Of Shade Trees and Fruit Trees

Back in the day when short-term mission ventures were a novelty, I, along with two of my cohorts, received an invitation to speak about one such mission at the morning worship service of an historic denominational church.  The church building itself was lovely with four massive columns at the front, beautiful woodwork on the inside, and a seating capacity for some 400 worshippers. On the morning we were there, the congregation consisted of about thirty-five dear souls, all over the age of sixty-five.

We discovered this was not an anomaly but represented the average attendance of the church, even though the area teemed with homes and apartment complexes. Discussing the situation over lunch that day, the pastor related that the church leaders had concluded there was nothing they could do to effect growth. In short, the church had sunk into a state of ambivalent atrophy. It was not surprising to learn later that this church had closed its doors.

Today, this scenario repeats itself far too frequently. Estimates are that eighty percent of all churches in the United States have plateaued or are in decline. Additional estimates are that roughly 4,000 churches close their doors each year. Experts suggest that we should be starting between 10,000 and 14,000 churches to stem the tide of church decline and closings. Given that the percentage of declining churches is so high, that may seem counter-intuitive. One might reasonably ask, “If the church is in such decline how could it be possible to start so many churches?” Perhaps an example might help here.

In North Central Georgia, there is an established denominational church in the center of a town of about 9,000 people. The church had seemingly ceased growing with respect to attendance and the denomination decided to start a new church in the same area. After meeting in a home for a while, the new church moved to the local high school less than two miles from the established church.

The new church was intentional about two things. First, they purposely sought after unchurched people in the area and second, they committed to serving the community in demonstrable ways. Every week members of the start-up church would be out in the community showing love through acts of kindness and service and building relationships with people.

As new people came into the church, they were encouraged to learn and do the same. This was coupled with the development of small group studies and solid biblical preaching that took the church into an ever-deepening living relationship with Jesus. Within two years, the start-up church had surpassed the attendance of the older church and within five years attendance tripled. Keep in mind, the growth was primarily due to engaging those who were in the community all along but not going to church anywhere.

The two churches in the example above are representative of many I have encountered. I refer to them as “shade tree” churches and “fruit tree” churches. Shade tree churches tend to exist to provide a sanctuary. Their primary focus is internal. They offer a safe place for like-minded people to gather, enjoy one another’s company, escape from the cares of the world, study, play, and worship together. They are happy when others decide to join them. However, only occasionally will they make a concerted effort reach others who have not sought them out first.

On the other hand, fruit tree churches tend to exist to disseminate the gospel and multiply believers. Their primary focus is external. They study, play, and worship together as much as shade tree churches but the priority is on outreach. Additionally, fruit tree churches seem to recognize there is a correlation between depth of their spiritual growth and the achievement of their numerical growth. This results in an expectation that all coming into the fellowship will begin a process of discipleship that will lead to becoming disciplers themselves. Dr. Charles Anderson, Directing Pastor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas, characterizes this process as taking a person from being No Disciple to a New Disciple to a True Disciple and finally to a Trained Discipler.

One can hardly question the validity of being a fruit tree church. The Bible is rife with calls for followers of Jesus to bear fruit. For example, in John 15:5, Jesus reminds us that He is the vine and we are the branches and if we remain in Him and He in us, we will bear much fruit. And in John 15:16, He tells us that He chose us that we might go and bear fruit— fruit that will last.

The good news is that whether your church is a declining church, a plateaued church, or a church wanting to avoid those two, you can begin to become a fruit tree church. The details of how a local church would go about that will vary depending on the culture and context of the church. However, from a broad perspective becoming a fruit tree church will entail the following:

  1. Determine a PurposeThe purpose should serve as the church’s marching orders that reflect a clear expression of why you are doing outreach in your community. It should be written from a Kingdom perspective and most likely will be similar to Jesus’ purpose for coming to live among us.
  2. Design a Plan This is the “how to” of engagement with your community. The plan will serve as a guide for the specific approach to outreach. It will also ensure that outreach will be orderly, reproducible, and sustainable over time.
  3. Develop a PassionOutreach to the community must become a way of life for the entire church. For many in the congregation, this will be a new and even daunting matter. Therefore, preaching, teaching, motivating and later celebrating will be an ongoing need in mobilizing the church. Remember, Jesus called the twelve to be “fishers of men.” Then he spent much of the next three years teaching, demonstrating, and leading them in doing that.

Perhaps many of you reading this will feel your church is in a hopeless situation. You may think you are too old, too tired, lack leadership or opportunity. Do not give up. Even dry bones can live again as God gives breath. The tree can produce fruit.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Unfinished magazine.

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