-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Nearly a decade ago I sat in a new church retreat. The language had just changed. Instead of calling them “New Church Starts” we were now going to call them “New Church Plants.”
My heart sank. I do not have a green thumb. Throughout the years, I’ve been part of multiple plants being destroyed.
When I was a kid, we tried to grow watermelons on the chewed up stumps in our front yard. The person we paid to mow our lawn ran over our plants not only once, but twice. Eventually, the third time, when Dad informed my sister and me that the cucumber sized watermelon wasn’t going to get much bigger because fall was coming, we pulled it all up, cut the baby up and tried it. (Baby watermelon does taste like cucumber btw. In case you were curious.)
One year for Mother’s Day, the church I was part of decided to give everyone a planted flower. The moment I had one in my possession, it was almost like the flower knew it’s fate. It weakly drooped. Two weeks later, it was dead.
I remember one year the closing gift for High School camp was a cup of dirt with a sunflower seed in it. I was so excited! Sunflowers are probably my absolute favorite flower. I took it home, and was excited to see a plant break through the dirt. For once I wasn’t killing something! Only, there was no sunflower seed in my cup. They had missed mine, and the dirt they gathered was from directly outside. I was growing a weed.
Then there was two years ago, when I found myself subbing a class for an extended period of time. On the teacher's desk was a very small plant, and in her window was a big ivy. One of the students was tasked with watering the ivy. I took on the small plant. As the weeks progressed, I was pleased to see the small plant showed absolutely no signs of dying. It was on my last day I realized why. The plant was fake. I was watering a fake plant.
I hate the language of plants.
I hate comparing church starts to plants. The top reason is my absolutely black thumb. If the stories above don’t convince you, those are just the easiest ones to tell. I’ve also failed helping my daughter grow plants. Those stories either end in the plant shriveling up and dying, or a chipmunk eating it up. It has left me, someone with a new church plant, feeling completely demoralized. Every time another one bites the dust, I say the same prayer to God: “Well God, there you go. I killed another one. Why am I called to be a church planter again? You sure about this?”
The other reason I hate the language of plants is because of what it has come to mean.
I’ve written multiple times about “grafting.” Grafting is when you take a sturdy trunk and cut off it’s limbs. You then attach the limbs of a good fruit tree, so you control what the plant produces. It’s been used to produce apples for centuries, but this technique is not limited to apples.
The reason I hate the language of plants is most American church plants are grafted. God plants the seed in someone’s heart. The seed takes root. The plant begins to grow. When the Church feels the plant has grown enough they (oh so lovingly) hack off it’s limbs and replaces it with their limbs. Basically, they use the new Church’s tap into the Spirit, to grow their dying fruit. In the 90’s it was great! We all wanted copy/paste church. In the Aughts it was okay. After all, we found the fruit of modern music, so it was different enough to get by. By the teens it stopped working.
Why did it stop working? Two reasons:
First: the church was/is dying. They had to be more selective about which plants they were going to steal Spirit from. Therefore, not only did they selectively choose which new plants to fertilize, they stopped fertilizing a large group of new plants. When these unfertilized plants begin to shrivel and die it was seen as a sign that they shouldn’t have existed to begin with, instead of the realization that they were never given the chance to thrive. (Fig Tree came with it’s own fertilizer, which is why it has become the little plant that could.)
Second: The churches that are dying started to grow selfish. “Why are we supporting new plants when there are plenty of older churches that need support?” I think I’ve heard enough Christians say that exact line that I can no longer tell you how many times I’ve heard it. Worse than this, I don’t think they know their own selfishness. The ship is sinking. Of course they want to live, and they are (in their obvious fears) willing to sacrifice the future in order to live now. It completely lacks the trust in God, and what God does with death. (It’s also bad theology that spent generations skipping over the subject of death all together.)
Last School Year I Was Given Plants.
I still can’t wrap my mind around this previous school year. I can’t really talk about it, because unless you were there, you just don’t understand. Let me just say, I am incredibly fortunate to be in a school where I can be completely helpful, and I’m appreciated for that help.
During teacher appreciation week (where us subs in the lowest tier are usually completely dismissed), I was given gifts for everything I did. Part of those gifts were two plants. One a cactus, and the other the beginnings of a rose bush.
I loved those plants, but I immediately feared for their safety. This was me, afterall. I’m the destroyer of plants. The abuser of chlorophyll. They would never have a chance, even a cactus.
I took them home, gave them water, and said a prayer.
They both began to die. Of course.
I lamented my problem with some friends, and one gave me this advice. “Stop doing so much to them. Put the roses outside where they belong, and don’t over water the cactus.”
The next day I took the roses outside to the front garden, dug in a whole, broke up the soil, and buried it.
As the days progressed my husband told me he didn’t think the roses were going to make it. He said the flowers were dying. Only I was seeing something different. Sure, the roses themselves were dying. It was no longer spring. The leaves were different. They were growing richer and greener by the day. I watered it each afternoon, and left it alone. I had given it to God. In return, it was taking root and accepting its new home.
The cactus was the same. As I stepped back, it grew stronger. It appeared, for these two plants, what they needed the most from me was trust.
Which brought me back to Fig Tree. Fig Tree is the little plant that just won’t die. I’ve cried over her, and I’ve seen potential growth whither up, but I have not seen death. Even when it seems so emanant, she persists. I don’t think God gave me the seed I was expecting, you know, like a gorgeous sunflower. Others didn’t think I got the seed they expected either. Sometimes we’ve been looked at like a weed. I went places where the sun doesn’t always shine; and wouldn’t always get the attention and focus.
Really, what has kept Fig Tree alive is trust. God gave me a seed, AND believed I wouldn’t kill it. God trusted me, and now I must trust God. That sounds really simple, but when you don’t trust yourself, it’s actually super hard. When it all comes down to it, the biggest way you can learn to trust what God gives you, is to find trust in yourself first. God has plans, and God’s plans are bigger than our plans.
Could I still fail. Yes.
Could others cause failure. Absolutely.
It's just saying, God is there, and trusts us enough to hand us new life.
It should fill us with hope. From hope springs new life.