“…and he cursed that tree!” – Views from a Sabbatical

When I last had a Sabbatical, some seven years ago, I took with me twenty or so books about church growth and renewal.  My expectation was to distil from this collection something of the essence of church growth and then I wanted to make this distillation available to lay leaders by writing some sort of guide to growth. 

In the event, while I read or dipped into my collection, the most valuable aid to my thinking came from a fig tree outside the house where I was staying. I have never really noticed fig trees, even though I have lived in the Middle East.  What I discovered, through closer and consistent observation, has proved both invaluable and, I suspect, subversive.

When I arrived, the tree looked magnificent, with leaves of a dimension that could cope with any Adam.  The fruit was forming, although still bright green and firm.  What I had not realised was how sterile a fig tree could be in terms of other life – in terms of birds and insects.

As the summer moved on and the fruit ripened, the tree developed a community of its own – a community drawn to the fruit.  There were insects and birds eating the fruit, birds eating the insects and birds eating other birds.  Inevitably, my mind was drawn to the passages in Mark and Matthew where Jesus goes to a fig tree looking for fruit, finds none, and curses the tree so that it withers and dies.[1] It is a rich image in the Gospels which both evangelists associate with the cleansing of the temple.  This is an episode in Jesus’ ministry which makes little sense unless we understand it in terms of Jesus’ response to Israel.

Israel, with so much potential for responding to God’s desire to engage with His creation, had let God down.  The cursing of the fig tree and other episodes such as the clearing of the temple and Jesus’ turning water into wine, speak of God moving on in the person of Jesus – the new wine of God’s relationship with the Created.   God’s agenda was not to be held back by the Jewish religiosity of the time which produced vast amounts of religious leaves – but when those hungry for God reached into those leaves, there was nothing there.  It was all leaf.

Observing the fig tree, I realised that as the fruit was eaten or fell to the ground, the vibrant community which had gathered and established itself, disappeared with the fruit. The tree became very dull – still plenty of leaves but very dull.  It reminded me that religious systems can look very dull.  The danger for a Church is that it can be all leaf.  It may ‘look the part’ on the human landscape but it may in fact be fruitless – and God moves on.  It is fruit that reveals God’s relationship with his creation, and the religiosity, the system and the structure of Judaism, had let God down – and Jesus cursed that tree.

As I reflected on my fig tree, I could not help but see the danger for the Church in our age.  It can be good at producing leaves of religiosity: reports from Synod; new liturgy; umpteen commissions and renewal schemes – but where is the fruit?  With this in my mind, as I studied church growth, I found I was frequently reading about institutional survival.  This was true even of material from the evangelically minded independent churches.  When we talk about growth, we’re usually talking about more members for the institution, and fruitfulness comes a long way down the list of what the Church might offer to the world.

In a tree there is an essential balance between leaves and fruit. Leaves are essential for the production of fruit.  They are essential for the health of the whole tree, but they are not the purpose of the tree.  There is a delicate balance between the need for a tree to have the structure and mechanisms needed to give it life, and the fruit, which is the purpose and future of the tree.  We talk about how to ‘grow’ the church but we are caught up with a conversation about institution and ‘leaves’.  Yet without fruit how dull the tree is – no community, no vibrancy of life, nothing for those who hunger. The question hangs there: ‘what is its purpose?’

When I recognised the dullness of a fruitless tree, I recalled the rubber plants and cheese plants of the 1960s and 70s.  In truth, they were very dull plants, but we tenderly cared for these monsters growing in our living rooms. We bought bottles of leaf shine, so that with leaves carefully polished they looked splendid, but actually they continued to be very dull plants.  For me, it sometimes feels that much of what we do in the Church is actually polishing leaves!

When put like this, it is easy for us to take the religious high ground and reckon that whilst this may be true for some parts of the institution, it is never true for us because we are about fruit.  However, the danger with a greedy institution like the Church is that we may spend more time arranging or polishing leaves, than actually focusing on how we can be fruitful for God in our generation.  Indeed, where there is passion in the Church, it is frequently involved with structures and organisation, rather than with the quality of the fruit we might offer to God and his creation.

In trying to understand this preoccupation with shining leaves, I was drawn back to Gareth Morgan’s book Images of Organisation.[2] In his work, Morgan offers insights into how organisations operate.  He offers useful metaphors to illuminate our understanding of an organisation and how it works.  He draws on a number of models: machines; political systems; brains – but it is his description of an organisation being a ‘psychic prison’ that has particularly fed my understanding.  He describes psychic prisons as organisations with conscious and unconscious processes, which establish a dependency of those within the organisation, upon the organisation itself.  Psychic prisons are dominated by the ego of a leader and do much to boost that ego.  An organisation which has become a psychic prison is characterised by denial of reality. This can lead to a received way of working being justified because it is peculiar to that organisation.  Organisations which are psychic prisons have coping and defence mechanisms which they employ in order to avoid change, and it may well be that such organisations would prefer to draw on reserves to maintain a status quo rather than invest in a new future.  Organisations which have become psychic prisons are aware that they are dysfunctional in the way they work, employ people and organise themselves – but even so, argue passionately that this is not the case.  Morgan goes on to suggest that psychic prisons encourage and even subconsciously demand a ‘workaholism’ at every level of their operation.

