The parable of the sower and the field tells of a farmer who flings seed on the ground. Some seed falls on a path, and birds gather for a picnic. Some seed falls on rocks, sprouts, and dries up. Some seed falls amid weeds that crowd out the growing plants. Some seed falls into loose loam and grows well.
The parable is not an efficiency lesson in agriculture or in preaching of the gospel. This parable describes churches. Churches contain hard-packed path people who cannot grow because they are violent and/or they have been treated with violence. Churches contain people who are trying to grow but are crushed by the heavy rocks of addictions and false realities. Churches contain people whose growth is choked by fear, anxiety, and depression. And churches contain people who are prepared to grow, and do grow into healthy, happy followers of God. Pastors and other church leaders fling God's word (Luke 8:11) at their congregations, visitors, and other listeners each week. Since preaching and Bible classes are corporate rather than personal activities, God's word regularly lands on people mentally unprepared to grow.
The parable of the sower also suggests ways to welcome back and help people who have left church overtly (membership officially dropped) and covertly (membership weakened and tested by crises, but still officially in place). People who have left church may have growing problems, too, some of which may have contributed to leaving church.
Churches can be interdependent communities of people who learn to trust God individually and together. Paul advises Christians to become interdependent progressively (see 1 Thess. 5:9-22). Paul's advice enlarges two principles. First, people in church are responsible for each other. Second, people in church can help each other prepare mentally to grow in God's Word. The effort of helping each other grow includes reclaiming as family people the church might wish to forget about because they were uncomfortable to be with. The effort of returning as a growing person includes reclaiming as family a church full of people the re turning person might wish to forget about because they were uncomfortable to be with.
Interference in growth
Developing trust in God is necessary for a healthy church. But violence, addictions, false realities, fear, anxieties, and depression interfere with growth in trusting God, just as hard-packed paths, rocks, and weeds interfere with seed growth. Even normal spiritual growth occurs through crisis periods of testing trust in God, just as plants grow during the crises of sprouting, flowering, and fruiting.
Growth and change happen at the boundaries of churches.1 As people leave church, whether overtly or covertly, they test the church's response to their leaving. As people consider re turning to church, they test the church's response to their return. Activities located at the boundaries of churches are key locations for testing responses to members leaving or returning. Some of those activities include: pastoral counseling, potluck dinners, greeting guests and members at the church door, social activities, church assistance to members and other persons in trouble, visiting the sick, visiting prisons, evangelistic activities, camp meetings, church school programs, and Bible schools.
Helping people in crisis
How can church leaders and pastors help churches when members meet interference to spiritual growth? How can churches help members during crises of normal spiritual growth?
Jesus said the seed that fell on the hard-packed path was stepped on or eaten by birds before even sprouting (Luke 8:5). Jesus explained hard-packed path people as "those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they may not believe and be saved" (Luke 8:12).* Violence, whether overt (physical or emotional abuse) or covert (non-involvement when obvious violence occurs), is an escape from being responsible for other people. The choice to be responsible for other people is the precursor 2 to trusting God in mature faith rather than unquestioned, uncommitted belief. Violence thus interferes with the inter dependence and trust in God needed for a healthy church. Violence is a collection of antisocial behaviors that respond poorly to treatment, ranging from hatred to intentional infliction of pain.3
Violence is not limited to individuals; nearly entire churches can be violent. Church leaders and pastors feel responsible for providing safe growing conditions for both individuals and the church. Violence, whether by individual against individual, individual against group, group against group, or group against individual must be stopped. But God allows violence to occur every day; God does not promise to stop violence or its effects yet. God partially re solves the paradox by being present with hurtful and hurting people, helping and changing them. Churches can copy what God does: love both the hurtful and the hurting (sometimes both in the same person), show better ways of acting, share God's longing to end violence soon, and pray with each person.
Approaches in therapy
Current therapy in treatment of violence involves three approaches, according to Cynthia Anderson, director of the abused persons program in Montgomery County, Maryland.
The first approach is to educate the violent person in alternate ways of expressing anger. Teach how to communicate effectively. Show how violence makes others feel and respond. This first approach has been effective with persons whose violent acts result from lack of understanding of other people and who are motivated to change.
The second approach is "shedding a little sunshine." Because violence flourishes in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear, this strategy dispels the "darkness" of secrecy and fear. How do we do this? For one thing, make sure the violent person knows that in tended victims will be protected and that untargeted people know about the violence already committed. This approach is effective with violent persons who respond to shame.
The third approach is separation of the violent person from victims and the rest of society, usually for a short time. This approach often is effective only the first time it is used.4
These three approaches closely parallel those God used with Cain, the first violent person, before, during, and after Cain's murder of his brother Abel (see Gen. 4:5-16). First, God warned Cain that his face showed a loss of control. Second, God asked Cain where Abel was, making Cain aware that an untargeted person knew all about his violent act. Third, God cursed Cain, preventing him from continuing easily with his occupation of farming, and marked Cain in some way, leading to his banishment from his home society, while keeping others from killing Cain.
Assisting the victim
Victims of violence also need assistance. Standard treatment includes counseling regarding codependency; protection; understanding of the symptoms that follow violent experiences; and support during recovery. Church members frequently experience an additional trauma after violent experiences: a belief that God abandoned them and allowed their hurt because of some fault of their own. This belief is fed in our earliest experiences, even in children's songs, such as "Jesus can keep little children good all the day if they pray." Church leaders and pastors can counter this belief that God abandons people in crisis. They can explain and show that even in the worst situations God is with us. He may temporarily allow violence even against good people, but His plans include stopping violence permanently soon.
