How does God's garden grow?

Mark Barry | Feb 26th, 2010

Question: Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

Answer: With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.

You’d have to agree, that’s a pretty nutty answer to a fairly straightforward question. So how would you answer the question, ‘How does your garden grow?’

Well, if you said a sack full of seeds and much in the way of water and fertilizer you’d still be off the mark. Even if you added ‘love’ you wouldn’t improve the situation much. Why? Because these answers present only part of the picture. They are only partly right. You could plant and water till the cows came home, but that’s no guarantee of growth. Who knows, the seeds could be wrong, the soil could be wrong, the cows could come home and trample the lot … and so on. Ultimately, ‘How does your garden grow’ is a theological question. And the right answer is the theologically obvious one: God. Despite all your fancy-schmancy ingredients and techniques, God is the one who makes your garden grow. This is just the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 when talking about growing the kingdom of God:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants not he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (ESV)

Paul may have first planted the seed of the gospel in the lives of the Corinthians when he first explained it to them, and Apollos may have watered that seed in his ongoing ministry, but it is God alone who brings it to life. Only God can change the hearts of those to whom we speak the gospel. In evangelism, we are completely powerless on our own and completely dependent on God to make our gospel preaching effective. God is the one who ultimately grows his garden, the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Simply put: no God, no growth.

This very fact should drive us to prayer. By praying to God, we are expressing our trust in God to do what we can’t ever do by ourselves. Prayer is not an optional extra, it’s a fundamental necessity. We persevere in doing it because it’s an expression of who we are as the children of God. God desires us as his kids to acknowledge our weakness and rely wholly on him to bless our labours. How much more so in evangelism, which seeks to hit that impenetrable target: the sinful, human heart. Knowing that God is in the driver’s seat of salvation and we are but passengers pushes us to pray and keeps us energetically in prayer.

Thus, evangelism is as much about praying as it is about telling people the gospel, as J.I. Packer puts it so helpfully:

It is a commission not only to preach, but also to pray; not only to talk to men about God, but also to talk to God about men. Preaching and prayer must go together . . . [1]

This is a simple truth we can’t hear enough: in evangelism, we need both to talk to people about God and talk to God about people. There’s no compromise: if you want to do the first, you need to do the second as well. Packer goes on to say:

We are to preach, because without knowledge of the gospel no man can be saved. We are to pray, because only the sovereign Holy Spirit in us and in men’s hearts can make our preaching effective to men’s salvation . . . [2]

We might energetically strategize about evangelism and invent new and clever ways of sharing our faith. But if we relegate God to the backseat of evangelism, then we shouldn’t be shocked when no one comes to Christ. It’s a dead-end street without prayer. As James puts it: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Or more positively, in the words of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, ESV)

In order to be confident in preaching before people, we need to be humble before God in prayer. Yet our planning and insane busyness seem to squeeze God out from the work of the gospel. Maybe we need to make some more room in our crowded Christian lives for evangelistic prayer. To paraphrase that renowned theologian Elvis, we need “a little less conversation and a lot more prayer please”.

But how do you pray evangelistically? What do you pray for?

1. Pray for the unconverted: for friends and family who don’t know Jesus, that God through the power of his Spirit would wake them up to hear the gospel of Jesus (1 Cor 2:1-5; Acts 26:29). (Click here to download a bookmark you can personalise that will encourage you to pray for 5 friends or family members every time you open up your Bible).

2. Pray for opportunities: that God would create situations, which give you a shot at explaining something of the hope you have in Jesus.

Often the problem is not opportunities, but our unwillingness to take them up. So …

3. Pray for yourself: that God would give you the courage to make the most of the opportunities he gives you (Col 4:5-6). It’s a freaky thing to share the truth of the Jesus with those who don’t want to hear it. But remember: the all-powerful creator of the universe converted a tough nut like you and so he can convert anyone!

(When you fail to speak, don’t beat yourself up! Ask for God’s forgiveness and pray that God would give you another shot.)

4. Pray for others: for fellow-Christians on your campus, for Christian students around the country, for missionaries overseas that God would use them effectively in the spread of his gospel. One of the great things about being partners in this business is that we can all pray for each other (Phil 1:5; Col 4:2- 4). Preach locally, pray globally!

5. Pray for the glory of God: that in all things God would be honoured through the spread of the gospel (2 Thes 3:1). The ultimate aim of God’s kingdom-building is his glory. Pray that this would be the case on campuses throughout Australia and beyond.

6. Pray thankfully: Thank God when things do go right. When God allows people to know something of Jesus through us, it is a work of God, not a product of our finely-honed gifts of communication. Give God the credit he deserves and thank him for employing you as a fellow-worker in his kingdom (1 Cor 3:5).

Happy gardening!

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 124.

[2] Packer, Evangelism, 124.

First published in the Autumn 2007 edition of SALT magazine.