Hi and welcome back! I’ve touched on today’s topic more than a few times over recent months–and it comes up regularly in comments. It’s nothing less than one of the creepiest elements in the Christian world. And it’s got a lot of competition for that title! Yes, today we dive into the notion of planting seeds. I’ll show you where the idea comes from, a bit about its history as a Christianese idea, how Christians use it (and why they use it), and what it shows us about their future.
(Quick reminder: I use italics not only for emphasis and book/movie titles, but also to indicate Christianese sayings. As Christians so often remind us, context is everything!)
Overview: Workers in the Divine Fields.
Christians get planting seeds from 1 Corinthians 3, which toys extensively with the notion of Christians being workers for their god. The idea is that recruiting someone to the tribe requires a great deal of work and that bunches of Christians might play a part in that recruiting process without even realizing it.
In this metaphor, one Christian plants a seed of conversion through evangelism of any kind at all. Heck, even leaving a Chick tract in a truck-stop bathroom could count as planting a seed. Wearing a Jesus T-shirt or a big obnoxious cross can count as well.
Literally anything at all that pushes Jesus onto non-members counts. Even if the effort backfires dramatically, it counts. Even if the person didn’t notice the effort, it counts.
As “employers” go, this imaginary one holds surprisingly lax expectations for his workers.
Hmm! Maybe that’s why he’s always broke and needs constant outlays of money from his followers!
Obligatory George Carlin, offering us the best assessment possible of Christianity.
This phrase belongs on our list of peak Christianese. It’s something you only hear out of the most dedicated of Jesus-ers, and they tend to use it only among themselves rather than around outsiders to the tribe. Generally speaking, it hails from the ranks of evangelicals. Really, it’s so narcissistic and creepy that it’d just about have to come from there.
Here are some examples from the wild, so to speak:
“Sometime, somewhere, someone planted a seed in your heart. . . a seed of what you might believe and do and give and love.” — A pastor’s sermon notes. It goes on and on and on like this, without a hint of self-awareness. It is SO gross.
“Using unmarked pages of Scripture for text, we planted seeds of truth in [Chinese students’] minds in the classroom while building friendships with the students after school.” — An especially awful story in a 2002 book about how to totally succeed at evangelism in the new millennia through trickery and deceit. Wanna know the kicker? The author’s none other than Ted Haggard, just a few short years away from his downfall!
“You planted a seed in me.” – A testimonial post on chick.com wherein some half-a-dozen Christians insisting that Chick tracts helped convert them to evangelicalism.
And no, they totally do not understand just how lurid and exploitable this stuff sounds.
If they did realize it, they’d just say we have filthy minds and obviously need TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like them) to plant seeds in us against our will.
(There is just no way for me to win this one on the naughty language front, so forget it. I’m going all in. No apologies. It’s not my fault fundies came up with this whole ickie idea and use it all the time.)
A Brief Pre-History.
By the end of the 1800s, we begin seeing this phrase occasionally in its familiar Christianese form. Usage continued sporadically in the decades leading up to World War II. A 1950 New York Times book review mentions it as well, and we see it every so often afterward–but almost always in the context of professional long-term missionaries and career evangelists like Billy Graham.
By the time I myself became evangelical (in the 1980s and 1990s), though, suddenly we begin to see the phrase used in works aiming for the popular Christian market. Mostly, these works aimed to teach readers how to Jesus harder. In other words, Christians wanted to know how to inject as much Jesus-ing as humanly possible into their every waking moment. From “divorce recovery for teenagers” to “letting God shape your whole life,” Christian laypeople became aware of the extended metaphor their professionals had been using off and on for decades already.
Then, by the year 2000, Christian books began featuring the phrase in the context of laypeople doing the evangelism themselves on a volunteer basis. The finger-pointing and blaming of the flocks came full circle at last.
In Recent Decades.
Usage of planting seeds exploded across Christian books by the mid-00s and has remained popular in our own decade.
By then, the phrase almost exclusively bore the meaning we’re familiar with: laypeople evangelizing the people around themselves, almost always without permission or consent, and almost always without successfully recruiting their marks.
By now, as well, Christian leaders described this process as mandatory for laypeople.
As one book on that first link’s list (2003’s Moments for Preschool Moms: 52 Weekly Devotions) puts it,
Christians are to be “seed-bearing” people, planting seeds wherever they go.
We’re coming back around to this timeline, so please hold this thread for me.
Lots of Steps!
“If you start to share your faith with a Muslim and you discover they do not want to hear it, stop! Be content planting a seed or watering a seed. Only God brings the growth. The harvest may come years later.”
