any price to be seen as "successful." However this rush to secular techniques does not fool the secular world. What reason do unbelievers have to pay attention to a Christian community that is not convinced of its own message?

In recent years a number of voices have been raised to say, "Unless we change the church radically and immediately, it will soon die! We must adapt to our culture if the church is to survive." However, few of these voices have called for:

  1. orthodox Christianity consistent with the traditional understanding of Scripture;
  2. a rejection of "new revelation" - "new revelation" being promoted by the more radical "liberals," hyper-charismatics, Roman Catholics (as in modern doctrines concerning the pope and Mary), and those claiming "new technologies" for church growth; and
  3. commitment to the means of grace.
Instead, there is a call to techniques, insights, methods -- all "vetted" by "experts" or by the number of people responding.

Certainly we can learn how to do our task better by observation and by attention to what others have learned - but only as we keep strictly within the guidelines of Christian truth and practice. Even when these approaches draw large numbers of people, we must ask the question: If we depart from what Scripture teaches us we must do to be spiritually fruitful, how can we expect to attain true holiness or successfully build the church of Jesus Christ? To draw our confidence from our "success" is to lack faith in God. Was Jesus less the Christ when He was rejected by His people (John 1:10-11)? Does He become more the Christ as people affirm Him? Or is it not true that He is Christ and Lord whatever others may do.

To say that we do not have time to do this, or that we have tried it and it has not worked, or that times have changed and it will not longer work, is to repudiate our faith. Christ has come! Christ has been crucified! All power and authority have been delivered to Christ! Christ has risen! The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost! The sovereign Christ intercedes! The Gospel is being preached! Do we believe this? Can any techniques truly compensate if we don't? Sadly, today many Christians seem to be willing to settle for less - for a response no better than worldly enthusiasm and a membership no more deeply committed than in any other earthly organization.

If the church isn't growing, the answer is not primarily in techniques, but in creating the proper conditions for growth in the life of the local church and in individual lives. The ability to grow is already instilled by God - both growth in holiness and growth by conversions - by the indwelling Spirit and the prayers of the ascended Christ. Once the proper conditions exist, fruitfulness always follows - in some places more than others - but God gives to His obedient people the ability to be fruitful in Christian service (Galatians 6:9, I Corinthians 15:58).

A failure to grow is a failure of knowledge, faith, or daily practice. To believe otherwise is to disbelieve what is plainly taught in the New Testament. The decline of effectiveness in evangelism by lay people and local pastors has matched the decline of knowledge and faith, and the practice of the means of grace in the Christian community.


i As quoted in "Cambridge Highlights: Excerpts from papers delivered at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Summit Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts," April,1996, as found at web site of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, September 22, 1998.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 9, September 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.