God Provides the Growth
Mark 4:26-34

by | Jun 17, 2024

PRAYER:  God of creation, we often struggle to figure out all the answers, to strategize, to plan, to build a church that will grow.  But we so often forget that it is not through our efforts, but yours.  Make us a trusting people, that we can turn to you in all of our struggles and rest in the hope that you provide.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

For more than 20 years, I was a business analyst.  I became something of an expert in data collection, and in building automated reporting tools for business management, often improving efficiency with my expertise.  There is a little-known practice in Data Collection and Analysis called the MSU method, and that is the practice I’ve put into place for the information I’m going to share with you today.

Using the MSU Method of Data Analysis, I have been studying how best to achieve church growth.  Once you see the data, I am fully confident that you will understand the steps we must take as a church in order to achieve positive results.  As you will see, the MSU method of data collection is completely unassailable.

We’re going to begin in what may be an unexpected place: the parking lot.  Using the MSU method, it has been determined that 93% of all successful churches have a ratio of parking to pews of 1 to 1.75.  That means that there is one parking spot to every 1.75 pews in the church.  It has been proven that the more churches stick to that ratio, the better the chances of dynamic growth.

All churches, whether successful or not, have a budget and work to stick to it.  For most churches, the budget items are pretty much the same across the board.  But the most successful churches have one particular line-item that sticks out: Ministry.  Having a line item that specifically forces churches to focus on ministry – the purpose of the church – keeps the priorities on the forefront and gives them something to which they must be held accountable month after month.

Just as important as the budget line-item is, all successful churches have a well-defined mission statement.  When church committees prayerfully and diligently work together to establish a mission statement for the church, it helps the congregation to remain focused on what they need to do to achieve growth.

This next item is for me, but I’ll share it anyway: Sermons must be no less than 12.5 minutes and no more than 21.25 minutes.  Studies using the MSU Method of Data Collection have shown that the length of the sermon has a direct correlation on church growth, with a sweet spot of 13.875 minutes.  I’ll try to do better on this.

In fact, using the MSU Method, church growth experts have determined that there are eight specific areas where church growth can take place. These include: spiritual maturity, outreach, discipleship, Biblical understanding, leadership development, ministry teams, prayer and worship, and facility growth.  Studies show that congregations that score a 66.4 or higher on all 8 of these categories have a 99.4% certainty that they will be a growing church.

Now before I go any further, let me take a moment to talk about the MSU Method of Data Collection and Analysis.  As a former Business Analyst, I realize I may be using technical jargon that is not easily understood by people not involved in the profession.  MSU stands for Make Stuff Up.  Everything I just said, I totally made up.  None of it was real.  None of it.  Although, Anna tells me that she likes the Ministry budget line item.  That could be a real benefit for the church.

The truth is that ultimately, God provides the growth.  Our passage today in the fourth chapter of Mark is a familiar parable in which Jesus describes a mustard seed.  We all know the mustard seed: if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you will see eternal life.  The first parable that Jesus is giving today is one that he compares the Kingdom of God to one who spreads seeds on the ground.  Notice what the sower of these seeds does next: “He would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

Of course, the people of that time were all familiar with the methods of growing and tending to seeds.  They knew that watering was essential, that they relied on getting rain.  They knew that they had to tend to the ground and ensure that whatever local wildlife that existed didn’t get into whatever they planted.  But in this parable, the person scatters the seeds and then takes a nap!

This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like.  The sower scatters some seeds and the knocks off for the day.  He says, “The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

The sower is responsible for scattering the seeds and for the harvest.  The earth is responsible for the growth.  All of those church-growth experts, for all their prognosticating and analysis, they’re forgetting the most important thing: It is God who provides the growth.  For all the times we spin our wheels, trying to come up with the best, most efficient way to get the church back to the way it was 30, 40, or 50 years ago, we lose sight of the message of this parable: It is God who provides the growth.

The farmer doesn’t understand the science of how the seeds break down underground, how photosynthesis works, or how the plant grows, once it’s emerged from the ground.  He doesn’t need to.  It’s not his job.  In the business of church growth, it’s not our job to wear ourselves out trying to grow the church into the image of whatever we’ve got in our heads.  Our job is to plant the seeds, to get out into our community and be disciples of Jesus Christ, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release of the captives, sharing God’s grace, and offering hope.  Our job is to love our neighbor unconditionally, and offering support in whatever way we can.  If we do that, it is God who provides the growth.

Our job has everything to do with the planting.  It is God who provides the growth.

Our job has everything to do with harvesting.  It is God who provides the growth.

We don’t need to worry about the growth.  It is God who provides the growth.

Rather than worry about the things that we really have no control over, we can rest, we can find peace.  We can offer peace.  And we can let God do what God does because it is God who provides the growth.

In the 17th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet writes:

The Lord God proclaims: I myself will take one of the top branches from the tall cedar. I will pluck a tender shoot from its crown, and I myself will plant it on a very high and lofty mountain. On Israel’s mountainous highlands I will plant it, and it will send out branches and bear fruit. It will grow into a mighty cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs. Then all the trees in the countryside will know that I, the Lord, bring down the tall tree and raise up the lowly tree, and make the green tree wither and the dry tree bloom.

Ezekiel is reminding the people of the kingdom of David that God is promising will be restored.  And to take that one step further, Ezekiel is reminding the people that when God restores the kingdom, it is God who provides the growth.

So, when we continue our gospel reading, Jesus tells a second parable.  “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

It’s interesting that Jesus chooses to use a mustard seed as his comparison.  One might think that he might go back to Ezekiel and compare the Kingdom to the mighty cedar tree, to something that stands tall and stately, something that is, for all intents and purposes, unbreakable.  No, he chooses the mustard seed, which grows into a big giant bush.  Once a mustard bush starts growing, there’s little one can do to control it.  It’s a weed.  If you throw the mustard seed around, it’s going to grow everywhere.

I wonder if that’s the point that Jesus is making.  If you take the seed and scatter it all around, it’s not going to become some imposing giant magnificent tree with its top in the heavens, but rather, it will be a whole lot of small bushes scattered all over, from which there are branches that we can rest in.

Picture all of those mustard bushes, growing, completely out of our control.  The kingdom of God will grow, for God provides the growth.  We don’t need to prune it, we don’t need to feed it.  We just need to listen to Jesus’ teachings and scatter the seeds.  Friends, the kingdom of God will grow.  Our job is simply to scatter the seeds.  God’s job is to provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of God’s love, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of hope, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of justice, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of equity, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of community, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of compassion, and God will provide the growth.

We need to scatter the seeds of God’s grace, and God will provide the growth.

As a Business Analyst, I understand the desire to measure and project the growth of the church.  We can build all kinds of charts and graphs to show the direction we’re going.  I can use my expertise to build spreadsheets and databases so that we can keep track of everything.  But none of that will do what God does, and what God does is provide the growth.

We don’t need to listen to all of the so-called church growth experts who tell us how to restore the church to what it once was.  Let’s be honest with ourselves: what the church once was doesn’t exist anymore.  We’re not going to get a giant cedar tree.  But God is building within us a new creation, a new church, a new place in which God’s love will thrive because God is providing the growth.  We don’t need to listen to the so-called experts who tell us what the data says.  We don’t need to calculate the number of parking spots to available pews.  We need to scatter the seeds of the gospel and step back.  We need to trust in the author of creation, the one who builds, the one who restores, the one who calls us to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  If we scatter the seeds of the Gospel in that way, God will provide the growth.

And that was 13.875 minutes.   To God be the glory.