—An actual Liberty University thesis submitted by a candidate for their Doctor of Ministry degree
(and it’s aimed at helping Christian teens evangelize in high school settings)
I mentioned earlier that planting seeds almost never actually results in a successful Jesus sale. To get around that difficulty, the Christians using the phrase obfuscate their goals to the point where literally anything successfully counts as planting seeds, and literally any outcome counts as a successful planting of seeds.
After that first Christian plants the seed, you see, then another Christian “waters” that seed through further evangelism. Many such waterings might need to happen before belief flickers to life. And finally a Christian comes along who “harvests” that person, meaning that last Christian actually inducts the recruit into the tribe. (See endnote for another creepy Christianese phrase along the same lines.)
At all times, however, Christians imagine that their invisible wizard friend actually makes the seed grow. In this metaphor, they mean that their god alone makes belief spark to life.
And no, they don’t realize that they have a real problem on their hands regarding free will. The potential recruit’s eventual imagined fate in Hell itself–is still absolutely and completely the recruit’s fault.
The Jesus Roofie.
The idea is that, if we hear the magic chant even once, that assures that we will eventually take faith in the Nichiren nonsense and start chanting the magic chant. We will become more like the Nichiren practitioners, whether we want to or not. It’s inevitable. We will want what they have, regardless of whether we want it or not.
–the metaphor sounds just as bad in non-Christian cults
I consider planting seeds one of the creepiest ideas in Christianity for a reason. Way too many Christians deploy it as a weird zinger flex against those who reject their overtures.
When a Christian fails to recruit someone, often the tribe rallies around that person with promises that the effort didn’t go to naught. They tell their failed soulwinner, in effect, not to worry because at least a seed was planted in the mark. Even though the mark clearly rejected the salesperson’s product, this Christianese saying redeems and validates the whole effort. In effect, Jesus Power forces the mark to come around eventually. Jesus works in the background, in this metaphor, to make the plant “grow” from the seedling planted.
Incidentally, Christians often combine this offense against consent, free will, and informed decision-making with other violations like earning the right to speak, I’ll pray for you, and friendship evangelism. At no point in the soulwinning process are the salespeople honest and forthright with their marks about what they’re doing and what they hope to get out of the engagement.
They act exactly like Nice Guys who think doing lots of favors for their crushes will obligate these women to sleep with them and/or become their girlfriends.
Making Jesus Zombies.
“I love you. Now change.”
—John Shore’s assessment of evangelicals’ overall sales pitch
Just as actual roofies remove a victim’s ability to meaningfully consent to anything, planted seeds operate without a person’s desire or consent.
Worse, these “seeds” turn their victims into mindless robots who–at least in theory and eventually–change to suit the soulwinner. Whatever objections someone might have to Christianity–or to the soulwinner’s flavor of it, if the mark is Christian already–those objections will magically vanish somehow during the plant-growing phase.
In the place of the former dissenter and skeptic, Christians gain a brand-new Jesus zombie who looks almost exactly like themselves, thinks like them, wants what they want, hates who they hate. This new baby Christian can be counted upon to obey them as their elders, and to yield to them in every single test of dominance.
That “harvest” represents the full takeover of the mark’s willpower. The process always sounded like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to me even as a Christian myself!
At the time, of course, I saw that takeover as a positive and beneficial one for humanity. I thought people were like the lowest worms without a god to redeem us and save us from ourselves. Conversion inserted that god’s grace into us, letting us be reborn as literally new creations.
(See endnote for a note about all this Christianese–and definitions.)
The Problem of Wingnuts, Again.
But the notion’s been circulating for decades by now. Once bad ideas enter canon in toxic groups holding ideologies based on objectively-false ideas, they never ever leave again.
In fact, they can’t. Members of these groups lack even the capacity for critically evaluating any ideas. They already regard consent, as a concept, with the utmost hostility.
So by now, millions of Christians have grown up with this phrase under its current meaning. To them, it doesn’t sound creepy or harmful in any way. They see conversion as a positive, and literally any tactic that gets someone “saved” (to use their Christianese again) is great. Compared to the risk of going to Hell, lying, cheating, and even bodily force, violence, and coercion become acceptable to frantic Christians.
That’s why, when I was Christian, I’m the one who got screamed at for objecting to lies told in testimonies, not the liars themselves. My peers regarded the liars as soulwinners, so my threats of exposing the truth earned me accusations of wanting lost souls to spend eternity being tortured by demons.
So they’re not going to be able to understand an outsiders’ problems with it. Nor will they listen to outsiders anyway. Their broken system long ago pared away the acceptance of victims’ feedback as part of their engagement process.
