June 17, 2018
Last week Dan and I worshipped in a large non-denominational church outside of Chicago where Dan’s parents attend. They have a pattern of running both a contemporary and a what they call a “classic” service at the same time—one with a live preacher and one with the preacher on video. They have been in the middle of growing pains which include construction to make a bigger space for contemporary worship and expanded parking and adjustments to their classic worship services (large choir, organ music, and a majority of worshippers my age and older) to consolidate and strengthen participation. They have prayed, asked for input and discussed ideas among the leadership for some time, and are trying to find the right ways to keep their classic worship services full while their contemporary services are growing.
Churches of all stripes pay a lot of attention to the number of bodies in the pews. We Presbyterians keep close track of members, count worship attendance and Christian education attendance and report our averages to the General Assembly each year. We get grouped in the small church category, because our worship attendance is under 100. Churches have bought in to the thinking that if the number of people is not increasing, then we are not doing our jobs as carriers of the gospel message to the world. This causes universal worry and concern for pastors and church leaders. Most congregations understand that if the offerings or other supplemental sources of income do not pay for the costs of doing ministry, then the congregation will cease to exist as they know it.
This summer I want to put out another set of ideas, another way of assessing our ministry together that does not focus on dollars or attendance or membership but on faithfulness and fruitfulness. These concepts were introduced to me by the NEXT Church—a gathering of Presbyterians working to envision what the PCUSA will look like NEXT. I invite you to consider with me the idea of assessing our ministry together by how well we are cultivating it—by paying attention to how is it producing, to where our fruit is visible in our life together and to the community around us. It is not a new idea, really. We read in the creation story in Genesis that we have been created to be caretakers and cultivators. The first command humans received from God was to be fruitful. Jesus used multiple agricultural metaphors to illustrate God’s kingdom and our calling to participate in the growth of that kingdom here on earth.
We are starting this morning with Jesus’ famous parable about the soil. Listen carefully as the text is read this morning… think about what it is that enables the seed to grow and produce?
The basic message of this parable is obvious to anyone who gardens or tends a lawn. Seed scattered on rocky, thorny or hard soil does not produce lasting fruit. None of those environments are conducive to fruitbearing. Jesus tells his listeners that the seed is the word about the kingdom of God and the human hearers are the soil. In order to produce and bear good and abundant fruit, the soil conditions must be right.
I remember the efforts my dad made to grow grass on our front yard when I was growing up. He would put down seed, cover it with that cheesecloth, build a little temporary fence to try to keep people off the seeded area, and water it faithfully. But our yard was under several big shady pine trees. One strike against it. And our yard was a place to play, so once the little blades of grass tried to grow they often got trampled by football players and water gun users. Two strikes against it. Our yard was usually a non-producer as far as grass went. I think my dad finally gave up on it.
Only the good soil in a place with sufficient sun can produce strong and lasting plants and therefore fruit. Good soil needs to be free from large obstacles, like rocks or weeds, and needs the appropriate nutrients to support life. Really good soil is filled with organisms like worms and other smaller critters that break it down, provide oxygen, and generally create a healthy growing environment. Soil must be tilled, turned over and broken up so that seeds can grow into strong, healthy, fruit producing plants. When the soil is tilled it receives water more efficiently as well. Tilling is hard, dirty work, but it is essential for a crop to produce. When I till my little garden at the beginning of the planting season, I remove the weeds and the stones that have accumulated and chop up any big clods of dirt, trying to give the seeds every possibility of growing strong.
I want to suggest this morning that we take a look at the way we cultivate our ministry together—that is our activities which we do individually and collectively to further Christ’s kingdom—activities that praise God, tell others about God, show God’s love in times of joy and trouble, meet the needs of brothers and sisters outside of our fellowship, or advocate for justice in our society. Our ministry together is worth evaluating, assessing and strengthening so that we may continue to produce good fruit. I want to suggest that we are charged with being cultivators of our ministry together, meaning we have to be intentional, not haphazard, about the ministry we participate in. Our first step is to till the hard packed soil of our regular, traditional church activities and ask ourselves about the impact our activities have on us and on others. For example, what is the fruit that comes from participating in worship? What impact does your presence here today have on the rest of your day or your week? On your attitude at home or at work? On your relationship with your neighbor who keeps the music on too loud and too long? Why do you come? Why do you or do you not invite a friend or family member? Why do we gather in a public space for weekly prayer at the bus stop and rich and sometimes challenging, conversation with coffee on Fridays? If you come to either of those gatherings, why do you come? If you choose not to participate, how do you support those who do?
Perhaps it is time for us to break up our old ideas of measuring success in ministry (counting heads and dollars) and rework the soil, the foundation of who we are. Tilling turns over the hardened layer of soil on the top, loosens the patch of weeds that are taking up valuable surface area, and reveals rocks that are in the way of plant growth. If we turn over the soil and break it up, if we re-look at the why and the “so that” behind our ministry, we will be taking a crucial step in cultivating our ministry, in preparing the way for even greater fruitfulness.
One way to measure fruitfulness is through telling the stories of the impact on people as a result of their connection with this church family. Speaking of the impact of coming to worship, I have a story to share. If you come here often enough, you know that each first Sunday we invite several children to take soup pots around the sanctuary to collect coins and dollars to fight hunger in our community. I am not sure if you have noticed, but there is usually a competition for who gets to carry the pots. The smiles of pride and accomplishment on the faces of the children tell a story. They show that the children feel important, loved and valued by this community of faith. They know they are needed, and I believe their participation has long lasting impact on their lives whether they understand the sermon or the hymns or the prayers. As you support those children with a look of kindness, with the placing of something in their soup pot, with a word of encouragement or even with a “thank you for helping today”, you are bearing fruit, we are bearing fruit.
Each week during this sermon series, I have invited a different person to share one way they have observed God working through Hunting Ridge Presbyterian. My prayer is that we can look together at what God is growing in us, and that we can get better at identifying the fruit which is being produced in many ways, shapes, and sizes. Amen.