I hadn’t caught before the odds in that familiar parable of the Sower—one that each of the synoptic gospels thought important enough to include in their narratives (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). Here’s a section from Matthew’s version:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Seed sown on (1) the path, on (2) rocky ground, (3) among thorns, and (sigh of relief) on (4) good soil. One of the four produced a return. That’s a twenty-five percent success rate. If you’re big league, a .250 batting average might be good enough, depending on other production metrics at the plate and in the field, to keep you from being sent down to the minors. But we expect a little more when it comes to things of the Spirit, don’t we? I’ll admit I do; the insight and the odds caught me unsuspecting.
I decided to look a little further. Surely this wouldn’t be tolerated when money is at stake. So I searched on google: “what percentage of startups fail.”
The featured result:
The second Google result (from Forbes) signaled a 90% failure rate for startups. The third suggested this was a myth, noting that US Bureau for Labor Statistics indicate 50% of all new businesses make it to their fifth year and one third to their 10th year. The Small Business Administration says 66% make it two years. So the data is inconsistent, in part because each is measuring something a little different.
So what are we measuring as we go through this annual exercise?
The church isn’t a business, even if it shares some of its institutional forms. Although our metrics (including those in the reports that follow) do tell an important story. Neither is the Kingdom a business, serving this Christ who is Lord of all and sharing God’s dreams for the world. Apples and oranges, you might say. Moreover, success rates tend to be upside down and backwards. The younger child seems to get God’s favor and the better hand throughout the cycle of stories related to Abraham and his “seed.” Women get much better press in the scriptures than it seems they did historically, although I’ll still quibble with their lot. And what about this gospel? You lose your life to save it?
What data does one who has ears to hear cite to measure this?
But maybe all that does not produce a yield is not waste. I’m sure, for example, that the sparrows were grateful for the seeds that fell on the path—a communion table of blessing for these little creatures who had not toiled, had not done a thing to earn the meal set on that hard pan, earthen plate by the sower who surely could have been a bit more careful had Seed Distribution Accuracy Average (SDAA?) been a higher priority. There’s more to be harvested than just the 100- or 60- or 30-fold that comes from the “good” soil.
There’s an ecosystem of faith, hope, and love here. And like baptism, the school to its understanding takes a lifetime to complete. That, at its deep roots, is what the church is about--metanoia, a growing transformation, becoming like the Christ, perfecting one’s citizenship in an empire that exists for peace, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness.
Thanks to God and praise to you who have scattered these kinds of seed over the soil of this past year!