It doesn’t take long to recognize that much of the Reformed Church in America has heartily bought into the belief that church planting is the best way to deal with our dwindling numbers, the best way to “stay alive” as a denomination and, perhaps, the best way to prove our faithfulness (to whom, I don’t know).
The belief is simple and so seemingly intuitive that it’s seldom questioned: people, the argument goes, will come to a new (and thus friendly and attractive) church plant who would never consider darkening the door of an established (and thus fuddy-duddy) congregation.
That may be true. At some level, I hope so.
Although, I’m not sure.
As the pastor of an established church, I know – all too well – how easy it is to get caught in the “way we do things around here.” On the other hand, I know equally as well, how helpful it can be to inherit wisdom from a century or two’s worth of of ministry in a particular context.
At some point I’ll write a post about Jesus’ primary call to make disciples rather than to plant churches (although, obviously gathering congregationally is an important part of that discipleship) but for today, I’d like to discuss the metaphor of “church planting.”
Several years ago, I briefly discussed my disgust with the sexual metaphors used for church planting. Sadly, that language hasn’t gone away; we still talk about “birthing” new congregations, and it’s still common to hear talk of “parenting” churches. Joyfully at least, some of the more graphic metaphors seem to have finally made their way out with the bathwater.
This is the problem with metaphors: while they can be a wonderfully colorful and effective way of teaching and a great way to organize our thoughts, we need to be incredibly careful about the unintended (and often problematic) messages they can (accidentally?) impart.
The metaphor of church “planting” is no exception.
Just a bit of background: I grew up in a rural community; my maternal grandparents were farmers; there were fields on three sides of the house I grew up in, and I currently minister in a rural, farming (albiet a different type of farming) community.
At some level, I understand farming.
One of the things I learned a long time ago was that non-farmers often look at farmers and mistakenly assume that it’s all about planting and harvesting. “What do those farmers do all the time?” I’ve heard city-folk ask. “After all, it only takes a week or two to plant.. and it only takes a week or two to harvest….”
It’s like the commonly joked-about belief that “ministers only work on Sundays.”
Let me clue you in on a little secret: Sermons are only a small part of what ministers do, just as planting and harvesting are only a small part of what farmers do.
Anyone can write a sermon.
Anyone can plant a field.
Anyone can take in a harvest.
These are all basic skills that pretty much anyone can learn (to one degree or another) and become reasonably successful at if they get enough experience, have enough money, and can muster a powerful enough burst of energy to get them through it. (Although obviously some people are uniquely gifted at them.)
Talk to any farmer, on the other hand, and you’ll likely learn that it’s the work in between planting and harvesting that really counts. When (and what) do you spray? How do you tend if it rains, or doesn’t? What if it freezes “too early” or “too late?” What needs to be started today so that you can do the work you need to do next month? What did last year’s crop do the ground that needs to be taken into account this year? Do you buy a new harvester or not? Do you irrigate? How much? When? Do you hire a new worker? Do you prune? How drastically? What if a tornado comes through? What if a previously-unknown bug shows up? etc. etc.
The art of farming is found in the act of tending.
The same is true in the church.
I’m concerned that we may have bought so much into the “planting” and “harvesting” metaphors that we’ve all-but forgotten that the art of ministry – like farming – is truly in tending over the long haul.
It may surprise some people to find out that Jesus talked about tending a lot: pruning, cutting, grafting, etc.
I wonder why we don’t?
Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with starting new congregations. There’s unquestionably a place for that – and I am truly glad there are people called, prepared, and willing to do it.
My concern is that with all of our focus on the metaphor of “planting” we may (accidentally?) forget how important it is to “tend” – Not just for a year or two or even five, but for 15, 40, 200 years or more!
Have you ever heard of the Olive Tree of Vouves? It’s estimated to be between 3000 and 4000 years old and still produces olives! Talk about a metaphor for tending! Sure, someone may have planted it 3 or 4 millennia ago. (May have – for all we know, it could also be that it was an unintended sucker that just didn’t get cut down!) What’s more important is that it continues to thrive and continues to be cared for. It has, unquestionably, been well-tended and remains fruitful. Were there years where it barely produced? Probably – maybe even decades! Were there years where it produced unexpectedly bountiful crops? I have no doubt! So it is with congregations.
I don’t imagine the RCA will be around in 3000 years. I sure hope not – I hope and pray that Christ will have returned by then! If not, however, the church will only survive if we learn how to tend our congregations well.
Here’s another little farming secret: You can plant all you want, but if you don’t tend well, you also won’t harvest.
Grace and peace,