lockdown lessons no.1: gardening the church

I don’t want to appear critical of any of my predecessors, but my Vicarage garden hasn’t been tackled for at least ten years. Probably because we Vicars don’t have the time, or think we don’t. Not being a natural gardener myself, in previous years I have half-heartedly tinkered around and tidied up, but ‘Lockdown’ has been the perfect opportunity for me to attempt to really get to grips with it, aided by the good weather.

I have started by cutting back, or pruning on a big scale. Over the last ten years or so shrubs and bushes have grown to such an extent that they have grown over and overshadowed much of the front garden.

Cutting back the Vicarage garden has got me thinking about church life, and growth.

The mantra coming out of the generic ‘Church HQ’ in recent weeks has been along the lines of ‘Church is changing. Get ready for the new normal’. Personally I don’t think its a ‘new’ church we need, more that we need to rediscover the Church we were supposed to be in the first place. Its a process which requires ‘cutting back’, forced upon us in this instance by the Coronavirus Crisis. A Kairos moment of opportunity perhaps?

Continuing the ‘church as a garden’ analogy, we might want to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How overgrown is our church?
  • When was the last time we cut it back?
  • Have we tried in the past to get to grips with the overgrowth (and undergrowth), only to give up demoralised because it feels too much like hard work?
  • Are we merely content with tidying up and maintaining appearances?
  • Have we allowed more established and stronger plants to dominate to the detriment of smaller weaker species?
  • Has this overgrowth blocked out the sunlight, depriving our garden church of nutrients and damaging its soil?

Garden Churches

Jesus told a gardening story (in fact he told a few), known as the Parable of the Sower. It can be interpreted as a story of four gardens, or four churches.

And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him [Jesus] from every city, He spoke by a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Luke 8:4-15 

The first church in our story is ‘The Wayside Fellowship’. You could say that this is not really a church. Not yet. There’s no real soil. Just a path. Uncultivated. Shallow. Lacking depth. Its people can’t take root, and are vulnerable to being walked over and victim to predators.

Let’s call the second church ‘St Onyrock’. Here people can take root. For a while anyway. But its a hard place, and the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit can’t get through its rocky ground. The people grow tired and wither.

Next there is ‘Thornyground Gospel Hall’. A long-standing established church which hasn’t been tended for a while. Its message and practice is often sharp, barbed and suffocating.

Lastly (but not least-ly) we have the Church of the Good Soil. Good soil is Good News. Deep. Rich (in character). Mature. And fruitful.

Here’s the thing. It is altogether possible for the first three – unfruitful – churches to become ‘Good Soil’ churches. Paths can be cultivated, rocks can be removed, and thorns pulled out, such as I have been doing in the Vicarage garden over the last few weeks.

Mark’s Gospel has the Church of the Good Soil yielding “a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4: 8).

‘Good Soil’ churches are not all the same size, numerically speaking. Big is not always best, and great not always good (believe me, I’ve been there). Good churches vary in size, from small (30) to medium (60) to large (100 plus). Size is not the issue here. Increase and productivity are. Some of the most beautiful gardens I have seen have been balcony and window box gardens, and some of the most beautiful ‘churches’ I have known have gathered in a living room and in a workplace canteen.

Lockdown has been an opportune time to tackle the Vicarage garden. The thing is though, I now have to maintain and sustain it. Enrich the soil. Keep the brambles at bay. Plant new seedlings (Mags bought some today from B&Q). It would be so easy to let it fall back into disrepair.

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