The following excerpt is sourced from pp. 59-63 of Chapter 7, “Cultivating Soil,” in Matthew Warner’s new book Why They Follow (Word on Fire Publishing).
Matthew Warner is the founder of Flocknote, and he’s on a mission to help the Church improve its communication. You can order your own copy here to read more of his lessons in Church communication.
When planting crops, a good farmer knows the actual casting of the seeds is the easiest part. The real work—and the biggest factor in success—is in the preparation of the soil. It’s easy to think we’re just supposed to scatter seeds, but much of our work of communicating is in cultivating soil.
Why does the mission grab hold of some people much easier than others? How can the same message bear fruit so differently from one person to the next? The parable of the sower (Matthew 13) tells us the answer quite clearly: bad soil (rocky ground and thorns). C.S. Lewis put it another way, saying that God “shows much more of himself to some people than to others—not because he has favorites, but because it is impossible for him to show himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.”
George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and atheist, is said to have remarked that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. We think that because we’ve said it (casted seeds), it’s been communicated. We think that because it’s not bearing fruit, we must be saying it wrong. But sometimes the problem is just bad soil. Fixing this means understanding what has put people’s “whole mind and character in the wrong condition” in the first place. What has contaminated and sterilized the soil? Here are some answers:
This is one of the direct explanations Jesus gives us in the parable of the sower as to why some are unable to receive the Gospel—they hear the word but don’t understand. As Bishop Barron often preaches, we must stop dumbing down the faith! Christians need to rediscover our deep, rich intellectual tradition, built upon thousands of years of accumulated wisdom handed down by the most brilliant humans to ever live. And we must figure out how to pass it down to our children. Otherwise, the faith will not take root and bear fruit, because they will not understand. We need more rigorous religious education and, more importantly, families that fully and authentically integrate the faith into their daily lives.
Some people initially respond positively to our message, but it doesn’t last because the instability of their lives keeps it from taking root. Broken families, divided local communities, and a lack of social rootedness have taken away the like-minded social support needed to stick with it when times get tough. Therefore, people eventually slip back into their old ways and whatever the crowd around them is doing.
When we dumb down the faith so that it fits into our own overly neat, black-and-white boxes and leave no room for the complexities and mysteries of this life, people end up with a flattened, inauthentic version of Christianity that will not stand up to experience. St. Augustine said, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” (If you understand, it is not God).
A modern lack of imagination
The great decline in faith today coincides with a great decline in imagination. Modern man increasingly finds it hard to believe in anything that the natural sciences can’t detect or measure. But of course, limiting one’s view of reality to only what our little inventions and funny instruments can measure is absurd and unreasonable. As Hamlet said, there are more things in heaven and earth than we could ever dream of. But many people can’t see them. Why? Because it takes a healthy imagination to see what our eyes cannot—to see what is really there. (Read Peter Kreeft’s fantastic book Doors in the Walls of the World for a brilliantly reasoned exploration of this.)
People have been hurt
They’ve been scandalized, betrayed, and let down—particularly by the people they love, other Christians, and their own church. Whether it is personal wounds, larger scandals, or even just a generally bad previous experience with a church, everything we say and do is filtered through the lens of that wounded past.
People are not rational
As much as we tell ourselves that we are rational thinkers, the fact remains that we are very much emotional actors. We say we are just looking for “the facts” but tend to only seek out the facts that affirm what we already believe. The most successful marketers and politicians know that passion is what sells, not logic. They know that people don’t believe the best ideas; they believe the easiest ones to understand or the ones they already want to believe. Reason rarely moves people to action and sacrifice—emotion does. Emotion leads to motion. And though emotion alone is not a reliable gauge of what is true, it is beautiful and human nonetheless and should be part of the equation when communicating.
Blindness to the familiar
The fumes of Christianity have remained so nominally and culturally present that the post-Christian modern American assumes he’s already heard everything we have to say (though he hasn’t) and knows what he’s rejecting (though he doesn’t). G.K. Chesterton, in his classic book Everlasting Man, contends that such a person is in fact the worst judge of Christianity, “the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.” The skeptics say they want to see miracles, but what they really want is something new. The familiar, though miraculous, is perceived as irrelevant. In this age, nothing causes a person to tune something out more quickly than finding it familiar—believing they’ve already heard it all before.
The problem of suffering
One of the biggest reasons people lose their faith is they can’t believe a loving God would allow innocent people to suffer. When they experience innocent people suffering (an emotional and heart-wrenching reality that hardens hearts), they conclude therefore that a loving God cannot exist. It’s unsound logic, but it’s emotionally persuasive and must be dealt with if we want the rest of our message to be heard. We know we are in the middle of a Great Story that ends happily ever after and that God doesn’t create evil but allows it so that some greater good may come from it. We know that suffering is somehow mysteriously meaningful. Peter Kreeft gives four answers to this problem of evil that every church leader should know—check them out at whytheyfollow.com/evil.
Admittedly, many of these issues are particularly frustrating to acknowledge because they are complex and difficult to solve. Some we can directly address now, some will take generations to improve, and still others are simply part of our nature that we must account for when communicating. Regardless, it’s critical that (1) we set realistic expectations and understand that successful communication may require the long, difficult job of cultivating soil first, and (2) we begin solving these now so that the next generation of leaders may produce more from their soil than we have from ours.
You can read up on more lessons in Church communication from “that one lost sheep” in your own copy of Matthew Warner’s Why They Follow (Word on Fire Publishing).
With over ten years of experience working with over ten thousand churches as the founder of Flocknote, this is his practical guide to leading others somewhere truly meaningful—no matter their church role.