Health and Growth

The Parable of the Sower: How to Preach It and Use it as a Model for Church Growth

Preach a unique and profound sermon on the parable of the sower with these key insights about Jesus's parable.

The Parable of the Sower: How to Preach It and Use it as a Model for Church Growth
by

Paul Maxwell

The parable of the sower is one of the most clearly convicting parables Jesus uses to convey truths about the kingdom of God.

Hidden in this parable is a truth that is as difficult to hear as it is true about the church.

It is relevant to many aspects of church life, including giving, repentance, godliness, humility, and love.

In this article, I’m going to share:

  • What the parable of the sower means
  • How church history has used this parable of Jesus
  • How to preach the parable
  • The implications of the parable
  • How it can direct church leadership to align their ministry vision with Jesus’s vision for the church

Let’s get right into it.

1. What the parable of the sower means

Before you understand what the parable of the sower means, it’s important to understand that it is a synoptic parable—this means that it was a parable Jesus told that was recounted by three different gospel authors (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), who likely have the same lineage of source material for writing their gospels.

Let’s take a look at the parable in each of its different forms in the Synoptic Gospels:

Mark:

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:3-9)

Matthew:

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, 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 produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:3-9)

Luke:

“‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’” (Luke 8:5-8)

Note that all three are very similar, with differences in inflection, metaphor, and emphasis.

In Matthew and Luke, the parable is about the multiple ways in which the word of God is received. In Mark, however, the parable comes just after a delineation of a growing hostility toward Jesus and his ministry by pharisees.

Therefore, in Mark, the emphasis of the passages lies more on the perseverance of the gospel through persecution and its ability to grow fruit in the form of the church in spite of intentional and malicious violence against it. This has more of a corporate implication for the power of the gospel in the world.

In Matthew and Luke, the emphasis is on the personal responsibility of individuals to respond rightly to the gospel, even when they have reasons not to—including misgivings toward the church, upbringing, custom, and religious affiliation.

2. How it’s been used historically

The church fathers have taken this parable to mean basically the same thing about the power of the gospel in the face of external and internal adversity. However, it will be helpful to hear revolutionary church leaders, preachers, and theologians of the past weigh in on the exact implications of this parable for their time. It will help us to better understand how to use this parable in our own time.

Augustine of Hippo:

“In one the fruit is more, in another less; but all will have a place in the barn. Yesterday I said all this, today I am addressing the tares; but the sheep themselves are the tares. O evil Christians, O you, who in filling only press the Church by your evil lives; amend yourselves before the harvest come. Say not, I have sinned, and what has befallen me? God has not lost His power; but He is requiring repentance from you. I say this to the evil, who yet are Christians; I say this to the tares. For they are in the field; and it may so be, that they who today are tares, may tomorrow be wheat. And so I will address the wheat also.”

John Wesley:

“How exquisitely proper is this parable to be an introduction to all the rest! In this our Lord answers a very obvious and a very important question. The same sower, Christ, and the same preachers sent by him, always sow the same seed: why has it not always the same effect? He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!”

John Calvin:

“One who sowed went out to sow his seed, and while he was sowing, some fell near the road, and the fowls of heaven ate it up. And some fell on a rock, and when it was sprung up, it withered, because it hath not moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns springing up along with it, choked it. And some fell on a good soil, and, springing up, produced fruit a hundred-fold.

Saying these things, he exclaimed, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What was this parable?  But he said, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest by parables; that seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand. -- (A little after,) Consider then how you hear. For whosoever hath, it shall be given to him; and whosoever hath not, even that which he thinketh that he hath shall be taken from him.”

Spurgeon:

“Now the preacher of the Gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; the seed is given him by his Master. It would not be possible for a man to make the smallest seed that ever germinated upon the earth, much less that celestial seed of eternal life. The minister goes to his Master in secret, and asks Him to teach him His truth, and thus he fills his basket with the good seed of the kingdom. What the minister has to do is go forth in his Master’s name and scatter precious truth. If he knew where the best soil was to be found, perhaps he might limit himself to that which had been prepared by the plow of conviction.

But not knowing men’s hearts, it is his business to preach the Gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on the hardened heart yonder, and another handful on that overgrown heart, which is full of cares and riches and pleasures of the world. He has to leave the fate of the seed in the care of the Master who gave it to him, for well he understands that he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only responsible for the care, the fidelity, and the industry with which he scatters the seed, right and left with both his hands.”

Notice how each church leader interprets the parable with a sensitivity to how God can work in the hearts of his people in his own time.

For Augustine, the issue was clarifying who were true converts and who were not true converts to Christianity in a time when doctrinal orthodoxy was still cooling from the forge of persecution and Nicaea.

