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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.

Ben is a husband of one, a father of four, and is currently planting a network of missional communities in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He blogs at bensternke.com

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Alex Pickens Iii

commented on Jul 11, 2012

appreciate your perspective and see your point. I pastor an established church but have talked to planters. They've encouraged me to see the work I do as both/and. I am being both faithful to those imagining how I'll preach their eulogies while they listen to me preaching while planting a church in the apartment complex we occupy. The largest source of new faces in the congregation has been from the complex. I have not moved on - despite periodic frustration about how few established members invite people - because the established members have been loving and receptive to the apartment dwellers. In this case the Jews I'm leading are loving the Gentiles we're winning. It's a real blessing - as is the rest of Acts - and encouragement to remain faithful in casting widely while paying attention to where the 25 grow. I've always appreciated the ratio in the sower's parable. Thanks for underlining again.

Gerald Graham

commented on Jul 11, 2012

Thanks for this great article which brings up another point. Pastor's leaving a congregation often leads to finger pointing over who was the "unfruitful" one. I mean if it truly is the Lord's work (and yes I believe it fully is), and nothing is fruitful, doesn't that make us want to reflect on why that is and seek God's counsel? Rather we point fingers to make ourselves feel better about the situation. But thankfully it's nothing a good dose of time praying, fasting and listening to the Holy Spirit can't cure. I believe many churches would experience great works of God in them if we did this together. "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood..." Ephesians 6:1

Rick Ramsey

commented on Jul 12, 2012

how long is long enough to wait for fruit? We support church planters in Utah (nough said) They may not see more that a little fruit in many years because of the cult dominating the culture. When you do "shake the dust off". When you leave then someone else must go. I think one of the great problems of today is that the average lifespan of a Pastor is less than 3 years. Thats hardly long enough to learn their names. Ever Church needs a Pastor as well as a leader. Too many may look for the wrong kind of fruit. It takes time to grow good fruit and much of that time it may not appear to be any. It is also true that there is a time to go. Only God can guide in that.

Mike Richardson

commented on Jul 15, 2012

We have found that there is a great way to cultivate the soil of men's hearts by Praying Effectively for the Lost. You can download a FREE booklet, no strings, and even schedule the evangelist to come and teach this at your church. It has made powerful impacts wherever these principles are put into practice. go to www.pelministries.org

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