Rice Farming & Church Planting

by Zeke Goforth

Overlaying church planting upon rice farming is a method that has proven very effective in South Asia.

Cross-cultural communication can be difficult. How does one take the potentially complicated plans and methods of church planting and communicate them cross-culturally to an oral society? Do nationals of primarily oral societies know what an end vision, incremental goals, or master plans are? Although these types of words may not be in the vocabulary, the practical applications are lived out in their day-to-day lives.  

What woman cooking does not have the end vision of a warm meal intentionally prepared so that everything is ready at the same time? She understands the master plan of making the evening meal happen, as well as the incremental goals that must be accomplished to achieve the end vision. What farmer does not have the end vision of the harvest? He1 understands the master plan and the incremental goals of preparation, sowing, and caring in order to see a bountiful harvest. Amazingly, everything a rice farmer thinks and does is exactly how a church planter ought to think and do!

How Do I Reach My Family?
When a person comes to know the Lord as his or her personal Lord and Savior, the person is not satisfied with keeping the good news to him or herself. Very quickly, the individual begins to ask the question, “How do I reach my family?” Thoughts such as these can be overwhelming: Where does one begin? Who am I that God could use me to reach my people? We will discover that God uses simple people who are dependent upon him and obedient to him to accomplish his purposes.

A Simple Man
In Mark 4:26-32, we discover the key elements of reaching people. In vs. 26-29, Jesus gives a description of the Kingdom of God by using an illustration of a farmer. In these verses, we read of a sower, the seed, the soil, the Spirit, the sprout, and the sickle. In vs. 26-27, what does the sower do? He sows the seed, goes to sleep, and then wakes up to see the seed has sprouted. Is it not odd that Jesus tells us that the sower goes to sleep? If you were to describe what a farmer does, most surely you would say he sows the seed and the seed sprouts. But would you give the details of sleeping? Why include that detail? What is Jesus telling us?

The man went to sleep because he knew his responsibility and he knew God’s responsibility. If it were his responsibility to cause the seed to produce life, he wouldn’t have slept at all. He would have stayed up all night worrying and trying to figure out how to cause the seed to grow.

But because he understood it was the Spirit’s work to give life, he could rest and wake up to see God’s work.

Did the man understand the scientific nature of how a seed germinates and begins to sprout? Did he understand how the leaves of the plant transform sunlight into food? According to v. 27, he did not know any of these things. He was just a simple man. All he knew was to sow the seed (a controllable), go to sleep knowing God was at work, and awake to see the activity of God (an uncontrollable).

If we are to see our people reached, we too need to be like this simple farmer with a simple plan. We may not understand all the theological positions on how God brings people to himself. We may be so simple as to just hear God, obey him, rest knowing he is at work, and awake in anticipation to see what he has done.

A Simple Plan
In training nationals to reach the lost, disciple new believers, and start new churches, it may be helpful to use something they are familiar with and overlay it with the content we want to teach.  Overlaying church planting on rice farming is a method that has proven very effective in South Asia. The training begins by asking questions and having the nationals teach the trainer about rice farming. This allows the audience to build the context of church planting into their thinking. Often, the trainer can make this very interactive and humorous.

“How did you learn how to farm rice?” How many of you have a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in planting rice? Most likely no one. Without a degree from a school, how did you learn about planting rice? Did your father teach you through reading a book about planting rice? Did you sit at the window and watch him work? Did he send you out to do all the work by yourself, while he sat inside? Or did you learn as you went with your father into the field?

“What is a farmer always thinking about?” The farmer is always thinking about two things: (1) addition or immediate food and (2) multiplication or future crops. He must always maintain these two perspectives to sustain his health and provide for future generations. If he looks only for today’s food, then he will become fat this year and starve the next year. If he looks only for future crops, then he will not have enough food to even make it to next year.

Everyone in the family must see these perspectives and work with these two things in mind. It takes the hard work of each family member to function for today and provide for tomorrow. The educational needs of the farmer’s family and the needed help with the farm must maintain a delicate balance. Without the help of family members, it will be impossible to bring in the harvest. When family members go to school, others must rise up and take responsibility.

“What is the first thing a farmer needs?” A farmer needs a place to farm. The first place the farmer will look for a piece of land will be among his own family and friends. This is easy for him because he already has a relationship with them. If they do not have any land, he will look for a peaceable person who will allow him to rent or sharecrop a piece of land. If the farmer is a Christian, he will go praying as he looks for this person.

“How will the farmer sow his seed?” The farmer does not need to know everything. He will use the tools he has on hand. Every farmer can tell his own story and present the facts he knows about the Life Giver. He sows his seed abundantly, but knows that all the seed he has sown will not sprout. But some will sprout and show signs of life. There are various reasons they will not: birds, rocky soil, and weeds choking the new roots.

The farmer knows the amount of sprouted seed is in proportion to the amount he sows. Therefore, he sows as much as he can.

“After the farmer has sown his seed, what does he look for?” The farmer looks for green—life. He takes and replants seeds that show signs of life in a rice field, where he will give them much care and supervision so they can grow healthy and mature.

“What is the goal of the farmer’s work?” The work is not finished until the farmer harvests the crops. All the work (from the time the farmer selects a piece of land, prepares it, sows seed on it, and cares for the crop) is always in anticipation of the harvest. Why would a farmer do all that work if he never intended to harvest it? It would be foolish not to harvest.

