I love driving through corn country in the American Midwest. If you look at a corn field from an angle, it looks like an unbroken sea of green. But if you look at the field straight on, you can see it is not unbroken at all. There is a line of light in the field flickering like a 60 mph strobe light. It is the line formed by the straight and perfectly parallel rows of corn, which creates a line where you can see through to the end of the field where rich brown earth meets clear blue sky. The individual rows fall away and an endless sweep of parallel lines flows past and you can see—not just plants—but the field. No plant crowds any other, each shares ample sun, soil, and root. It is ordered, rational, beautiful, disciplined, produces a hundred fold, and feeds a nation.
So as a Midwestern boy, when I read the Parable of the Sower, I am less than impressed by the agricultural technique it describes. The person who is planting crops does so completely indiscriminately, flinging seeds about as widely as he can. He shows no care for whether the seeds land on ground that is well-suited for supporting crops. This method for planting seeds is called broadcasting because the seeds were thrown through the air so that they would fall over a wide area. Broadcasting spreads the seeds widely but without any discipline.
And this Parable gives us a crash course in the inefficiencies of planting seeds by broadcasting. Some seed falls on pathways where it is pecked up by birds. Other broadcasted seed falls among rocks and stones where the plant cannot adequately sustain itself. Still other broadcasted seeds falls among thorny weeds, which do not allow anything other than weeds to grow. It seems to be the rare seed that falls on good soil through broadcasting. Far better to cultivate the ground and plant in a thoughtful way as we modern people do.
Of course, this parable isn’t about farming, and the seeds it talks about don’t grow into corn. This parable is about communicating new ideas to people. It is about sowing seeds of change in people’s hearts, calling people to live in new ways according to higher values. This parable is not about farming. It is about the difficulties of convincing people to change their lives and change the world.
While we modern people have wisely moved beyond broadcasting as a strategy for growing crops, we have very unwisely grown dependent upon broadcasting as the sole means of communicating new ideas and trying to convince people to change their lives and change the world.
Broadcasting literal seeds has inescapable limitations. You can only grow so much corn with broadcast seed. So too with broadcasting new ideas, you can only convince so many people to change the world through broadcasting. There are inherent limitations.
First, broadcasting is endlessly shifting and ruthlessly committed to what is new. Broadcasting new ideas in today’s world is like tossing a handful of birdseed onto a sidewalk full of pigeons. It may very well be a worthy idea, something which could change the world were it to be able to grow. But it will not have any time to grow because it will just be a matter of time before the next trending topic or emerging crisis swoops down in a swarm and gobbles up what preceded it. Broadcasting is ruthlessly committed to the new; what has past may as well have never existed.
Second, broadcasting presents ideas in one way to everyone at the same time with no regard to whether people have deep familiarity with the idea or are hearing it for the first time. Broadcasting is excellent at quickly spreading basic information to many people. However, really changing the world requires a deep understanding of the issues that are involved. You need deep roots of commitment to persevere through hard times. And broadcasting is uniquely unsuited to creating deep understanding and commitment because it must treat everyone exactly the same; it cannot prepare and cultivate strong leaders. Broadcasting has no discernment; it cannot engage in formation. It is like dumping a bag of grass seed onto a vacant lot. Sure, some grass will grow, but it is never going to look like the outfield at Fenway. The ground was not prepared.
Broadcasting is also increasingly committed to maintaining rigid orthodoxy with whole companies broadcasting material intended for consumption only by people who already agree with one another and are already committed to a single overarching worldview. Any new idea, any new event, or any new proposal for change must be presented and interpreted such that it falls within the established orthodoxy of good or bad, us or them, right or left.
The Fox News’ and Huffington Posts of the world do not challenge people to change the world. They don’t work to change the world at all. They work to convince me that I am already right—or left as the case may be—and that if the world is to improve then it is for the other to change and for me to remain just the same—if not redouble my commitment to staying how I am. Trying to change the world by surrounding yourself with ideas you already agree with? It’s like trying to plant flowers in a bed full of weeds. No matter what you put in, all you’ll wind up with is weeds.
So what’s to be done? Broadcasting is here to stay, I would wager. And besides, we in the church do our fair share of broadcasting, so what are we supposed to learn about sowing seeds of change? We learn that when trying to cultivate ideas, when trying to grow change in the world, the ground really matters. We in the church need to be working to prepare the ground and to prepare the soil of people’s lives. We need to do a great job of being the church together and being a place where people are deeply rooted in community. We need to be at the work of making people good soil for new ideas to grow.
You see, the church engages in certain kinds of disciplines. Certain peculiar modes of behavior that are well suited to balance out the weaknesses inherent to broadcasting as a means of spreading ideas. Those disciplines are scripture, lifelong education, and covenant.
First: scripture. If you are an active member of the church, it is not easy to be swept up into the obsession with what is new because we are grounded every week in reading and wrestling with stories that are old. It is hard to be swept up by a popular figure peddling cheap answers when scripture gives us examples of faithfulness that have endured centuries of scrutiny. We are challenged to grow and change the world into a better place but not by our own lights only. We are sustained and warmed by the unfading light of scripture that shows us the way to go.
Next: lifelong learning. In the church, it is not easy to be a shallow thinker because we cannot accept someone else’s faith as our own. That is the great gift of doubt. Doubt is one of the most important spiritual gifts that there is in the church. Because, doubt creates a hunger in Christians to sink roots of understanding deeply, to claim the faith for ourselves, and to develop an understanding of God that is our own and can stand in the face of our own doubts. We start this process with children by teaching them the songs and the stories that we ourselves learned. But it doesn’t stop there. Lessons about love and fidelity and forgiveness, about courage and humility, about death and mourning; we carefully cultivate the soil of our hearts and plant lessons with care and in due season. With a deep understanding and personal stake in our own faith, we will not be tempted to buy in to some shallow idea that seems reasonable only when it is viewed in the dark.
Lastly: covenant. In the church, it is hard to isolate ourselves behind rigid walls of orthodoxy. People who earnestly disagree are bound to share life with one another, not because we all think the same way—quite the opposite—we remain in community because we make promises and we belong to one another. When we earnestly disagree with another member, we still revel in the baptism of their children, and we are grateful for the work they do for the church. We pray for them to return to health, and we mourn alongside them when death claims their dear ones. We are called to offer cool waters of forgiveness in a parched world, but we ourselves drink from the ever flowing fountain of baptism’s grace.
We cannot demonize someone for thinking differently when we share what is holy in life as brothers and sisters.
Being a Christian, living life as a part of the church, it is made up of disciplines. Among them: scripture, lifelong learning, covenant. These three peculiar practices counterbalance the worst excesses of modern reliance on broadcasting to exchange ideas.
Broadcasting can scatter people far and wide, but being a member of the church is like growing as a part of a great and thriving cornfield. Looked at askance, the church just looks like a mass of people, a field of humanity. But if you look at the church straight on, with eyes open, our fields part like the red sea and order and discipline and community practice appear. A line of light where rich earth and rarified heaven meet in the rows of our worship: Ordered, beautiful, disciplined, abundant, producing 100 fold, feeding a nation.