When Diane and I moved into our house in New Mexico several years ago, we found a tangle bramble of twisted branches spanning half the length of the stucco wall that enclosed our backyard.
Seeing it for the first time, I remember wondering, “What in the world is this contorted mess (and how I am going to get rid of it)?” It looked like a briar patch on steroids. But Diane’s reaction was one of great enthusiasm, “WOW!” she cried running back and forth along the wall, “A grape vine!”
“Come help me clear it out,” she says.
“Oh Lord, here we go,” I said to myself.
“So,” says I aloud, “Where are the grapes?”
“Oh, well it’s been neglected. Just left to grow wild,” Diane says. “But we’ll have grapes by the fall.”
`And,’ I remember thinking, `a wide assortment of bugs and critters to go with it.’
Of course, Diane did the lion’s share of the work. At first she just sort of tugged gently at the edges of the bramble. But as time went on, she discovered how ornery grape vines could really be. Soon, she was going out with large pruning shears and branch cutters. It became her mission in life.
I watched her go bravely out to that unruly horror day after day: pulling, cutting, and dragging dead branches across the backyard to an ever expanding compost. She’d come in after working in that garden for a few hours, arms and legs all scratched up and bleeding.
“Honey,” I’d implore, “why don’t we just have someone come and cut that mess out of there?”
“No, no,” she would say. “You’ll thank me come fall. Besides, don’t you think it’s beautiful? Who’d have thought a grape vine way up here in the high desert?”
Well, there was nothing to do for it—Diane had adopted her wayward orphan with her whole heart and soul and body.
Then, one day, upon completing her task of clearing away, she came in with a homemade wreath of dried grape vines.
“My badge of courage,” she proudly said.
Come autumn we indeed gathered in the first year’s bushel of grapes. Actually more like a small bucket. Just a humble harvest. But the grapes were sweet and plump; with enough to enjoy ourselves and even a few to share with the neighbors—and the birds.
“Next year” she proclaimed with ecstatic exuberance, “Wine!” Talk about your optimism!
“I am the vine,” Jesus tells his disciples, “you are the branches.”
“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
The imagery Jesus uses here reminds us that the Christian faith is not something one can profess to practice in a vacuum. It is by nature both communal and relational. Being a Christian requires being interwoven – with other branches – into the vine.
`This is a challenging parable for those of us whose lives have been constructed largely on the modern idea of the sovereign individual. Even those who are associated with the church today tend to see it as something we are “part of,” other than those major spheres of our social, family, or working lives.’[i]
It is a bit disconcerting when one realizes that the fastest growing trend in religion today are the `Nones,’—Which is to say, the answer people increasingly give to the surveyed question, “What is your religious affiliation, if any?” Those who answer, “None” has grown by 138% since 1990.
In my own experience, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that they are `spiritual but not religious,’ I could retire now a wealthy man. In fact, Lillian Daniel (preaching professor, prolific author, highly sought after speaker and now Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa) wrote a book on that very subject, aptly called: When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. She summarizes her rather acerbic thoughts on the subject in a blog she posted around the same time called: “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”
I found it rather affirming as a beleaguered pastor. You, as bewildered disciples, might find it enlightening as well. Lillian Daniel writes, “On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
“Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
“Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
“Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”[ii]
Wow! I wish I could say stuff like that! You go girl!
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles . . . fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” [Heb. 12:1-2]
Certainly, spending time in private prayer and meditation, and in personal Bible study and devotion, are all part of what it means to `abide in Christ.’ But it neither begins nor ends there. For, through our baptism we have been grafted into the Body of Christ. Called to be in – often complicated and demanding – relationship with other Christians: sometimes its messy, sometimes we disagree, we argue, we fight, we get on each other’s nerves, we say stupid things. And yet we forgive, we persevere, we strive to understand, we forbear one another, we learn from our mistakes, we try again.
And always – always – abiding in the love of Christ.