“What will the farmer do with the rice once it’s harvested?” The first harvest will be of the best of the crop. This seed will be for next year’s crop. The next harvest is everything remaining. The farmer knows that in every harvest there will be two types of seed. Some will be used for food; some to plant the next crop. The resources for all he needs (food for today and seed for next year’s crop) are in the harvest.

Through the Eyes of a Church Planter
Church planting is similar to rice farming. Let us look again at rice planting through the eyes of a church planter.

The farmer has an end vision: maturing crops and multiplying crops. The farmer is always thinking about two things: (1) addition or immediate food and (2) multiplication or future crops. He must always maintain these two perspectives to sustain his health and provide for future generations.

Church-planting perspective: The church planter must have a clear end vision. He or she wants to see strong, healthy churches maturing, and new churches multiplying every year. This work requires the participation of the entire church family. Church leaders should form teams, train/disciple those teams, and send out those teams. A proper balance must be maintained between theological education that takes a person away from his or her ministry location and local theological education so that the “harvest fields” are not neglected. 

The farmer finds and prepares a field to farm. This is the idea of “how to enter a community: friends/family and persons of peace.”

Church-planting perspective: The church planter will look to plant a church first among friends and family with whom he or she already has an established relationship (his oikos; see Acts 10:24). If the church planter goes to an area where he or she does not have friends and family, he or she goes out praying, seeking a person of peace (see Luke 10:1-11). Once he or she finds that person, he or she stays there and works through that person’s friends and family (oikos).

The farmer sows his seed wide. This is the idea of “how to share the gospel: my story and God’s story.”

Church-planting perspective: By having a short personal testimony and a longer Creation-to-Christ story memorized, the church planter has all the tools needed to share the gospel and lead someone to Christ. This is God’s work; the church planter simply sows the seed and rests on God to do what only God can do. The person knows that he or she will reap in proportion to what he or she sows (2 Cor. 9:6). Therefore, he or she sows the gospel abundantly. Because God is at work among his people, the church planter looks for “signs of life” (those who repent and believe) in the people among whom the gospel seed has been sown.

The farmer looks for signs of life and replants the sprouted rice into a field. This is the idea of “how to disciple new believers: milk, meat, how to eat.”

Church-planting perspective: When a church planter sees signs of life (those who repent and believe), he or she will want to gather the new believers together in the context of church and begin to help them mature. While this new group may not be a church yet, by starting in the context of church and knowing they want to become a church, they are likely to become a church more quickly. A church planter should have at least three resources for maturing believers: a basic milk discipleship, a basic meat discipleship, and a basic inductive Bible study tool so they can begin to feed themselves from the word of God.

The farmer gathers the harvest. This is the idea of “how to organize new churches: a healthy church guide.”

Church-planting perspective: All the work of the church planter from beginning to end is with the anticipation of a new church being planted. He or she must not lose focus and get side-tracked doing “good” things and missing the “best” things. Everything the person does should move him or her closer to planting that new church. The church planter trains the new believers in how a church is organized (leaders, roles, spiritual gifts), functions (purpose and authority), and what a church does (the two ordinances, obeying the Great Commandments and the Great Commission).

The farmer separates the harvest. This is the idea of “how to multiply leaders: some for this church and some for the next churches.”

Church-planting perspective: Every true believer has at least one spiritual gift to add to the life of the church. Every member should look to help his or her church grow in community and in others’ relationship with the Lord. Within each church, God has gifted those who will help the church grow and mature, and those he desires to send out and plant the next church. The resources are in the harvest!
Integrating Volunteers into a Church-planting Plan
Churches are teeming with volunteers eager to join the Lord on mission. The challenge is to focus the excitement and enthusiasm of the short-term trip into the long-term, big picture of seeing people reached and healthy churches maturing. Instead of randomly going on trips, a church should evaluate the potential opportunity and length of its commitment. One-time opportunities should not necessarily be replaced with only long-term partnerships. And neither should long-term partnerships be totally replaced with one-time mission opportunities.

The Lord should lead a church as to its participation in any opportunity (see Luke 10:1). The need never constitutes the call; therefore, it is vital for a church to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.  A proper understanding of a church-planting plan will enable a church to refine its mission efforts (long term or short term) in order to be more effective with the big picture in mind. When considering a potential mission trip, questions should include:

• Where does this trip fit into the larger church-planting picture?
• Does it help establish the end vision of maturing and multiplying churches?
• Does it establish points of entry for the gospel?
• Does it provide an opportunity to share the gospel through varying mediums?
• Does it provide an opportunity to disciple new and/or growing believers?
• Is it helping to establish a church?
• Is it an opportunity to equip various leaders of local churches?

A mission trip may include one or more of these activities. It could also serve as a bridge from one activity to the next. By understanding the various elements needed to see healthy, reproducing churches, the team leader will be better equipped to appraise how his or her team(s) can assist and what sort of work should follow the trip.

By listing the various types of trips a church has made in the past, and then placing each event within the church-planting grid, leaders will quickly see where their focus has been in missions and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. A church may find that they are currently more spiritually gifted for one area of missions over another. In the end, however, a church should mature to being capable in every area of the church-planting plan (while still maintaining certain specialized foci).

1. Understanding that farmers can be men or women, for simplicity we use “he” throughout this article.


Zeke Goforth (pseudonym) served six years in South Asia training church planters. He is completing a PhD in theology at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. You can contact him at zekegoforth@gmail.com.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 404-409. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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