Our gathering at The Big Table this Sunday was significant: it marked our last time together as one church in South Perth before we plant the second expression of The Big Table in Carlisle.
Before getting stuck in, though, some semantics.
We plant churches; we don’t build them or start them. That’s strange language, so it’s worth unpacking.
We don’t ‘start’ a church because we are one expression of the (big ‘C’) Church that Jesus birthed. The Church was started way back! We don’t build them either, Jesus does all the heavy lifting by assuring us that He will build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18).
Staying clear of building language also helps us steer clear of the whole ‘buildings’ thing. When many have a concrete understanding of the church as a building rather than a people, using building language often fuels confusion.
Gracefully, Jesus gives gospel seed to the sower (co-labourers) to plant in all kinds of places and those seeds are for the same purpose: spreading good news regardless of soil fertility so that all may come to repentance and receive salvation.
Back to avocados and church planting.
I was at a conference for church planting types a few years back when someone stood up to speak.
The guy (Duane Olivier) had come to Perth to plant a church having planted some churches in South Africa, Before he spoke, he shared a story.
Right as they were planting the church in South Africa, they planted an avocado tree. By the time they left it had grown a little but with no fruit.
He shared: “Just this morning I received this photo from the friend who became pastor of the church that we planted – a photo of a full, well-sized, ripe avocado. It reminded me again that the seed that you plant may produce fruit that you will never see – fruit that comes after you – but it doesn’t discount the possibility nor the goodness of the fruit.”
It turns out that when we planted The Big Table, we also planted an avocado tree. We didn’t realise it was part of a legacy of church planting message illustrations; we just love avocados and the idea of eating one we’d grown.
Of all the fruit trees we have, I’ve seemed most captivated by our avocado tree.
Last year, all the fuss was over two avocados. This year, it’s closer to ten. Practically self-sufficient (if you don’t really like avocados).
Along the way, I’ve seen a bunch of parallels between our avocado tree and being part of Jesus’ Church – whether serving and leading, pastoring, or church planting.
So this morning, as a form of encouragement and commissioning, we began a tradition of giving the core group of a new Big Table a baby avocado tree to plant; part of the story of their journey together. And I drew twelve (yes, 12!) parallels from what I’ve observed about our avocado tree and partnering with Jesus in ministry.
Here they are!
1. Just because it’s a God idea, don’t expect everyone else to think it’s a good idea, but a God idea is better than a good idea.
One of our church, Neil, decided to propagate a couple of avocados 3-4 months ago. For months, nothing happened. It was suggested they should be ditched – a waste of space. The next morning there was the tiniest hint of a shoot – the seed was alive.
The thought: Just because God gives you a vision, do not think that it will come with instant results or instant widespread support. Sometimes it may come with no recognisable fruit other than the fruit it creates in you.
If we spend all of our time pondering our likely success rather than exercising faithfulness and obedience, we’ll become paralysed by our own inadequacies. You may fail. YOU MAY FAIL. To fail while faithfully following Jesus’ call, though, is no failure at all.
2. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
An observation about avocado trees: the leaves are big and the fruit starts out small. Even now I walk over to the tree and feel as though they’ve all disappeared. As I continue to look at it, I see them, one by one.
Just because you don’t see your definition of fruit working out around you, don’t assume it’s not there. Keep your eye out for signs of life.
3. Harbingers are encouraging but don’t be defined by them.
A harbinger is like an announcement that fruit is coming; it’s a piece of fruit that appears before the main growth. Unfortunately, harbingers tend to die small. They do the job of heralding the fruit to come, then die just as quickly.
This is sad. When you’ve seen a baby avocado arrive and watched it start to grow, to come out the next morning and see it on the ground is a bummer.
As ministers of the gospel, gain encouragement from signs of life and growth but don’t let your identity and value become caught up in these signs – just enjoy them for the blessing they are. Finding your identity in them will lead to either pride or discouragement – neither is attractive (see also #10!).
4. Some trees may have lots or none
The store Rivers, promote their sales with some truly ordinary advertising, but one line was always memorable: ‘some stores may have lots or none’.
There are millions of churches across the globe, thousands in our city. We each have different rates of ‘fruit production’. We don’t want to be a church that compares the shape and nature of a tree and its fruit to another and then makes judgements on that tree. We want to be a church who cheers on every expression of the body that is bearing witness to Jesus by word and action.