Of course, simply being part of a `church’ doesn’t automatically, necessarily guarantee fruitfulness. As the great South African evangelist Andrew Murray cautioned, “Do not confound work and fruit. There may be a good deal of work for Christ that is not the fruit of the heavenly Vine.”
As the former chair of a Visioning Committee for another Presbytery – and, at that same time a member of that Presbytery’s Council – I remember a particular meeting whereby the Council president led us in an hour long discussion concerning what kind of hors d’oeuvres to serve at the upcoming Presbytery meeting. And yet not one minute was spent on visioning, much less time set aside for prayerful discernment regarding God’s will.
We had `heavy hors d’oeuvres’ at the next Presbytery meeting – which were delicious – and then left that meeting without a further clue about what God was calling us to be, to do, or to go. I’m just saying . . .
Bearing fruit sometimes requires being pruned by the Vinedresser.
As someone who has spent his life’s ministry specializing in church revitalization – or transformation, if you will – I can bear witness that whether or not a church is vital and alive, or literally `dying on the vine,’ has little to do with how increasingly, desperately hard it works; and virtually nothing to do with the amount of money or members they have. It has everything, however, to do with how connected they are to the One True Vine; how closely they strive to follow his will, and how much risk they are willing to take in doing so. The grapes closest to the central vine are always the best (plumpest, juiciest), because they receive the greatest amount of nutrients.
For example; the first church I ever served, in Cleveland, Ohio, thought I was being sent in by the Presbytery to close their doors. It was a little inner city church that had been in decline for decades, with a membership at that time of about 100, and a median age of around 80. In spite of all they teach you in seminary, I can tell you now that the real education for pastors begins after you get into a church and start learning, real time, about a congregation’s interpersonal dynamics—their struggles and discouragements, their hopes and aspirations, their fears and assumptions.
I was unsure of myself going into that situation, and the congregation had become very insecure. I came in with no real experience; the church had very few financial resources—In fact, for the next ten years, they didn’t know how they were going to pay my salary from one month to the other.
As you might imagine – by necessity – we learned to lean heavily together on the providence and strength and support and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We opened our hearts in agreement to let God take us wherever – we thought, hoped and believed that – God wanted us to go. That wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it meant making some hard choices and letting go of some things. It meant allowing difficult changes to take place. It meant taking some significant risks in ministry. All of which the congregation ultimately was willing to do; partly, perhaps, because it didn’t think it had any other real choice. But mostly, I believe, because they had a growing faith in God’s purpose for their lives together.
Over the course of the ten years I was honored to serve that church, the congregation once again became a dynamic presence in their neighborhood. New leadership stepped forward to develop one of the largest and most active youth groups in town. It strengthened its relationships with other area churches to reach out in mission to homeless folks and others. They also managed to renovate the 90 year old building from top to bottom. And, in the process of all that, they brought in dozens of new members, lowering the median age of the congregation to around 45.
Today, if you ask me how we accomplished all that, I’m still not quite sure. All I can offer is `only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.’
By contrast, there was another church I’d worked with (on the Presbytery level) some years ago who also believed they were dying. When it was founded some 70 years before, their neighborhood was all white. Over time, however, most of the whites had moved out of the neighborhood, so that now it was predominately Hispanic.
So, this congregation was subsequently encouraged by the Presbytery to hire a dynamic young Hispanic minister – which it did – and who almost immediately started launching new outreach ministry to the neighborhood folks: a bi-lingual evening worship service, an anonymous support group for Hispanic women with AIDS; Bible studies, etc. And with each new program he initiated, he got more and more flak from his frightened little Caucasian congregation. They were afraid they were losing control of their church. Ultimately, they decided they were unwilling to change; unwilling to `let go and let God’ have God’s way with that church.
So, they fired the young minister and circled the wagons.
Eventually, of course, they closed their doors; and lo and behold it was bought by the community and a new (non-denominational) church was founded to serve that Hispanic neighborhood.
