Earlier this week I started blogging about numbers and how they figure into the kingdom of God. I’ve heard people say things like, “Numbers don’t matter, it’s the heart that counts.” But if you’ve read my previous two posts, I think we can agree that a statement like that just doesn’t stand up to scriptural thinking. I showed how the book of Acts talks about church health (strengthening) and church growth (numbers).

But how do the two work together? Jesus says it better than I ever could;

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9).

Traditionally, we’ve focused on the soil part of this parable. We like soil. It sounds rich, earthy. And as Jesus points out, the quality of the soil is about the health of our hearts, or, expanded to apply collectively, church health. Growing deep roots. And the health or quality of the soil has a direct bearing on the size of the harvest we reap. The soil quality is the front half the report card and has direct bearing on how things grow.

Jesus’ parables are essentially of two kinds: Standalone mini-parables (like the yeast in the dough) or story parables, which unfold like a narrative and pack a punchline at the end. The punchline of this parable, the point Jesus is making in this case, is about the harvest. About hard numbers. One hundred. That’s a number. Sixty. That’s a number. Thirty. That, too, is a number.

What we’re forgetting when we focus on soil is that all our focus on health ought to be producing something significant and measurable. But the church in North America is seriously plateaued, or even declining. Which is a problem. As Henri Fredrick Amiel has said, “The stationary condition is the beginning of the end.” In the same vein, on my Study Break this past year I encountered a statistic that says the vast majority—like, 98%—of churches that enter a decline for more than 2 years, never recover. Wow.

What would Jesus say about that?

“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? “Sir,” the man replied, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine! If not, then cut it down.” (Luke 13: 6-9).

Ouch again. Now true, not all fruit results in numbers, at least not right away. But according to Jesus’ parable of the sower, if there were really inner fruit (improving soil quality) the bottom line would show it by now.

Jesus, free us.