For John Wesley, the issue was still conversion, but a conversion based on a conviction about personal responsibility and the capacity of each person to choose for himself or herself the good of repentance or the evil of self-reliance.

For John Calvin, the parable communicated the raw theological value of the gospel and its urgent spiritual implications for believers in his time. This parable brought all of human life under a razor thin depth of field to highlight the stark contrast in which the gospel’s light places all human choices.

For Charles Spurgeon, the parable was instructive for his methodology as a preacher. He saw his unique task of preaching the gospel as a task of sub-sowing—sowing at the behest of the great sower, who supplies the gospel.

The gospel message was, for Spurgeon, not a seed that the sub-sowers invent, but a supply given to preachers by Christ himself. And the resiliency of this message to the persecution Jesus mentions relies upon the seed remaining unaltered and unadulterated by the sowers. In other words, the parable charges preachers to proclaim what God says, rather than to use their office as a pedestal for their own self-help schemes.

3. How to preach this parable

When writing your sermon, this parable has multiple implications for the life of the church.

First of all, the parable of the sower can challenge the church to take a more serious attitude toward its responsibility to advance the gospel for the cause of Christ throughout the world.

Persecution will always rise up against the expansion of the kingdom, but the church is still charged with its mission to sow the seed of the gospel through evangelism and discipleship.

Second, the parable of the sower can prompt individual believers to reflect upon whether their repentance and confession of faith is genuine. In other words, are they persevering, or are they playing the Christian game because of the benefits it brings them in the short term? This is an uncomfortable (but very real) challenge every believer must answer for himself or herself.

Third, the parable of the sower gives believers the comfort that the seed which produces change in their hearts, and which they are charged to preach, isn’t something they have to come up with. It’s not a formula they have to invent. The truth of Christ crucified and raised for the forgiveness of sins stands on its own as a compelling spiritual truth that cuts through all the communicative pretension of marketing wisdom.

Simple proclamation is the basic unit of measurement for faithfulness to God’s kingdom work in this age. The rest of our work is an extension of this basic act of sowing. The sower’s job is to sow so much that the weeds cannot keep up.

4. The parable of the sower’s implications for generosity

Consider John Calvin’s words again:

“Consider then how you hear. For whosoever hath, it shall be given to him; and whosoever hath not, even that which he thinketh that he hath shall be taken from him.”

When we realize what we have been saved from, we will take stock of what we have received from God and seek to help others engaged in this good work more eagerly.

Perhaps we give to talented sowers who have committed their lives to sowing.

Perhaps we give to the persecuted church whose growth is fighting the weeds that are trying to choke them out.

Perhaps we tithe to the church to give to mercy ministries so that the church can preach the gospel to those in need and help hack against the weeds of poverty and unwellness that combat the growth of the gospel with messages of self-reliance.

Giving is one of the basic engines that drives sowing.

And those who have received much through sowing will give much to sowing, because they recognize the eternal implications of moving the ball down the field in this regard.

5. How to integrate the parable into a bigger church growth strategy

Sowing is directly related to church growth.

The Apostle Paul actually borrows this parable’s metaphor to explain his own work: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

Paul attributes the growth to God, but he recognizes that this growth is still dependent on his faithful response to God’s call to sow seed in the first place.

All of the “growth” ministries that we have in place are going to be ineffective unless we first place an emphasis on sowing—which is preaching the gospel through words associated with actions (and, of course, through clear proclamation of the word of God to the people of God).

Crucial to all church growth strategies must be a heart for evangelism—for sowing seed eagerly, excellently, and in great quantity.

The church should be convicted by the parable of the sower to make sure a decent percentage of their resources are allocated toward evangelism.

6. Use it among church leadership as an internal model for discipleship

The implications of the parable of the sower for discipleship are very important.

Most importantly, there can be no discipleship without the seed taking root.

This means that there should be some concern for genuine conversion. Church leaders must have a category of false professions of faith, and recognize that false professions require pastoral sensitivity. Real people need real help making a genuine profession of faith and articulating the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

Second, discipleship is riddled with hardship.

This means that church leaders should place a significant emphasis in their discipleship efforts on helping Christians persevere through the weeds of persecution and suffering to make their calling and conversion all the more certain.

Third, disciples should eventually sow the seed themselves.

Christians in whom the seed of the gospel has taken root ought to become sowers. This should be a central message in your membership classes and discipleship philosophy at your church: “Disciples share the gospel.” Disciples sow seed.

In summary, the parable of the sower changes your church leadership’s internal model for discipleship in three ways:

  1. Desiring conversions be genuine
  2. Helping disciples persevere in their faith through hardship
  3. Instructing disciples to share the gospel with those who don’t know Christ

7. Let it change your own heart

The parable of the sower isn’t just an idea.

It refers to a reality that both you and I must respond to genuinely.