In a recent article, Steve Harper asked the title question, “Is God Pruning American Christianity?” He writes, “In much of the contemporary conversation about the church, we use life/death language to frame what we say. So, some allege they are in a “dead” church, while just down the road others claim theirs is “alive.”
“And from there,” Harper goes on to say, “we expand the conversation to evaluate denominations and other parts of the body of Christ.”
“Subsidiary words are also used to carry the freight of the life/death metaphor (e.g. bigger means life, growing means life – the opposite means death), leaving us with human measuring tools that combine theology, sociology, demographics and trends to form, describe and defend our assessments.”
Harper suggests that, “missing a lot in this conversation is the metaphor that Jesus used himself; that of pruning. In every vineyard, most branches were alive and bearing some fruit, but all the branches had to be pruned recurringly so they could bear more fruit.”
The upshot, says Harper, is that he believes God is pruning the Christian church in North America. He cites a number of examples of how God is accomplishing that:
- Christianity is being separated from the impression that the true version of it is largely located in one political party.
- Christianity is being pulled from the grip of “media Christians” who use their platforms, institutions, and ministries to allege the country is going to hell in a handbasket, and they are the only ones who can “save the nation.”
- Christianity is being pruned of dualistic thinking which (among other things) allows one group to claim it holds the copyright on orthodoxy.
- Christianity is being purged of a top-heavy institutionalism that concentrates power in too few and consumes too much money on ecclesial maintenance.
- Christianity is being taken out of the hands of “old guys” (and yes, much of it is GUYS), who hang on too long and block the emergence of a new generation of young leaders.
- Christianity is being salvaged from those who blur the life-giving distinction between doctrine and opinion, losing sight of the fact that the issues we must face are shaped by hermeneutics [“the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation”], not by the false charge that only certain Christians “believe in the Bible.”
- Christianity is being cleansed of the public impression that it is made up of people who are mean-spirited, judgmental, and arrogant.
- Christianity is being emptied of concepts that allow quantifications (“more is better”) to be definitive in determining its authenticity and vitality.
Concludes Harper: “These branches which need to be pruned away are deeply entangled within the vine and will put up quite a fight as the shears do their work. But such pruning is necessary and is a sign not that the branch [or the church] is dying, but rather creating space, energy and light for new growth to take place in the spirit and substance which God has had in mind for it all along.”
In other words, this pruning is the prelude to the production of the fruit of the Spirit on the vine. And it is now happening to churches, presbyteries and mainline denominations all across this nation.[iii]
This past January, J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), told our denomination’s Way Forward Commission, “This is a time for reform,” suggesting that we are now on the cutting edge of transformation.
““We are in a very significant period” both in the church and the world. Presbyterians are figuring out new ways of doing ministry – sometimes propelled into change by loss and decline. So they are thinking in new ways – not about survival, but to figure out how to be a church thriving in the 21st century, and realizing, he said, that “if we don’t do the heavy lifting that needs to be done now, this may be the last opportunity” for many congregations.”[iv]
I truly believe that the future fruitfulness of the church depends, not only upon our being open to God’s work of pruning in our own hearts and minds, but also in being willing, as Christ’s disciples, to partner with God in that difficult and sometimes painful work in the church.
Jesus is the True Vine; cut off from him nothing shall grow. Nothing shall be produced. But when we abide in him, when we stay connected to the source of faith, of love, of life, when we root ourselves together in him, then we shall grow and mature and bear much fruit, indeed. Once grafted into Jesus Christ, we can discover that anything and everything is possible! Yes, even new life itself!
[i] Cooper, Stephen A., “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 2.
[ii] Daniel, Lillian, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” HUFFPOST Blog, 9/13/2011.
[iv] Scanlon, Leslie, “This is a time for reform,” J. Herbert Nelson tells the Way Forward Commission, The Presbyterian Outlook, January 17, 2018.