The Bigger Problem (For Christian Leaders).
However, that problem pales in comparison to the one Christian leaders likely consider most important here.
Bear in mind what was happening in Christianity for the newest decades of this Christianese phrase’s history. Namely: Christians finally accepted (ahem: for the most part) that they faced a real live decline in membership and credibility.
As a result, Christian leaders went into full-scale panic mode.
Unfortunately for them, though, they can’t do much to affect their religion’s fortunes. They’re busy enough as it is. Heck, some of them must even work secular jobs in addition to ministering to their flocks! (They try hard to reframe this shocking development as bivocationalism. It doesn’t even fool themselves. Prosperity Gospel-obsessed evangelicals regard a pastor who has to work a day job as less successful than one drawing a full-time income and above from their ministry gig.)
So when Christian leaders realized that they were in the middle of a decline with no end in sight, they pushed hard to get the flocks to evangelize more often and more effectively.
That push is likely what’s behind the shift in meaning for the Christianese phrase as well as the greater frequency of its use.
The Most Important Part.
Unfortunately for these leaders, Christian pastors no longer possess the power of coercion over their flocks. They lost that power many years ago over both their congregations and people outside the tribe.
Oh, some do still flex that kind of power here and there. Those leaders, in fact, tend to be the ones at the center of the many scandals erupting daily from evangelicalism. But as a group, pastors even in authoritarian Christianity lead only where the sheep actually want to go.
That’s why, when the Southern Baptist Convention demanded one million baptisms of their flocks 14ish years ago, the effort failed so hilariously that now it’s strangely difficult to find a lot of stuff about it online.
See, if their leaders demand something the sheep don’t want to do, then the sheep might just flat-out ignore the demand. If pressed, they don’t feel any shame in lying about complying. (That’s possibly why Operation American Spring fell flat, it sounds like.)
Exactly what are their leaders even gonna do about it, in an age when Christian membership is more optional now than it has ever been for the vast majority of this religion’s existence?
And the Surreal, Bizarro Non-Solutions.
Some try to force compliance through coercive measures like church discipline and membership covenants and the like. These represent nothing but permission slips for the worst and most horrific kinds of abuse. Most just take the “Stop! Or I’ll say ‘stop’ again!” approach.
Others try to flatter and pander to the flocks to make them want to rush right out and destroy their social capital. But flattery and pandering only go so far. Pie in the sky can sound as nice, literally, as Christian leaders want it to sound. That’s the beauty of dealing in stuff that isn’t objectively real and true.
However, social capital is real, and once lost it’s almost impossible to regain. Quite a few of even the most fervent of Christians realize that truth.
The more Christian leaders push the flocks to do stuff they don’t want to do, the worse their situation will get.
But we’ll talk about that part next time!
NEXT UP: Why evangelical leaders can’t actually rouse their troops. Then: one of my besties in church suffered a seriously terrifying situation thanks to his parents’ freakout about the Satanic Panic. With that old culture war in the news again, this seems like a good time to share exactly why “aww, what’s the harm in holding beliefs based on untrue claims?” doesn’t work for me.
See you next time! <3
Another creepy peak-Christianese phrase: The fields are white unto harvest. Can’t you feel the “Christian love” in seeing people as grain stalks to be cut down with scythes and then cooked and eaten? Ugh! (Back to the post!)
About all that Christianese: One certain sign that all of these elements are imaginary is that they actually have Christianese behind them instead of tangible, testable, prediction-making definitions. Christianese largely functions as a way to keep painful reality at bay; secondarily, it keeps the tribe unified and on the same page.
- soulwinner: a successful salesperson–or at least someone who sounds successful
- tract: a little booklet containing a condensed and hilariously ineffective usually-evangelical sales pitch; usually based almost entirely on logical fallacies and threats, even more than evangelism usually is
- testimony: a sales pitch narrating the tale-bearer converted to that flavor of Christianity
- baby Christian: new phrase; means a newly-converted person who doesn’t know much Christianese yet and will probably be even more of a raging hypocrite than usual
- to redeem: for the imaginary Christian god to save the Christian from an imaginary fate after death
- grace: unexpected, undeserved kindness, slack, and forgiveness from that imaginary god, which turns out to be really conditional
- reborn: in a metaphorical sense, starting over from scratch like a newborn baby with no offenses on the slate
- new creation: a Bible phrase that indicates that started-over status
- the fields are white unto harvest: TOTALLY, you guys, there are totally TONS of people wanting to be inducted in our tribe! TOTALLY!
I think that’s all of it. Let me know if I missed any. If I ever miss a definition and you need it, just let me know in comments! 🙂 Thanks!
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