5. Don’t be too hasty on casting your verdict on the fruitfulness of the tree or even part of it.
Our avocado tree has three major branches from the base. Early in November, I’d regularly count 5-6 small fruit on one main branch, one on another, and nothing on the third.
I’d regularly have thoughts of cursing that branch as Jesus did the fig tree, yet I kept thinking: ‘I doubt your condemnation will have much effect. Plus, you’re no avocado-growing expert, so perhaps you should just hold tight a little longer.’
A couple of mornings later I was re-counting the fruit on the main branch when I spotted a small fruit on what I’d thought was the barren branch. Further up, was a second much larger fruit – it’d probably been there for weeks.
Some fruit is more visible than others. Some branches fruit a little slower than others. This doesn’t mean the branch won’t have fruit to bear.
As followers of Jesus, we’re no different. We wander. We hear God’s call to do something but it’s inconvenient, scary, or awkward for us…so we don’t do it. Delayed obedience is disobedience, but God is gracious and we need to pattern that grace as we encourage those we shepherd towards faithfulness.
6. Some fruit withers and falls to the ground before reaching maturity. This truly sucks.
In the parable of the sower, some seed falls on the hard ground and dies. It looks magnificent early but doesn’t take root.
While it might be par for the course for 10-20% of avocados to fall to the ground and perish, when it comes to people that figure is ghastly.
Unlike avocados, prodigals return. They return because they have a revelation that Jesus walks beside with grace, reconciliation and forgiveness. We need to pattern this as part of His church.
7. The worst strategy for encouraging fruit to grow is to chop off the branch altogether – certainly from that branch!
Our lawnmower man chopped off one of the branches of our avocado tree cause it was growing over the lawn. It was carted off to the tip.
There’s no way that branch is going to produce avocados. The only way a branch will produce avocados is if it remains a part of the tree.
Abide in me, and I in you, Jesus says. Whoever abides in me and I in him, He it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
The call to remain in and be sustained by Jesus, is a graceful imperative. A bit like telling someone that it will do well for them to breathe – remaining in Christ sustains, forms and encourages us.
8. You can care about the fruit, you can care about the soil, you can be faithful in the tending of it, but you can’t make the thing grow.
There’s an argument that raises up with the church in Corinth. They started saying that they liked one Pastor more than another. Some were saying Paul, others Apollos.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3: 5-9: What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
Be careful to whom it is that you attribute the growth. In my experience, I’m more likely to hinder it through passivity, than facilitate it by obedience. God grows churches we co-labour.
9. If you want to grow fruit, make the Holy Spirit your guide and endurance your friend. You’re signing up for the long haul.
Like being formed into the likeness of Christ, growing avocados is slow work. Progress is so slow that you might miss it altogether.
If I wandered out in the morning expecting five new, fully formed avocados, I’d be disappointed. The only way that’s going to happen is by sticking on mature avocados. (When it comes to church, we call this ‘transfer growth’. Good, but only to fuel gospel growth.)
10. It’s unfair to compare the growing cycle and fruitfulness of an avocado with a tomato plant or a radish, they’re just different.
The church isn’t a pop-up shop selling a bunch of stuff then moving on in a couple of months, it’s a lifetime of work.
This doesn’t mean your gifts are irrelevant, but it does make the comparison of your gifts with another a dangerous thing.
11. Don’t assume that because you have an avocado tree, you know all there is to know about avocados.
In seeking to do your best, you will unintentionally let some people down. Monumentally. They will take this personally. Always seek to love, always follow Jesus, but do not rely on your own effort. You can’t do everything. Your job is to worship God, not to be God.
12. When an avocado tree produces well-formed, abundant, mature, tasty avocados, it’s doing exactly what it was created to do.
Your call as followers of Jesus – whether you’re planting a church, going to work, starting a business…whatever it is, is not to success but faithfulness.
We will evaluate the success of our avocado tree on the quality of its fruit. That’s reasonable.
Jesus says: A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit…Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
There’s a danger in focusing purely on the fruit and Jesus reveals it: fruit is the outcome of healthiness. Focus on the outcome and you can miss the health. Fruit is a product of health, and healthy things grow. We should expect to grow in Jesus as we abide him; that’s an outcome of abiding in him.
I learned three more things about planting avocados when I picked up my avocado tree from a German fella in Como, but perhaps that’s for another post. This one is already far, far longer than I’d rather.
Thanks for listening.