Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dispassionate Spirituality, or Why we aren't being fruitful...

(This article was originally posted at Adventist Today)

Since the creation of the Earth, growing things has been relatively straightforward.  Take a seed, put it in the ground, make sure it gets enough water and sunlight, and a few months later you’ll be eating well.  Sure, you can get more sophisticated, but these are the basic elements for physical, and spiritual growth.

My Beautiful Wife is currently teaching herself, and our kids, to be tomato ranchers.  A couple of months ago, they picked out a variety of tomato seeds, planted them in some starter soil, and made sure they stayed warm and moist.  Since then, they have shared almost two-dozen tomato plants with friends, family, and neighbors.

In the meantime, we’ve built some raised beds and bought a truck-load of garden soil.  We are about to put these plants in the ground - just as soon as we are sure Spring has really arrived in Oregon[1].  However, there are some problems.

First, we can’t seem to keep the neighbor’s dog out of the raised beds.  Jennifer doesn’t want to put her precious “babies” out where they could be trampled!  But the biggest issue is the tomato plants themselves - they are showing signs of distress.  We are trying to diagnose the problem now.  It could be too much water, not enough sunlight, bad drainage, disease, et cetera.  We have some of our best people working on it, including a couple of Master Gardener friends.

The heart of a church, like the hearts of Christ’s disciples, are very much like garden plants.  If planted in the right soil, nurtured properly, and given plenty of Sonlight, and Living Water, they will thrive and produce fruit.  But if any of these components are missing, they will whither and die.

Most people believe that the Fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, et cetera.  But that’s only half the story.  This would be akin to saying the fruit of a tomato plant is its tomatoes.  But this begs the question, why does the tomato plant bear fruit?  Could it be something bigger than just that luscious fruit to grace our mouths?

Tomatoes, like all fruit, contain seeds.  These seeds provide for the second part of God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”  One of my Seminary professors, Dr. Russell Burrill, helped me to understand that the real fruit of a tomato plan, is more tomato plants.  In other words, a plant that isn’t multiplying, becomes virtually worthless.  Which is why the fig tree was cursed.

It is one thing for a Christian to be “nice.”  Or, to exhibit a changed life.  A loving church member is a good thing!  A joyful church member is even more welcome, especially in a sea of Sadventists and Sadducees.  However, if we, as individuals, or corporately, are not multiplying, we are not truly bearing fruit.
"Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” ~John 15:5
Adding members, is not multiplication.  Doubling and tripling the size of your congregation, every year, or two, is multiplication.  Helping one or two people find Christ in your lifetime, is a wonderful thing - but it isn’t multiplication.  Biological growth of the church, through our own progeny, isn’t even keeping up with the general increase in population - and it definitely isn’t multiplication.

The first step in understanding this issue, is to understand that growth[2] is not occurring.  This is a difficult threshold for most of us to overcome.  We don’t like to look at the bad stuff.  We would rather focus on the positive - that’s normal.  However, admitting that we have a problem, will allow us to seek a diagnoses of that problem and solutions for better health.

A great tool for diagnosing the state of our churches, is the Natural Church Development survey.  This well-designed tool, will identify where a congregation is weak, and where it is strong.  There are eight specific areas:

     Functional Structures 
     Inspiring Worship

Each of these characteristics are important to the health of the church, not just its survival.  How a church scores in these are will determine how it contributes to the God’s Kingdom.  If a congregation, or an organization, is weak in any of these areas, it will fail to truly thrive - nor will it experience true abundance.  Some churches excel in many areas, some fail in most, but according to the research, there are certain minimum criteria that a church must meet, in all areas. Without meeting the minimum, the church, like my wife’s tomato plants, will begin to whither.  And like a whithered tomato vine, there won’t be much (if any) fruit.

However, here’s something they didn’t point out in my NCD training.  Most of the above characteristics are available outside of the church.  In other words, in today’s society, I don’t need the church to provide these things.  And amazingly, of the things I need in the church, they are the areas where most Adventist congregations are failing.

For me, and a host of others, it is best to worship with others and be strengthened by the passionate spirituality of fellow disciples.  Unfortunately, these are the two areas where we fail - not just score poorly, but fail.

This leads the un-churched[3], and non-believers to ask themselves: “Why should I bother to be a part of that congregation?”

The congregation needs to ask itself: “If our church ceased to exist, would anyone outside of our congregation notice?”

These are tough questions, and they won’t be answered overnight.  The changes necessary go beyond organizational restructuring, whether we ordain women, or not, or mere cosmetic changes.  The changes necessary are deeper within.  They start with individuals, and include The Church (uppercase).

.......I believe the true diagnosis is found in the first several chapters of Jeremiah.

.......I believe the answers are found in the last eight verses of Revelation 3.

.......Lord, save us, “in spite of ourselves.”  (See Christ’s Object Lessons, page 159.3)

[1] (Here in Oregon, opinions vary; it’s somewhere between May 15th and Memorial Day)
[2] Growth can include quantity, quality, or depth.  Are we experience numerical growth?  Are we experiencing spiritual growth?  Are we experiencing a deeper relationship with our Creator, Savior, and community of faith?
[3] Not everyone who is unchurched, is a heathen - or a pagan.


Posted by Gary Walter http://bit.ly/gwalter