As I write this, I can hear the low drone of the cicadas through closed windows and over the sound of the traffic. Cicadas are strange, aren’t they? It baffles me to think that the cicadas we see and hear now came from eggs that were laid 17 years ago. I suppose, as the father of three teenagers, it shouldn’t seem strange that they’ve spent most of their lives underground surviving by sucking the life out of trees. In fact, as Claire has now graduated from high school and will soon be going off to college, it probably shouldn’t seem strange to me that life is often a matter of slow growth.
And it’s the same with the church, not just our church, but any church. Healthy, sustainable growth is often slow growth. Sure, there might be growth spurts along the way, just as there are with raising kids, but for the most part, healthy growth is usually slow and steady.
Throughout the Bible, we find many agricultural references, and that ought to tip us off that God’s view of growth is likely more organic than mechanical; that is, God’s people are born and raised and not simply made. Even though we talk about making disciples (as in Matthew 28:18-20), it seems that the process is more like planting seeds, watering them, and helping as God makes them grow (as in 1 Corinthians 3:6). Even though there is a sense of urgency that ought to prompt us to share the Gospel message with others, real growth takes time. James 5:7 reminds us of this when James writes, “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.” Our urgency is a matter of need – everybody needs Jesus – and a matter of not knowing when Jesus will return, but growth is a natural process, and it takes time.
However, we do have some influence in how effective that time might be. First, we need to encourage one another within the church, as I preached recently from Hebrews 3:13, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today.” That encouragement comes when we watch out for one another but also as we work together. For example, Paul suggests that older men and women need to encourage and teach younger men and women in 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2. That kind of encouragement, over time, helps us to grow as individuals and as the church.
Second, we need to be purposeful in how we share the Gospel and make disciples. In Galatians 6:10, Paul tells the church to make use of opportunities to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” In Ephesians 5:15, 16 he tells us, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” And that wisdom is important because we are living in a world that resists God, which is why Paul also wrote in Colossians 4:5, 6, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
And that’s what takes time: talking to people outside the church, treating them well, and answering their questions. The process ought to make us think about Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13 about the sower who went out to plant a field and the seed fell on the path, among the rocks, and on good soil. It’s one thing to read that parable and recognize that some people might not receive the Gospel message and grow; it’s another thing to recognize that we might need to put some more time and effort into preparing the field by removing the rocks or into protecting and coaxing seedlings as they grow, even if they’re “on the path.”
As we watch ourselves grow in our own faith and knowledge of Jesus, let’s not forget how long it has taken us to get where we are. Let’s work together and share the Good News and help others grow. Let’s encourage each other as we grow, no matter how slowly.