I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
So says Christ in a chorus from T.S. Eliot’s pageant play “The Rock.” This was brought to mind after a conversation with a friend a few days ago. We are both in the process of moving church membership and had been discussing the criteria we use to determine the health of a congregation.
I am moving across denominational lines to a tradition that, in terms of identifying a true church, places exclusive emphasis on “proper sowing.” That is, according to the Reformed confession, they are true churches that rightly preach the Word of God, administer the Sacraments, and execute churchly discipline. The confessions of the Reformed church then explain, in broad terms, what that means. This means I have an objective standard to guide my decision. The nearest church that fulfills these duties is the one I will attend.
I’ve talked to others, my friend among them, who inspect the harvest. They often let their judgment of a church’s effectiveness in evangelism and outreach become the controlling factor in their decision to join that church. I’ve seen this in relation to the relative size, organizational ability, and the demographics of the congregation. One person claimed that small churches wouldn’t be small if they evangelized as they ought. Some have left a church because they didn’t like the way small groups were organized. Another said, “if there are not many young adults attending, then clearly this church is unwelcoming to them.” In these fellows’ eyes, the lack of what they judged to be a sufficiently sizable, vibrant, or diverse community indicates that a church is not a church worth joining. That isn’t to say they don’t care about the doctrine taught at all, but they do judge churches based on outcomes.
Unhappily, this is a common mindset in evangelicalism. “Ordinary,” “small,” and “gradual” are descriptions not welcomed with regard to the local church. Notions of church life tend to be grandiose and triumphant in terms of numbers and breadth of cultural influence.1 Why is that, though?
Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
The Church proclaims that we are fallen. The Church tells us we can do nothing to save ourselves. The Church insists that we must submit to her Lord. The Church declares that she guards the only path to eternal life. We want to hear none of that. The Church reminds us that, in this life, She is the Church Militant. For now, we bear our crosses. The Church Triumphant awaits us on the other side of the grave. There we will live in glory.
I think a better paradigm for church life, and life in general, is one taken from Tolkien and his idea of “the long defeat.” Consider the Elves of Middle Earth. Their history was suffused with contradiction. On the one hand, their past was stained by many tales of greed, betrayal, murder, and deceit. Tempted, tried, and often failing, they had done the worst of deeds. Sin was heaped upon sin, and the consequences of this were horrible. Yet, they had also fought uncounted years for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Noble warriors had won magnificent victories against the forces of the Dark Lord. Kings had risen and built glorious cities. They dwelt in relative peace, safety and prosperity. But their time ended, and they had always known it was going to end. Every victory, every new triumph, was not quite as great as the last. They were a dying people. Their final victory was not to be had on this earth. They had to set their hope on a better country, a far-off city, a garden beyond the walls of this world.
And so it was with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Adam, Eve, and Noah, with Job, with Moses, with David, with all the Patriarchs and Prophets.
So, too, with us. Christ, in his first advent, inaugurated the ending of the ages. We live in “the last days.” These are the days of war, disaster, and famine. He came then as one of lowly stature. He was humble. He suffered. He had no place to rest his head. He set the example for how we will fare till he returns. Following him, we Christians live now as pilgrims in a foreign land. We have died to the world, which is itself dying. The community of pilgrims, Christ’s Church, is going to reflect that reality. There have certainly been periods when the Church has experienced great growth, and particular congregations may, from time to time, be particularly blessed in their harvest. Yet, we are told not to give thought to that. We are told that we should sow carefully and in accordance with the King’s edict. Paul planted, and planted well. Apollos watered, and watered well. But God gave, and gives, the growth.2
We often don’t see what growth God is giving in a church. Seeds take time to germinate and sprout. We can only judge what is a true church by the marks that He has revealed. He has promised to speak to us through His Word, wash us in Baptism, feed us in our Lord’s Supper, hear us in prayer, and guide us by the officers of His Church. This is proper sowing. Let us be content with the growth God is pleased to give.
All centered, italicized text is taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock.'”
 But this is nearly always accompanied by a strikingly low ecclesiology, which I find odd.
 I would submit that the idea I’m considering in this post is a major theme of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.