The season for pruning

Monday, 18 July, 2011

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

Any gardener knows that there is little point in planting if you are not also willing to prune at the right season. Churches and denominations find it far easier to start things than to stop them. 'As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be' is not just part of a prayer, it has become a way of life. But Jesus spoke of the Father removing branches that bear no fruit and pruning those that bore fruit so that they would bear more.

Concerning church planting, Professor Robin Gill wrote,

A more pro-active policy of pruning and planting should be encouraged. Simply pruning induces decline, but simply planting leaves intact the long-standing excess of churches and chapels... both pruning and planting are needed for effective numerical growth across denominations.

In practice all denominations are pruning at the moment, not pruning local churches, which is neither easy nor desirable unless the situation is completely unsustainable. But pruning budgets and posts, linking groups of churches together under one minister etc. In such a climate it is very difficult to introduce new claims on limited funds. But simply to readjust shrinking resources to keep as much of the show on the road as possible is a recipe for continued decline. As the Archbishop of Adelaide said to me,

More of the same just means less of the same.

The hard choices are about what to prioritize. The choice may be between sustaining what we have, while hoping to find a little for new work, or giving first priority to the re-evangelisation of our nation.

If we wish to see growth we will have to choose the latter. The key resource and dominant item in any denominational budget is stipends or salaries and the ministers they support. Are we willing to give financial priority to deploying clergy who can either lead an inherited model of church into growth, or pioneer the planting of fresh expressions? Can we give attention to the whole mission field, not just those we already have in church, invest our resources in the future, and give special priority to those who have a track record in winning new disciples and engaging them in holistic mission?

We need to prune back the bureaucracy which clings like ivy around historic denominations, to develop more enabling and relational processes of releasing and authorizing ministry, and mission. The most significant resource, hidden by denominational budgets and clerical attitudes, is the laity. If our nations are to be re-evangelized it will mainly be non-ordained Christians who do it. We need procedures to authorize local and regional lay initiatives, which are low on control, but high accountability.

The real challenge of pruning is not removing dead branches, it is pruning fruitful work so that it becomes even more fruitful. We need to move away from a culture where we assume that the unavoidable task is to keep as much as we have been doing going for as long as possible. Such a policy inevitably leads to 'last in first out' when resources shrink. Rather we need a culture which reviews each aspect of work regularly, asking whether it still fulfils the purpose for which it was established, and whether other work now has greater priority. I cannot think of a greater priority, for our work at home, than the re-evangelisation of our nations.

It really is possible to live as a light touch, pruned back church, without becoming church lite! Archbishop Rowan recently returned from Africa. He told the General Synod that,

What is special about places like Congo and Sudan is a Church with negligible administrative structures and no historic resources working with such prolific energy. "Silver and gold have I none"...

Is it time to get out the secateurs?



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