Last weekend was a momentous one for our church. Our second Big Table gathered for the first time in Carlisle on Saturday afternoon, and it was an enormous privilege to gather with them. To sing and pray with them, and speak a little as well. It was a strong start!
It was sweet, too, to gather in South Perth and get a growing sense of the network of communities God called us to be a part of in the first place.
It was amazing to see a whole bunch of people that I’d never met before gathering together because they’d either received a flyer in their letterbox, seen something on Facebook, or been invited by friends or family. Similarly beautiful was seeing the core group who have been meeting over the last months praying together, praying with others, serving one another and rejoicing in new beginnings.
God’s all about that stuff. First chances, second chances, seventy-seventh chances; they’re all His strong suit.
I woke a couple of times during Saturday night. That’s rare for me but, in praying for healing for me during our time at Carlisle, someone prayed that I’d be awoken in the night with new revelations of God’s love and action towards me in Jesus, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised.
Each time I woke, there was a little warm glow. I felt as though I had a tiny taste of what Paul was on about when he writes to the church at Phillipi: “I thank my God when I think of you in all my prayers I pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
In some ways ‘now’ is two days later. In other ways, we’ve been journeying together with some of these people for years. “And I am confident of this,” Paul goes on, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1: 3-5)
In an earlier post, I wrote of some of the lessons about pastoring, planting and preparation for ministry that I’d learned while tending our avocado tree out the back. During the commissioning service where I shared these thoughts with our church, we gave a young avocado plant to the core group. Theirs to tend and care.
What I omitted in the last post was the advice I was given by Mr. Gumtree – the German gent from Como, who propagated the plant in the first place.
As I exchanged the cash for the plant, he gave me some parting tips for giving it the best chance to thrive.
Three things: Make sure it’s planted in good soil; make sure it’s protected by shade cloth so it doesn’t get burned and punished by the wind; and make sure it gets good drainage, so the roots aren’t waterlogged.
As I rode away from his home on my Vespa with the plant fully exposed to a hot, dry wind, I was doing everything wrong bar getting the roots waterlogged, but I began to think of these three nuggets of advice when it comes to caring for a new church.
It shouldn’t surprise us that young lives require special care. Whether they’re baby humans, baby Christians, baby trees, or baby churches, each requires patient love (always tough for the sleep deprived!)
Back to the list.
We’d all know a parable about planting in good soil. What makes sense in seeing a seed through to fruit-producing maturity, is no different with churches.
What is good soil, though, when it comes to planting? Is it about how sanctified the folk are that surround your church? Doubt it. Is it an absence of unrighteousness and complementary organisations and individuals dotted nearby? Hardly. One of the chief reasons we plant at all is so that people can encounter the gospel and receive the ministry of reconciliation through us.
I think good soil has more to do with the mission, leadership, prevailing culture and the intent of the sending church.
Is it a product of division? That’s bad soil.
Is it to feed some performance orientation of particular leaders? That’s bad soil, too.
Unity is a sweet thing, the psalmist pens. Unity is a hallmark of good soil.
A desire to bear witness to Jesus and share the good news about Him? That’s good soil.
Equipping, setting apart and releasing individuals to fulfil God’s call on them and the Church? That’s great soil.
Creating unique, creative, gospel-minded expressions of his love within a specific community? Good soil, too.
A church where people are equipped and freed to express their giftedness in obedience to Christ, as they eagerly desire the spiritual gifts to find expression within the body? That’s highly fertile ground.
As I saw people worshipping and responding on Saturday afternoon, it was easy to spot that the soil is starting ‘good’.
But amateur horticulturist didn’t stop with good soil. Next up, was shade-cloth protection.
It’s easy enough to see where this one is heading. The pastoral care of those stepping out in faith and obedience is essential. The idea of pushing the chicks out of the nest and hoping they learn to fly before they hit the ground isn’t what we’re after here.
Shade cloth is about fortressing the baby plant and protecting it from what might come against it. A moderate wind is no deal for an established tree, for a baby plant, it’s tough going.
How do we fortress? We pray plenty. We meet and encourage. We debrief together. Some of that shelter is in simply knowing that you have somewhere to go when new things come your way – not necessarily bad things, just new. What also gives great comfort is the knowledge that you’re not alone. There’s a whole other church cheering you on; people scattered across the globe praying for you; and, most profoundly, the Holy Spirit drawing us back to Jesus again and again while empowering, prompting, guiding and convicting us.
There’s one to go and perhaps it’s the most interesting of the lot: Don’t let the roots get waterlogged.
Plants love water, need water and thrive on water but with too much water they get sick. (I once had way too much water and got quite sick too, but that’s another story.)
Unchecked, our tendency in establishing new churches and ministries for God’s glory can be hijacked by the processes, systems, trainings and meetings required to make all that happen. This isn’t a polemic against those things, they’re entirely necessary. When these become elevated above mission, though, we lose purpose. We turn in and drain something good of its potential or worse still, drown it in ‘self’.
Plants need good drainage. Being fed is important, but if there is no other purpose to feeding than getting fat, we fast become unhealthy: more and more food, less and less work. The drainage advice triggered the thought of emptying out of ourselves for others.
The picture of the drink offering that Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 4:6, is one of irretrievability. It’s poured out in a way that can neither be contained nor regathered. In this sense, the nourishment of the new plant is to not only invigorate and encourage its growth, but also bring life around it. Containing goodness becomes unhealthy, being a channel for that goodness towards others is what we’re on about.
The challenge for the new plant? To continually realise that gospel growth is our chief purpose. As we go about organising and preparing, that we never take our eyes off the ministry of reconciling others to God through his Son, Jesus.
Our the strength of our gospel-mindedness holds all of these in check. We want good soil for the plant for the gospel to thrive in new places. We want to shelter and protect the plant for the same reason. And we always keep our eyes on Jesus and his commission to us so that we never turn inward, feeding ourselves and drowning our mandate in the process.
Thanks for listening.