Seeing Students in the Parable of the Soils

There is nothing more discouraging in student ministry than seeing a student you have watched grow from an awkward middle schooler to a high schooler—whom you have discipled for years, with whom you have served, whom you have loved—leave high school and completely turn from the Lord. In these moments, we are prone to turning inward. We wonder what we could have done differently, what a student might have needed that we weren’t offering. And perhaps most hauntingly, we wonder: Who might be next to walk away?

The first three chapters of Mark remind us that there are a number of ways to respond to the gospel. We see various groups responding to Jesus’ ministry in strikingly different ways. The sinners and those with need see Jesus for who he is: The one who brings the kingdom. The Scribes and Pharisees reject him. His small gathering of disciples see partially, but they still experience confusion. Jesus’ own family comes to take him away because he seems crazy (Mark 3:21).

In Mark 4, Jesus sits down and teaches the crowd what has been called the Parable of the Sower, but, perhaps, it should be more accurately called the “Parable of the Soils.” In this parable, Jesus explains why those on the fringes of society see him for who he is, while the religious leaders reject him. His answer is that a person’s heart “soil” determines his or her response. These same states of the heart may be seen in our students. In seeing their hearts in these soils, we are given the confidence to minister to them in their various circumstances.

Cultivating the Soils of the Heart

Students are confronted with the same message as those in the first four chapters of Mark. They are confronted by the Jesus who calls the wicked and rebukes the self-righteous, who was sinless himself but dines with sinners, who is Lord of all but calls hearts to accept him. As we share the message of this Jesus with our students, their heart soils will be exposed through their responses for what they really are: hard, shallow, weak, or soft. But heres the big difference between them: The three soils that do not produce fruit are hearts cultivated by man, while the fruitful soil is cultivated by God.

We might be tempted to despair that there is nothing we can do for the wayward student, wondering if our students are stuck in a fatalistic reality that leaves them with no hope of change. On the contrary, seeing that God alone controls the growth does not negate the work of the minister; rather, it enables the work of the minister. In wrestling with who Jesus is, the hearts of students will be exposed—but the call of Jesus in the parable of the soils is not to condemn but a call to repent! At the beginning and end of the parable, he calls people to hear.

The work of the minister is to come alongside students to help cultivate the soil of their heart through hearing the word. To the student who has rejected the God who has spoken through Jesus and in his Word, we may come gently – recognizing his struggle – but firmly, with a call to consider examining Scripture on its own terms. To the student who has been burned by suffering or struggle, we offer a space to feel that pain while showing her that the promises of God have not failed but we have failed to allow them to go deep enough (Mk. 4:17). To the student who has been lured by the cares of the world, we can speak to the hunger for power (over life, others, comfort, etc.) and offer instead the gospel that ushers in the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) with the promise of true human flourishing.

Sowing Confidently

A couple of years ago, a student whom I had known for a long time became completely taken with the temptations of the world upon gaining a little freedom from his parents. While he knew that he was not being the person he wanted to be, he also felt a strong urge to be who others wanted him to be: the happy-go-lucky, down-for-anything, party guy. It seemed to me that the longer I continued to meet with him, I was increasingly becoming less effective and he was continuing to pull farther away. The testimony of my flesh was that I was failure, but the testimony of Scripture told me that it is the Lord who gives growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

As I moved away from the area, another minister entered into his life, faithfully sowing the word, praying, and being with him. Over time, this student’s heart was being cultivated into good soil, and he was beginning to bear fruit. Had I relied solely on my own ability, this experience would have led to discouragement and, possibly an unwillingness to try again with the next student. But the Parable of the Soils reminds us that we sow seeds, but the Lord gives growth through His Word.

The Work of the Lord

When students walk away from the faith, it is incredibly painful. In these moments, we must see that it is the Lord who works in the hearts of our students for his own purposes. In light of that, we can turn to the Lord of the harvest and lament and intercede in prayer for their hearts. Meanwhile, we can continue to pursue them because we have confidence that it is the Lord who changes sinful hearts.

This is demonstrated so beautifully in the culmination of Jesus ministry. Having been rejected by those whose heart soils were not prepared to receive him, he went to the cross where he died for their sins. Indeed, many from this crowd would come to see him for who he was—some even as he died (Luke 23:47). The hope of the gospel is that Jesus alone rescues sinners from their sinful hearts. With this hope, we can entrust our students hearts to the Lord, knowing that he is at work so that they might be saved.

Skyler is an associate pastor over family discipleship at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, Mississippi, as well as the associate program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Skyler earned an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He's now working toward his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. His wife, Brianna, is originally from Memphis, TN, and they have two children: Beatrice and Lewis. Skyler has served on the Rooted Steering Committee since 2021.

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