Tucked away in the narrative of the earliest days of the church is a fascinating and funny story. In Acts 18:5-8, the apostle Paul and his team are in Corinth, and he initially spends his time preaching to the Jews, but they oppose him and become abusive. So Paul shakes out his clothes in protest and says, essentially, “Fine! If you’re not interested, from now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
Here’s the funny part: Paul leaves the synagogue and goes next door to a Gentile home, where there is a person of peace, and it’s the beginning of a lengthy, fruitful ministry in Corinth. This is a story about what to do with “difficult soil,” and highlights a principle of fruitfulness in disciple-making and gospel ministry: Cast seed widely, but concentrate your efforts where the harvest is ripe. If the harvest isn’t ripe, move on.
I can imagine Paul feeling frustrated that his own people weren’t responding to his message. Oftentimes I’ve felt this way when I’ve really wanted to see a harvest among a certain sub-culture, but it just isn’t happening. It seems right to “keep plugging away,” and “stay faithful,” but the New Testament pattern doesn’t seem to line up with this approach.
Instead, Paul and others seem to move on fairly quickly when they don’t see their “gospel seeds” taking root quickly. They certainly cast the seed widely, but then they watch for where the fruit is emerging, and concentrate their efforts there. It’s a bit like Jesus’ parable of the soils – the farmer throws seed all over the place, but only 25% of it bears fruit. It makes sense for the farmer to cultivate the crops that are growing in good soil as opposed to spending time trying to coax them out of rocky or thorny soil. Ultimately the total harvest will be better if he concentrates almost all of his time on the good soil.
So if fruit is not forthcoming from a gospel effort, it’s good to remember that this is certainly no fault of the gospel, and often no fault with the preacher. From the New Testament’s perspective, the readiest explanation is that the soil just isn’t ready, so the best solution in most situations is to simply shake off the dust and move on until you find good soil.
Interestingly, the (Jewish) synagogue leader Crispus becomes a believer after Paul gives up on preaching to Jews in Corinth and goes to the Gentiles. Moving on to better soil can often bring the original fruit you were looking for. It’s a good reminder that this is God’s work, we’re just workers in his harvest fields, participating in his kingdom work in the world.
That said, however, there is a tension to be navigated: sometimes it’s time to shake off the dust and move on, and other times we need to stay faithful in the battle and push for a breakthrough. The trick is discerning which season is which, because we can easily normalize fruitlessness in the name of “faithfulness,” just like we can excuse ourselves from the battle in the name of “looking for better soil.”
This demands a bi-focal lens when it comes to faithfulness and fruitfulness: embracing the BOTH/AND of fruitful opportunism and faithful tenacity, the pragmatism of testing the soil and working where the harvest is ripe, and the prophetic passion and sight to see potential in unlikely places and fight for the breakthrough.
How about you? Any stories of frustrating fruitlessness or an ultimately fruitful “moving on”?