Cultivating the church

I’ve never been a farmer. But my wife and I have spent many hours gardening vegetables (at least, when we were younger and had the energy).

We planted various varieties of pole beans, peppers, and tomatoes, grew onions and corn, and even experimented with broccoli. Some things, like zucchini, almost seemed to grow themselves (it’s said that Americans in some parts of the Midwest have to lock their cars, lest they come back and find them filled with zucchini). Others, like tomatoes, were far more finicky.

But in no case is it enough to plant the seed and walk away. Seeds must be watered regularly, and seedlings must be nurtured and fed properly to grow to healthy maturity. Planting can be done in day, but cultivation requires a season.  

In a letter to the believers in Corinth, the apostle Paul spoke in similar terms of the cultivation of the church: he had planted the seed of the gospel, and Apollos, through his teaching, had watered it. But both men understood themselves to be no more than co-laborers in the field: the miracle of growth comes from God alone (1 Cor 3:6-9). 

Do we give equal attention to planting and cultivation? I remember a conversation I had with a pastor some years ago. We were talking about the various outreach plans the ministry staff had for evangelizing the community. “What about discipleship?” I asked. “What’s the plan to help people grow after they’ve believed?”

The pastor looked down at the floor. “Yeah,” he said. “We’re not so good with that part.” 

When we read of Paul’s missionary work, we should never think of it as hit-and-run evangelism. His goal was not to rack up converts, but to establish vibrant local communities of faith. Church planting requires church cultivation.

In Acts 14, we read how Paul and Barnabas, recently forced out of Pisidian Antioch, traveled on to the cities of Iconium and Lystra, where they faced further persecution. As we’ve seen, the people of Lystra actually stoned Paul and left him for dead.

Somehow, he survived. Luke’s description is a bit cryptic: “When the disciples surrounded him, he got up and entered the city again” (Acts 14:20, CEB). Did the disciples surround him to protect him? Did they somehow heal him? Or were they just waiting for him to regain consciousness? Luke doesn’t say.

But there are two important things to note. First is the fact that there were disciples. Nothing in Luke’s previous account suggests that faith had found a legitimate foothold in the community. Nevertheless, some apparently believed.

Second, Paul went back into the city — where a mob had just tried to kill him. Why? Again, Luke doesn’t say. But my bet would be that he returned to Lystra to strengthen the faith of what believers there were.

That interpretation, after all, fits with what Luke describes in the rest of the chapter. Paul and Barnabas moved on to the city of Derbe, at the southeastern edge of the Roman province of Galatia. Luke tells us only that the apostles “made many disciples” there (Acts 14:21).

Then, though it would have been far shorter to return to their home base in Syrian Antioch by continuing east through Cilicia, they backtracked west: back to Lystra, back to Iconium, back to Pisidian Antioch. Why? They had left behind believers in each city, and returned to cultivate their faith.

Given the sometimes virulent opposition the apostles themselves had suffered, the new believers in those cities must have faced their share of challenges. Paul and Barnabas encouraged them to stay strong, teaching them that persecution came with the territory. Then the apostles found trustworthy men among them, prayerfully appointing them as elders to help cultivate a fledgling church in each location.

From Antioch in Pisidia they returned south to Perga, where they preached the gospel. Soon after, they boarded a ship in Attalia for Syrian Antioch, going home to the church that had sent them out in the first place. The church gathered for Paul and Barnabas’ report on everything God had done on their missionary tour.

But perhaps “report” isn’t quite the right word here. I don’t imagine this as a formal procedure, as if they were being held accountable for how they spent their time. Instead, I imagine this as an opportunity for excited storytelling to a rapt audience, as everyone rejoiced together in what God had done.

Encouragement, after all, isn’t just for others. We all need it. That’s how we grow.