Overcoming addictions and false realities is not a one-person job. Pro grams of mutual assistance such as Alcoholics Anonymous guide participants through 12 steps in a continuous lifestyle of overcoming addiction. (It's interesting to note that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous strongly resemble5 the chapters of White's Steps to Christ [see table].)6 There are thousands of support groups in North America, many modeled on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.7 Both the United States and Canada have national resource telephone services that pastors can use to refer church members needing assistance. 8
Facing false realities
False realities include such ideas as "Those people [anyone who is different] will hurt me." "If I don't lose weight [height-to-weight ratios are irrelevant], no one will love me." "I can stop [the offending action] any time." "I have committed the unpardonable sin." "I am [a powerful and respected other person]." "God protects real Christians from all harm and danger." Treatment for false realities involves listening kindly without telling your opinion. You may share your thoughts after the need which the false belief fulfills is met in another way. If the false belief involves violence toward others or self, treatment under medical supervision may be required to reduce anxiety and breakthrough the false beliefs.9
Pastors and church leaders can help church members with the stony problems of addictions and false realities. These problems are recurrent, just as new rocks rise to the surface of a field each year. Supporting church members during treatment, whether in a hospital or a support group, means re minding them of their value to God and to the church, even in their weakness. Praying with such persons during difficult times and sharing the gladness of healthy times show them their value.
Toward a caring fellowship
Fear, anxiety, and depression sap strength from churches just as weeds suck food and water away from crops, then crowd them until they grow pale from lack of sunlight and die. Because fear, anxiety, and depression are all contagious, rapid pastoral care is needed. Usually there is a factual basis for such problems as fear of death, fear of rejection or loss of love, financial need, lack of groceries, fear of injury, time pressures, exhaustion from overwork.
Churches can use natural remedies10 and the laws of the mind11 to educate their members in facing fear, anxiety, and depression. People who are afraid, anxious, or sad can feel better when walking outside in fresh air and sun light, with friends who listen and help them remember times when God felt close.
Churches can help in other ways as well. They can share food with hungry members, help exhausted members rest and sleep, comfort the grieving, and visit the lonely. Pas tors and church leaders can show church members how to love others in these ways. Pastors can team up with medical professionals, thus providing not only needed medical treatment but also spiritual support. When fears, anxieties, or depression become so intense that the person thinks of suicide as a reasonable option, professional intervention, including medical treatment, may become necessary. Interruption of painful thoughts through professional assistance can help the person relearn healthy ways of thinking. 12
Perry, 13 using colleges as examples of caring communities, suggests that alienation from and recovery into a caring community is part of normal growth. The community's problem "is therefore certainly not to prevent alienation, or even to make that option less available," but to provide for "the sustenance of care." "The community's substantive provision of worthwhile things to care about is not enough."
That means expecting church members to care about what the church cares about is not enough. The growing church member is best sustained "in the risks of caring." Pastors and church leaders can help members grow through the crises of growing through several ways. They can tell them their courage in growing is noticed. They can affirm them as church members even as they reexamine everything they have believed in for its continued value and as they deepen in commitment to God and church community.
Seed sowers pastors, church leaders can help prepare people to receive the gospel. Heart-to-heart personal work takes more time than preaching sermons, but conveys God's love in ways that can break up hard-packed hearts, haul away rocks from crushed hearts, dig up weeds from choked hearts, and support growing hearts. 14
* All Scripture passages are from the New American Standard Bible.
1 See Mary Ann Walsh Eells, Case Studies in
Home Health: Problem Families, Problem Agencies
(Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1989), pp.
2 William G. Perry, Jr, Forms of Intellectual
and Ethical Development in the College Years:
A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,
Inc., 1968, 1970), foldout chart of
development endpaper, pp. 130, 131, 134, 135.
3 David A. Kaplan, "The Incorrigibles," Newsweek,
Jan. 18, 1993, pp. 48-50.
4 Department of Addiction, Victim & Mental
Health Services, Montgomery Country, Partners
for Change: You and the Courts. A Guidebook
for Victims of Domestic Violence (Bethesda,
Maryland: Summer 1992), pp. 3-8, 26-28.
Personal communication with Cynthia Anderson,
director of abused persons program, March 1993.
5 Marge Woodruff, in Rose Otis, ed., Among
Friends: A Daily Devotional for Women by Women
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1992), p.lll.
6 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Washing
ton, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 1973).
7 Charles Leerhsen, "Unite and Conquer,"
Newsweek, Feb. 5, 1990, pp. 50-55.
8 National Self Help Clearinghouse: (212)
642-2944 (New York). American Self-Help
Clearinghouse: (201) 625-8848 (New Jersey).
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse: 112 Kent
Street, Suite 480 Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
K1P5P2. Phone: (613) 235-4048.
9 Daniel X. Freedman & Jarl E. Dyrud, eds.,
American Handbook of Psychiatry Vo\.5, 2nd ed.
(New York: Basic Books, 1975), Vol. 5, pp. 580,
10 "Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest,
exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in
divine power these are the true remedies."
Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1942), p. 127.
11 For a good description of these laws and how
they work, see Ellen G. White, Mind, Character,
and Personality: Guidelines to Mental and Spiritual
Health (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn.,
1977), vol. 2, pp. 415, 422.
12 Freedman & Dyrud, pp. 581, 582.
13 Perry, p. 200.
14 See Ellen G. White, Highways to Heaven
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1941, 1952), pp. 40, 41.