Last week, we talked about some of the issues that stem from the church accepting too much of a business model in its leadership structure and how true discipleship often gets pushed to the side, especially in a "professional" ministry. But perhaps the greatest challenge to our churches today is not how we lead, but how we grow.
And this discussion is aimed squarely at those who sit in the pews, not at those who stand in the pulpit (although, to be certain, pastors can have a significant impact in this area).
Today's churches far too often grow like farms, like fields of wheat. Conveniently planted in nice, neat rows, we plug in new members in our registries and in our communities like tiny little seedlings. And if anyone should happen to leave, we just pluck them right out and put another family, person, seeker in their place.
"Oh, the Johnsons? They haven't been here in four months. But have you met the Millers?"
In most churches, it doesn't even phase one family to see another family leave. The occurrence is so commonplace that it's essentially expected, and although we are sometimes surprised by who leaves or by when, it doesn't really upset the fabric of our churches too much. We get over our offendedness (for that is primarily what we are any more when someone seems to reject us or something we care about, like our church), plant a new name in an old place, and move on. After all, the church is just a field and we are all but one fruit of the harvest.
But churches weren't meant to grow in rows, and congregations weren't meant to live in gardens. We're not supposed to be able to pluck out one piece and plant another in its place; that's not what community is about.
Churches are supposed to grow like forests, like intertangled messes of roots and branches and leaves. Members of the church are supposed to have their lives intertwined with one another in such a way that when one person or one family leaves, everyone feels it. Their uprootedness pulls at the roots of all of the others. Their branches pulling out of the canopy breaks off a few fragile bits of everyone else's and creates a new space where the empty winds blow through.
This sounds horrible, I know. It sounds ominous. It sounds like something you wouldn't want to be a part of. It sounds...painful. And it is painful. But it's what real community is all about.
There's a reason that Jesus uses so many organic metaphors when He talks about His followers. He is the vine; we are the branches. Why are we branches? Because we get all tangled up in each other. He talks about good soil where roots go down deep. What happens when roots go down deep? They get all tangled up in each other. He even talks about the kind of farmer's fields that we have become so accustomed to in our churches, and He says that even there, the wheat and the weeds (the various types of plants) grow so close together that you can't pull one up without uprooting the other.
And yet, the Johnsons? They're yesterday's news. Have you met the Millers?
It's a problem, and not a small one. It's a challenge for our churches on a lot of levels. Not the least of which is that when we attend a church where we are but one little seedling in a nicely-cultivated farm where anyone and everyone is easily replaceable, we exist as nourishment for the church itself and not for one another. Our only connection is to the structure and the Sunday service and the business model of the church; we are not connected to one another in such a way that we are truly a people, let alone a people of God. That in itself should scare us, but that's not all.
This week, we'll look at some of the things that happen when we attend churches that grow in rows instead of tangles, as fields instead of forests. Stay tuned.