Trial, Error and the Jesus Way
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:3-8)
Last month I mentioned my hope that the Presbyterian Mission Association investigation will not jeopardize the Agency’s efforts to plant 1001 New Worshiping Communities by the early 2020s. But why should I place so much stock in this particular program of the PC(USA)? The Parable of the Sower offers an answer.
Did first-century Palestinians regard Jesus’s sower as a good farmer? I’m not sure. I have read arguments that Jesus was describing normal agricultural behavior. I have also read arguments that Jesus was trying to startle his audience with an image of ridiculous waste. If you would let birds eat your seed, why not grind it into flour instead?
Whatever first-century Palestinians thought, the sower is clearly a poor farmer by today’s standards. We measure soil quality. We plant with such military-grade precision that we can return weeks later with fertilizer for the exact location of each seed. No more waste of precious resources.
Industrialization has changed us. We have grown accustomed to formal solutions to our problems, whether in manufacturing, medicine, shipping or farming.
So in the church. We look to experts for answers. We pursue formal planning processes. We try to build churches like we build cars.
But complex systems resist formal solutions. Tim Harford, an economics writer for the Financial Times, suggests that we have reached a place of such complexity that many of our problems will not respond to engineering-like expertise. The best way to build a successful complex system, Harford argues, is by trial and error.
If any system is complex, a church surely is. Nearly 5,000 one-on-one relationships are possible in a church of only one hundred people. Double the membership to two hundred, and the number jumps to 20,000. Throw in all the elements of a worship service—let alone Christian education, pastoral care, mission and budget—and the possible interactions over a church’s life grow unpredictably vast.
If a church is a complex system, and if a successful complex system develops best through trial and error, then perhaps the sower is wiser than we might expect. Perhaps the best way to grow a community of believers is not to engineer it.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to start a wide variety of communities. Most of them will fail. If Harford is right, we should expect most of them to fail. But some will flourish—we know not which—and those should become the basis for the next round of holy experiments.
By scattering seed broadly—throwing precious resources profligately onto the Spirit’s wind—we will discover what flourishes in a strange new world. And because it is Jesus’s way, we can trust it to bear fruit, “thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
That is why I support the “1001 New Worshiping Communities” program. I hope you will too.