Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his field." Matthew 9:37, 38
Last week I planted my garden. On an extremely hot and humid Monday, I sowed potatoes, beans, peas, spinach, and radishes in my garden. I planted broccoli plants, celeriac and tomato plants. Then I prayed for rain which came a couple of days later together with a cold front and an occasional snow flake — this is the North. For those of you who garden, you know that it takes a while for the seed to sprout. Thank God, or the frost would get it! Funny thing about a heavy frost, it kills — both plants in the garden and new people coming to church. When only the minister hugs, calls or visits them, they rarely come back. So they try hugging, but then they forget to keep on hugging. They try calling, but then get preoccupied with their own lives and so forget to call back. They visit, but feel awkward about it. A lifetime of habits do not change easily. So they don't go back. People are like that when they come to church.
In my garden for more than a week nothing seemed to be happening — except that the opportunistic weeds sprouted almost the next day! The garden bed was apparently barren. Nothing but dirt, the odd stone or two, clumps of soil which just sat on the surface stubbornly refusing to be broken into productive soil — like some people who just sit in the pews stubbornly refusing to become productive people. Lifeless.
Growing a church is like growing a garden. Some days it seems as if nothing is happening at all. Some days it feels like the field is barren and dry with only rocks, clumps of dirt, and weeds to show for the effort. Some days working in the church is like planting on a hot, muggy day when the perspiration drips down my face, down my back and dirt clings to it. When I wipe my face, it becomes mud-streaked. The dirt gets on me, in my shoes, on my clothes. Some days a church is "grunge" work.
Then there are those perennially pesky weeds which sap the soil of its nutrients. Those irritants to worship, fellowship and true community producing nothing of value who just take what they need from the church without returning anything for the good of the family of God.
When I gardened, the black flies found me and made my life miserable taking hunks of flesh. Blood ran down my arms and legs. I searched for Caladryl lotion for the itch. Likewise when growing a church, vituperously-tongued people bit with words and wounded. But the soothing, loving words of the faithful, assuage the rawness and promote harmony. They take out the itch.
When working a garden in the heat of the day, I longed for a cool drink of fresh spring water and a dip in a spring-fed lake. But what I did, was go back to tending a seemingly barren garden. Likewise growing a church during the barren times, makes one thirsty for vibrant worship and heartfelt prayers. But what one does is keep on praying, working, and serving.
Then the miracle happened. In the garden sprouts appeared. About seven to fourteen days after planting, the first signs of life breaking through the soil appeared. The first were the radishes. Shallow-rooted. Like some people who come for a time then drop away. Peppery hot, spicy radishes — like some irritating people who are hard to love. Next, one by one, come the peas — they're the sweethearts who come to the church. One pokes its head up here, another there, a third way over yonder. They're so tender and sweet, they're refreshing. Then come the beans — the sturdy people. Stable, independent people. The ones you can count on. Likewise, they first come, one at the end of the second row, another in the middle of the third row, and the next day a couple in the first row. But nothing spectacular. Just one here or there.
People begin to come into the church like that. They come one by one asking for counselling, interacting with the minister, or other members at a fellowship, going for lunch, a walk, calling me up just to say how their day went, asking for prayer. One day they say they are coming to church — and they do, but not right away. One day, I look up to see them walk in. My heart skips a beat. I am conscious of only one emotion. Joy.
One evening, as I check my garden plants to see how they're doing, I discover that several tender shoots have been nipped off. Evidence those pesky crows have struck. Some seedlings die. I put up a scarecrow in the garden fully knowing it will only work for about ten minutes.
One morning a few days after a rain, I look out the upstairs window to see a fully-sprouted green growing garden. It is lush, verdant and productive. The seed appeared dead, but within it was contained the DNA of life. The church appears to be dying or dead, but within it is the Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life. Watered with living water, it raises up in joyous new life. Not just renewal and revival, but resurrection. Abundant life. The largesse of God's love.
Churches grow through hard work, lots and lots of prayer, diligence, more prayer, persistence, and still more prayer, loving the people, and oodles more prayer. Finally after all that effort and prayer, the rains come. The living water of the Holy Spirit deluges God's family, and growth begins to happen by leaps and bounds. We become a growing, productive, happy church.
When Christ looked out over the fields, he saw a harvest past ready for harvesting. When I look over our empty pews, I know the seed is in the ground.
It's a lot like growing a garden.