August 29, 2014
Corn Row Christians
Earlier this summer, I offered you a few articles outlining my own sense of call to maintain the best of what Shenango Presbytery has been about in recent years. Some of our sturdy draft horses that continue to serve us well include our pastor retreats, LeaderFest, cross-cultural partnership visits, Partnership for the Missional Church training, digital communication, and our excellent presbytery office staff and resources. My earlier writings indicated my gratitude that none of these workhorses need put out to pasture anytime soon. But we must remember: Farm fields do not exist so that horses have work to do. Rather, horses (tools) are kept in good shape so that the land might better produce its offering. Let us measure the effectiveness of our efforts and events, not merely by how many attend, but by what worship, fellowship, and ministry blooms in the seasons that follow. After all, our Lord has said, "each tree is known by its own fruit." (Luke 6:44)
To that end, as summer begins to give way to fall, I want to turn out attention from horses to harvest, from maintenance to cultivation. Both matter dearly, and indeed you likely wont' have the latter without the sturdiness of the former. Cultivation (noun): the action of cultivating land, or the state of being cultivated, the act of preparing and using land for crops or gardening. All farmers know, in the case of corn as much as with any crop: the harvest does not produce itself automatically, nor can the cultivation be unduly rushed. Fruitfulness calls for attentiveness and patience, not to mention great trust in the Lord of the harvest. (Matthew 9:38)
I believe the last 30 years of Presbyterian congregational life has reminded us of two important lessons: First, our congregations will no longer replenish themselves automatically. There was an era when decent American neighbors sought out churches like ours because there was a widely-shared notion that good citizenship included Sunday morning worship at your local (usually Protestant) church. Presbyterians benefited from that cultural arrangement. Offer Sunday School, call a halfway decent preacher/chaplain, maintain a bearable choir, and, by and large, folks came. This is not to disparage fields of bygone eras, but rather it is to appreciate the reality that such soil no longer produces in the same way. Expecting a flock of the faithful to grow, simply by existing, can now be better understood to be like expecting corn to grow from ground that has not been tilled or seeded. Seeding is a burden, yes. But anyone hungry for the outcome will find cultivation a great privilege. And besides, the Holy Spirit does much of the work ahead of us.
Second, we now have enough hindsight on the 1980s and 90s to see that there are no quick-action fertilizers for forcing overnight congregational blooming in tired soil. There is planting and tending, even fertilizing ... but there is also waiting. Efforts and events drive up some numbers for a time (and nothing is ever wasted by the Holy Spirit), but a harvest calls for a long-range view. Corn takes time, and so does Christian community. Packages of programs and procedures may help to activate the ground, but -- as it has been observed -- disciples of Jesus are made, not born. That takes time; most worthwhile matters do. For example, nothing warms the heart like a gaggle of children down front for a children' sermon. But that's a seed moment, not a harvest moment. Wise congregations understand this. In the case of our small children, the harvest of discipleship will only be known 15, 20, maybe 25 years down the row. We adults ought not trade the short-term sweetness of childhood church moments for the lasting starch of forming mature disciples. It is the same now with most of our neighbors: We cannot expect to welcome into our worship only those folk who already "get church." (Besides, if they have left other flocks, most nomadic worshippers will likely also leave yours.) Instead, we can cultivate our willingness to walk with uninitiated neighbors long enough for them to get a taste of the generous gospel meal most of us have now known most of our lives. (Luke 14)
And so, at our spring pastors retreat, friend of our presbytery Dr. Jannie Swart could talk to our pastors about understanding the ministry of the Teaching Elder (pastor) as one of -- Can you guess? -- cultivation. Elders and Deacons and plenty of others play their farming part, too. Tilling, planting, and watering turns out to be akin to preaching, practicing, and providing for the gospel. This perspective of cultivation assumes that our congregations are not merely businesses to be run, or stores to be minded, or services to be offered, but rather living communions where the seeds of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are given space and support to bloom and grow into fruit for one another and for the neighborhoods all around us. In this vision, even worn-out, tired, aging pastures can be tended back to life -- assuming there is a sincere openness to bearing new tastes and an pliable imagination for new flavors of fruit, all as the Spirit directs. (Ezekiel 37)
My commitment as your Executive Presbyter is to continue the work of others before me -- and not by myself but with Deacons, Pastors, and Ruling Elders alongside -- to cultivate our presbytery to be more and more a communion of farmers and field hands, tending the soil of discipleship in and around -- and if necessary, beyond -- our congregations. Cultivation is both our great burden and our greater blessing, and the Holy Spirit turns out to be both Provoker and Comforter along the way. May it be, year after year, that there are blooming followers of Jesus, of all ages, sprinkled across our congregations, who are, by the measurement of the gospel, spiritually knee high by every fourth of July. Corn row churches, anyone?
Next week: the first of several specific areas of cultivation for Shenango's next 5-10 years.
Written by Ralph W. Hawkins