By Shannon Youell
I have been profoundly struck by something we are reading in our monthly CBWC Church Planters’ Cohort. We’ve been loosely going through Mike Breen’s book, Building a Discipleship Culture, as a source of learning ways to help people in our churches have reproducible tools to disciple one another.
What struck me was this statement from Breen:
“We need to have times of pruning in our churches, times when most, if not all, activity ceases. Times of rest and abiding. This runs contrary to principles taught in most church growth courses and seminars. How can one grow a church larger by shutting down for a season? Yet that is exactly what happens at many of the churches we have discipled. We encourage them to stop all small groups and to drastically scale back the worship service.”
Of course when Breen wrote this, he most certainly couldn’t have imagined a time in the future when churches would be closed down due to a pandemic! But what struck me is his assertion that these times are necessary and crucial for the people of God to rest, abide and, I would add, consider what God is trying to say to us so that we can prune off what is good and verdant, but not necessarily producing new fruit.
We have all been on a steep learning curve to pivot and refocus our gathering together aspect of the worshiping church. We have met the challenges of technology, demographics, Zoom fatigue, working harder and longer to get it all together for the Sunday gathering in a variety of innovative and creative ways. We have done the best we can within the current situation.
Many are anxious to restart again, missing the gathered aspect of being together in a common space. Others are also asking some good questions about the season we’re in and what that means for how we were gathering and scattering as the church.
In the midst of all the challenges many churches discovered opportunities they would not have considered. Some have connected (often accidentally) with the broader community in creative ways beyond the Sunday morning Webcast or Zoom Church. Some have discovered ways to work with other churches to share the work of production for online services and have benefited from those new partnerships (check out CBWC’s COVID-19 Resources page).
Others have created or invested more deeply in small group Zoom gatherings for formation, discipleship, worship and prayer mid-week and discovered people growing in their faith and maturity even while staying away from physical gatherings. All the indicators suggest that until a vaccine is widely available, indoor public gatherings will continue to be limited and the protocols to facilitate them require more work to maintain than usual.
So what if while we are thinking about procedures and protocols to reopen our worship serves, we slow it down a little? Ask ourselves some really deep questions about the activities that meet our missional mandates and we want to continue and the activities that actually sap our missional mandates or replace them, no matter how good the activity is.
Pruning, though painful, is always necessary. This agrarian metaphor does not presuppose that the tree is not growing. But it does point out that lush green growth on a plant doesn’t necessary equate to it bearing fruit. I am a gardener who has had to learn that lesson over and over again. A fig tree or a rose bush that grows lush and full gives me hope for lots of fruit or masses of fragrant blooms, but more often than not I am disappointed. In those seasons when I pruned hard, the next season bore both new growth on new branches and the abundance of fruit or blooms.
Each year, I become more confident and courageous to prune even harder and each spring I anxiously wait and watch, and watch and wait, to see if the hard–pruned plant will come back. There have been a few times when I thought for sure I’d pruned too hard because nothing was happening and suddenly green buds break the bark and life flourishes.
During this time of shut down, most of us have increased our activity and busyness just to do the pivoting needed to foster community in a time when people need it more than ever. It is certainly not ideal, but it is an opportunity to pause and discern what God is saying to us as His church. Before going back to new-normal type of activities, can we ask ourselves some good hard pruning questions?
What have we gained that we don’t want to lose? What does that mean as we look at re-opening?
What have we lost that we realize we hadn’t been focusing on when we were meeting together? How might we remission ourselves to refocus that?
Do we want things to go back to the same? Why or why not?
What might a hybrid look like so that we meet Health Authority Guidelines and the emotional and social needs of our community?
These are just a few starting questions and there are many more of course. During this time we have an incredible opportunity to rethink, reimagine and remission ourselves. Let’s not be so quick to get back to normal that we miss what our God-With-Us in our reality is saying and revealing about joining him on mission in our ever-changing current context.