In the words of Jesus—”He who has ears, let him hear!”

This must be true first of all for you and me before we make it a message we preach to others.

Anything less is hypocrisy.

Let us allow the word of God to affect our hearts deeply and may we pray continually that it produces the effects in us that God desires.

Over to you

Make the parable of the sower a central fixture in your church’s vision for evangelism and discipleship.

Don’t be satisfied with surface-level conversions.

Don’t be ambivalent about the suffering and persecution your members endure for the sake of the gospel. Take it seriously and provide pastoral care for them.

Be inspired by this parable to share the gospel more fully and more often with those who need Christ.

Remember the words of Spurgeon:

“But not knowing men’s hearts, it is [the preacher’s] business to preach the gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on the hardened heart yonder, and another handful on that overgrown heart, which is full of cares and riches and pleasures of the world.

Why Write Church Donation Letters?

In a previous blog post, I shared the different ways your church can thank donors—from automated emails to year-end giving reports. Printed donation letters also play an essential role in your church’s stewardship efforts.

Donation letters are the Swiss Army knife of your church’s gratitude arsenal. It may not be the most powerful—but it’s versatile, handy, and gets used often.

Your basic church donation letter can serve many different purposes, including:

  • Acknowledging that you received a donation
  • Thanking the giver for being generous with their finances
  • Sharing other ways the person can support your church
  • Allowing the donor to write the gift off on their taxes
  • Encouraging supporters to make recurring donations
  • Requesting future donations from church members

A single, well-crafted donation letter can pull together several of these things simultaneously. Better donation letters lead to more giving, which leads to more donation letters—thus creating a cycle of on-going church generosity.

Church Donation Letter Samples

Here’s the good news—you don’t have to write an individualized letter for every person who gives to your church. That would be tough to do for even smaller churches. And most donors don’t expect you to. They’d rather you be putting their gift to better use in the community, instead of ceaselessly writing thank you notes.

With the possible exception of some unique circumstances, your church can use template language for the majority of your church donation letters. You’ll have to add in custom details like the donor’s name and gift amount, but you can write everything else in advance.  

To make this even easier on you, here are a few basic church donation letter templates you can copy and paste. Keep in mind that not all of these have to be in print—you could just as easily turn some of these samples into email appeals.

1. Donation Acknowledgment Letter

The Donation Acknowledgement Letter is a basic way you can confirm and affirm a monetary gift to your church. Sending these is standard practice in church and nonprofit culture.

Dear [first name],
I want to personally thank you for your donation of [gift amount] to [church name]. We’re honored you would bless us with your generosity. Donations like yours make a big difference in the work our church is doing in the community.
Without givers like you, our church can’t have an impact or influence in our community. With your support, we’re partnering with local nonprofits, sending out global mission trips, and hosting small groups on topics that help real people like you. Together, we can make a difference.
Because we’re a tax-exempt nonprofit, you also get to write this donation off on your taxes. This letter serves as official proof of your donation, so keep it in your records come tax season. At the end of the year, we’ll also send you an annual recap with how much you’ve given to the church.
Thank you for supporting [church name]!
Sincerely,
[your name]

2. Donation Request Letter

Not every church member realizes the importance of giving, or understand Bible verses about tithing and giving.  So a Donation Request Letter helps to spread that awareness and encourage a spirit of generosity.

Dear [first name],
How are the finances in your household? That was a rhetorical question, so you don’t have to answer—besides, this is a letter so we wouldn’t hear you anyway. But we still want you to think about that question.
Money is a uniquely human issue, one we all struggle with to one degree or another. Even if you’re financially blessed, you still have the burden of stewarding your money wisely. And we believe that one of the best ways to invest your money is into the local church.
Tithing (giving 10% of your income) on a regular basis not only supports the work we do at [church name]. It doesn’t just support local missions and community growth. It also shows an obedience to God by making his work a financial priority in your life.
So if you find yourself ready to put God first in both your heart and your wallet, we encourage you to make a one-time gift or sign up to make recurring donations. That way, you won’t have to ever wonder again about the financial status of your household.
Sincerely,
[your name]

3. Monthly Giving Letter

Many church donations aren’t just one-time gifts. Plenty of givers contribute monthly—and that should be acknowledged.

Use this template to correspond with recurring givers.  

Dear [first name],
Thank you for being an active and faithful member of our church community. By giving to our church on a monthly basis, you’re showing that our church has a meaningful place in your heart. We just wanted to write this to let you know that you’re in our heart, too.
Donating to the church monthly allows us to preach the gospel, make disciples, and support others in our community who need help. Others like the local food bank and the nearby homeless shelter. We’re answering the cry of the needy, and it’s all thanks to contributors like you.
We earnestly appreciate your ongoing support and want to let you know we’re here for you. If there’s ever anything we can do for you and your family, don’t hesitate to reach out. You are a valued member of our church family. And you’re financial support is making a difference.
Sincerely,
[your name]

4. Year-End Giving Letter

At the end of each year, it’s customary to give your church supporters a summary of their gifts. The primary reason is for tax purposes, but it’s also a way to recap everything your church has done over the past year with their support.

