Growing the Church
The last two weeks I've been preoccupied with getting our house in shape to sell - all the yard and home projects I've neglected in my eagerness to work for the church have come back to taunt and chase me.
Another point of stress is that Christie and I run our home more like a farm - which looks different than a "yard." We don't water the lawn, letting it brown in late summer and die back naturally. We compost yard waste in big bales. We grow crops instead of flowers. Generally, the beauty of urban homesteading is a little rougher than the typical suburban well-manicured yard. In fact, if you're not used to it, it might look unkempt and ratty.
So once we made the decision to sell the house, I started pulling up crops and planting flowers, laying down bark mulch instead of the homegrown compost, and watering the lawn. The problem is, watering the lawn once the grass is already brown is too late. Once the crisis point has hit, it's the watering you've already done (or not done) that matters.
And watering only the brown patches leaves what still is green to wither and die - so you have to water both the living and the dying (or the birthed and potentially re-birth-able) equally, actually watering where you hope there will be grass soon.
Ministry within congregations, it occurred to me, is much the same. If we wait until crisis to start to minister to each other, show love, mobilize for issues we believe in, or begin mission work in our neighborhoods, then it's too late. The heat of the day and the summer will burn up most of your water and care. It is the watering and attention you've done prior to this that really sustains roots, that has already penetrated the soil and is at the source of people's strength. If we wait until congregations are dying to start mission work, it is an uphill battle, and the fruits of the labor may not be seen for a long time, while the water (and precious little at that) makes its way to the roots - and we need to keep watering. Whereas, if congregations sense a call to mission earlier, and begin to cultivate their spirituality and religious devotion to include a real-life care for the world, then when crises hit (and crises will come), the roots deep below will sustain them and weather the drought.
On a more personal level, when individuals are going through a crisis like the death of a loved one, oftentimes the words and efforts right then seem superficial and un-comforting. It is the understandings that have been deeply cultivated, the convictions that are already nurtured and healthy and rooted, that carry one through, or leave one wanting. It doesn't seem much different with larger organisms like congregations or denominations.
We've been starving our roots for too long, getting by with shallow waterings and quick fixes. We want our congregations to grow, but are unwilling to invite people, or unwilling to offer dynamic worship, or unconventional worship, or meaningful, insightful, exciting preaching, or whatever. We've been unable or unwilling to open our doors to homeless or poor or immigrants or other languages. We've clung to old forms of worship or congregational identity, when the world around us has changed dramatically. We've been hoping that having kids will grow our church - a strategy that worked in the 50's when the population of the US generally was growing. We are still conflicted about our history and heritage, embarrassed at times, ashamed at others, but sensing all the while that there is something precious and worthwhile buried under all the misgivings, and not having the language to talk about it without sounding retrograde.
Whatever it is, we need to stop watering shallowly. Gardeners all over will tell you: water more deeply and less often to conserve water and encourage healthy root growth.
We need to water where we want grass to grow, too. That means stretching ourselves, and risking the "waste" of some resources on land that is not yet in bloom, where roots have not visibly reached, trusting that the Spirit is at work there just as it is at work where the grass is greenest. This necessitates an economy of abundance, rather than scarcity - where we water deep and wide.
Honestly, I'm not sure many of our congregations are ready for that kind of commitment.
The thing is, there are other gardeners out there. If we don't reach people, something else will. And we'll have no one to blame for our desert lawn but ourselves.