The strategy of the sower

Posted Nov 09, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


In her brilliant 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes the “fecundity” with which the natural world approaches life. “Nature is, above all, profligate,” Dillard writes. “Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once....This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

Elsewhere, she continues in the same vein. “The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation,” she writes. “After one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire since the word go!”

I thought of that passage this summer when the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) came up in the church’s lectionary readings. You know the one—the story of the planter who flings around the seeds. Some of them end up on the path, on rocky ground, or in the thorns. And some, of course, land on good soil and bring forth grain.

The main point of the parable, as Jesus makes clear in the follow-up passage later in the chapter and as most commentaries affirm, is where the seeds land—that is, on those who receive the word. Do they fail to understand it? Do they lack roots and endurance? Do they succumb to the cares of the world or the lure of wealth? Or do they hear the word, take it to heart, and yield abundantly?

But I found myself wondering about the strategy of the sower, who seemed to be following the path of profligacy that Dillard lays out, strewing the seeds hither and yon, hoping some will take root and bear fruit.

Perhaps, despite the apparent wastefulness, there’s wisdom in that approach that we ought to consider in how we think about social media.

New Media Project research fellow Jason Byassee preached a sermon this summer on the parable of the sower. He told the story of a fellow pastor who dropped a seed en route to planting and accidentally grew the most beautiful-looking squash he’d ever seen—a “volunteer,” as it’s called. I think that story, along with the parable of the sower, provide helpful metaphors in our digital communication efforts.

Effective communicators of all types—preachers, teachers, or marketing experts—realize that no single effort at conveying a message is sufficient. Strong teachers, for instance, know that students have a variety of learning styles, and thus deploy a range of pedagogical techniques. Marketers are aware that they need to get their message in front of people multiple times, and usually in differing ways, before it starts to sink in. And many pastors understand that the Sunday sermon can’t be the only vehicle for communicating the gospel if they want their congregants to truly grow in discipleship.

Much of new media, of course, feels a lot like scattering seeds to the wind. It’s hard to know what kind of soil a Tweet or a Facebook posting lands on. When I post a sermon reflection on a blog or electronically transmit my pastoral or theological musings, does any of it reach a responsive heart?

In some ways, sending out our thoughts and reflections on the digital airwaves, with no clear sense of where they’ll end up or who they will influence, is like the pastor who dropped the seed that became the beautiful volunteer squash. Some of the seeds we scatter, it can be assumed, will reach receptive ears and produce fruit, even though we will likely never know the specifics. When it comes down to it, in social media, as in all of our efforts at spreading the word, often the best we can do is to tend to the sowing of the seeds. Whether they fall on fertile soil and yield abundantly is ultimately out of our hands.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

2 Comments

  1. 1 @tim_hutchings 31 Jan
    The sower is a great image, but it's wrong as much as it's right.

    I study digital religion too, and as far as I can see "sowers" do need to pay attention to soil and yield - finding ways to get their message to the people they want to reach and learning from wasted efforts. Most of all, they need to start conversations. Sowing like crazy and hoping something sticks is honestly not that useful.

    This is a good post, but it only tells half of the story.
  2. 2 Jim Rice 31 Jan
    I agree completely. Communication, especially in a pastoral context, is as much about relationship as it is about the message itself. (That was going to be the second half of this post, but it was too much to deal with in a short blog entry.)

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