Dear [first name],
You’re getting this letter because you gave to [church name] at some point during the past year. That might have been a one-time gift, or recurring donations. Either way, we want to thank you for your generous support. Every contribution helps.
One of the official reasons for this letter is for tax purposes. That’s right—you get to write these donations off on your taxes. Which is why we’ve included a summary of all the contributions you’ve made to our church this year.
But the other reason for this letter is to let you know what we’ve done with the money you gave. We take stewardship very seriously, which means we value spending our time and resources wisely.
During the year, our church supported local nonprofits, sent global missions teams, and baptised quite a few people. It was a great year for us—thanks in large part to donors like you.
So thank you for your support of our church, and we hope you’ll consider continuing to contribute to our mission in the coming year.
Sincerely,
[your name]  

5. Church Fundraising Letter

Sometimes you need to make a more significant financial push using tried and true church fundraising ideas. Some churches call this a Stewardship Campaign or a Church Capital Campaign. Either way, the goal is to raise a certain amount of money for a big project. And typically, a solid letter of appeal is an integral part of that.

Dear [first name],
God has a plan for everyone and everything. That includes you, and it includes [church name]. None of us can fully know God’s plan—the best we can do is pray and listen for clarity. Our church leadership has been doing just that and are excited to announce our latest church project.
[Detail the outline of the major church project—this could include a building campaign, or raising support for a global mission trip. Anything specific to your church that requires a fundraising letter. Be sure to include a fundraising goal so everyone knows what you’re shooting for.]
But we can’t pull this off without your support. Whether you give to the church on a regular basis, or just attend on occasion, we’re asking you to consider contributing to this massive undertaking prayerfully. It’s something we need our entire church community’s help with.
Even if you can’t make a large gift, know that every little bit helps. It’s more about coming together as a community united behind a common cause. We hope that you’ll consider making a donation towards this great step forward that we’re making together.
Sincerely,
[your name]

Tips when writing church donation letters

It’s not enough to just copy and paste this content and send away. The key to an effective church donation letter is a touch of personalization. Follow these tips to take your donation letters to the next level:

  • Examples: Add specific examples of how your church will use the donation. Tell a story about the work your church is doing in the community and connect that with giving.
  • Personalization: For regular donors, don’t be afraid to add a short, handwritten personal note. This shows that you’ve singled them out with praise.
  • Timeliness: Sending donation letters quickly reminds people you’re thankful for them. But this also takes organization and efficiency. All the more reason to use pre-written templates.
  • Storytelling: Everything is better with stories—including donation letters. Weave in a specific narrative of how your church is making a difference and how the money will be used.

There’s no one right or wrong way to write a donation letter or request contributions. You’ve got to do what is right for your church and congregation. But if you stick to these general tips, you’ll probably start to see some traction when it comes to giving.

What’s next?

Most people don’t love talking about money in church. But it’s a necessary and vital part of your church. And maximizing your efforts when it comes to donation letters will help make those conversations more comfortable. So what do you do next to put this into effect?

  • Customize these letters: Take the samples above and make them work for your church. Personalize the content. Remove the stuff that doesn’t sound genuine and add in stuff that does. Remember that these are just a starting point.
  • Create some systems: Develop processes that make it easy for you to replicate sending donation letters. Use a letter template that allows you to drop in names and details. Then develop guidelines for when these letters will be sent out.
  • Empower a champion: Find out who is going to be responsible for making these letters happen. Rather than thinking of this as adding more work to their plate, think about how you can elevate their work. This could be a staff member, or a volunteer.
  • Start sending: All of this will be for nothing if you don’t actually send out the letters. Take the time to get it right and get them into the hands of your church donors.

And if you’re looking for ways to grow your church’s giving capacity, Tithely can help.

We provide several different ways your church members can support your church financially—from online giving, text to give solutions, and giving kiosks.

Tithely’s systems make it as easy as possible for people to give to your church. Now all you need to start doing is generating a culture of gratitude. There’s nothing standing in your way. Go unleash generosity in your church.

How does your church use donation letters to spread generosity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Robert Carnes. Robert is a writer and storyteller. He's the author of The Original Storyteller: Become a Better Storyteller in 30 Days. A former church communicator and nonprofit marketer, Robert works as a managing editor for Orange in Atlanta.

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The Parable of the Sower: How to Preach It and Use it as a Model for Church Growth