This is the third of a series of three attempts to flesh out a parallel between gardening and congregational life. Gardens, plants, horticulture and growth processes are a steady theme in scripture. Repeatedly, Jesus teaches and tells powerful parables about everyday gardening truths: sowers, wheat fields, fig trees, mustard seeds, vineyards, vinedressers, garden laborers, seeds that grow on their own, barren trees, and seeds that die and come back to life as tender plants.
We looked at the gardener, then the garden, and now we turn to the plants.
All gardeners know that growth is the natural result of a healthy plant. Sometimes growth is rapid and visually stunning, other times it is nearly imperceptible or hidden from view. Regardless, all plants and gardens have a growth agenda that permeates all they do. While the gardener can encourage growth, the truth is that growth is a mystery. Growth is God’s business, and not ours. All we can do is plant, care, and trust.
Churches who learn that growth is multifaceted display that same wisdom. Some growth is “up and out”, some is down and in”. Some days we grow wider, other days we grow deeper. As a friend has often reminded me, “sometimes the way up is the way down…into nourishment that only God can provide”. Spiritual growth is not something we can force, but our job is to create the conditions in which that growth can occur. Paul knew this: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”. (1 Corinthians 3:6)
Nature requires the death of the seed for the birth of the new plant. Healthy churches make growth, in all its dimensions, a primary and uncompromising focus of their life together, even if it means some things must die so others may live. Growth permeates every aspect of a healthy church.
Bearing fruit is in the DNA of any plant. The fruit is the proof of the plant’s health, as propagation is at the heart of God’s design for all living things. A full understanding of the growth Jesus describes includes the notion of pruning. Decline and loss may be the very thing that needs to happen for something new to be born in the life of the congregation.
When I pruned my fruit trees earlier this spring, I pruned away one-third of the old growth on their branches. That initial loss will lead to a higher likelihood of their bearing fruit in the future. Might God be doing something similar with the church in America here in our day?
Roots matter to a plant, to a church and to a Christian. Shallow roots are the enemy of a healthy plant. Deep roots, promoted by proper feeding and watering, enable a plant to endure the inevitable difficult conditions. Roots cannot be rushed, and sometimes take years to develop. Wise gardeners engage in “deep feeding” of their plants, in an effort to encourage the growth of the invisible but indispensible root system.
Despite appearances, what is hidden from view often determines whether or not a plant will flourish, or a church will survive. Individual Christians who grow as vigorously down as out are much more likely to survive the harsh conditions of life. Churches that focus upon external growth over internal growth eventually become that sad type of church Jesus had in mind when he compared them to plants whose roots are shallow. When difficult conditions arise, they wilt and fall away. (Mt. 13)
Wise churches pay attention to the part of their life that is veiled from view. What is below ground? Toxins, pockets of clay, or boulders can thwart the best-laid garden plans. There is always more to life and to faith than what we see. Parker Palmer calls this our “hidden wholeness”. What happens in the hidden hearts of church leaders and participants determines their viability and sustainability.
Plants do not live in a vacuum. The mixed ecology of plant life means that an individual plant’s health is interdependent and connected to other plants. Horticulturists tell us that plants in nature establish an equilibrium that exists when species live in harmony with one another. Invasive, or non-native species often disrupt the natural balance of the garden and must be controlled or eradicated.
Churches and clergy live out their calling in a similar ecosystem. They partner and collaborate with an array of others in order to accomplish their unique Kingdom agenda. Competition is secondary to the biblical teaching of complementary gifts and talents. Competitive, counterproductive and dysfunctional behavior and habits must be named and dealt with for a healthy ecology to survive.
How will you navigate the challenges of congregational life in the twenty-first century? Look to your garden and your plants for inspiration and instruction, and discover the amazing world God intends for you.