I have never read a clearer exposition of the institution which we, as a Church, have become.  Personally, I feel caught in such a prison.  We may talk about fruitfulness but we actually live in a world of structures and committees, doctrine and dogma – all wonderful leaves – but where is the fruit?  And Jesus cursed that tree. The danger with psychic prisons can be that they produce the sort of attitude which celebrates activity without asking whether or not the activity is productive.

It would be easy to run away with this metaphor but I found it a helpful insight into why we are simply not connecting with the majority of the people who live in each and every community.  We avoid the essential questions:

  • What keeps people from being actively involved with the Church?
  • Are people rejecting the Gospel or are they rejecting the Church which proclaims that Gospel?
  • What do we have to offer people that tangibly enriches their experience of life?

We may try to avoid such questions through our busyness or our attention to matters liturgical, doctrinal or theological, but the question remains and it needs answering.  In the end, no amount of leaf shine will polish away such questions and, if we avoid them, there is ever the possibility that God will move on.

There is a momentum to the Church and an internal life in which one can live and have one’s being.  They are a momentum and life which can allow the hard questions to be avoided.  Three months’ reflection have led me to conclude that things cannot be left as they are.  The questions need to be addressed, not for institutional survival, but because they are questions which go to the heart of the Church’s vocation.

Those in leadership within the Church have to use their position to focus on the hard questions because vision, pace and direction come from the answers we discover to those questions.  This is true for every level of leadership within the Church – both lay and ordained.  The most effective place for such issues to be addressed is at the local level, but they will only be explored there if they are also central to the conversation of those with a ministry of oversight. The quality of leadership in the Church should be judged not by popularity or grand plans, but by a willingness to address questions about purpose, direction and fruitfulness.  These three criteria are there for Christian leaders because they are to be found in and characterise the leadership and ministry of Jesus.[3]

The walls of our psychic prison can, however, so dominate our thinking and perspective that we lose touch with our imaginative ability to envision a fruitful church.  What would a fruitful church look like?  Which characteristics would authenticate its activity?  How would we recognise its fruitfulness in Kingdom terms, rather than by institutional success?

In my more catholic reading this summer, I delved into a book called Timeless Management by Coppin and Barratt.[4] As these two authors consider the essential features of management, they remind their readers of fundamental spiritual needs which people have and which will enrich people’s work experience.  These needs stand alongside other needs such as being paid, being housed and being warm, etc. Coppin and Barratt focus these needs into four areas:

a)                  the need to belong

b)                  the need to feel important

c)                  the need to be understood

d)                 the need to be comfortable.

Whilst Coppin and Barratt are concerned with the world of employment, it does not take much lateral thought to identify such spiritual needs as being fundamental to enriching the experience of life of all people.  When we consider these four needs, the question arises, ‘don’t they correspond to those things that Jesus was offering?’  Jesus did not work towards a system of faith but reached out to the essential spiritual needs in each and every person made in the image of God:

a)                  the need to belong, because we are made in the image of God and therefore are part of God’s community

b)                  the need to be important because we are essential in the heart and mind of God

c)                  the need to be understood because we are each unique and, in being understood, our true nature and distinctive identity come through

d)                 the need to be comfortable so that we can be open to being challenged to use our freedom creatively after the image of the Creator.

If we are looking for the marks of a fruitful church, they will not be found in a successful system, for the world is full of systems and the problem with them is that they turn people into anonymous cogs in the systematic wheel.  Fruitfulness comes when the Church actually recognises that it has a mission:

a)                  to make people feel that they belong – so that inclusion is not a political slogan but the reality of human condition

b)                  to make people feel important, not so that they can fill our pews but because God loves them without condition

c)                  to understand people and their cultures – giving them the dignity of our response in the same way that the incarnation of Jesus Christ dignified humanity as God came among us

d)                 to enable people to feel comfortable in a world which is increasingly uncomfortable because we are driven by ambition and success, by globalisation and the profit motive – comfortable and self-confident enough to be challenged by the Gospel that we proclaim.

So often, what passes for church growth is actually institutional growth and, as we read the Gospels, we have to ask ourselves the question, ‘did Christ come that we might have a religious system or that we might be fruitful in the cause of the Kingdom of God?’.

The Jesus who says, ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ is a Christ who wishes to add value to the experience of being human, to enhance our span on earth, to enrich this great experience of being alive.  When Jesus touched the lepers or opened the eyes of the blind, those to whom he ministered had their lives enriched because the Kingdom of God had come close.

Jesus made things happen.  It was not a theory of change or a proclamation of possibility, but an actual experience for those who encountered him.  The eyes of the blind were opened; the mouths of the dumb were released; the ears of the deaf were unstopped; those who had been marginalized by the prevailing religious system were brought back into community; the forgiven were brought into companionship with Jesus.

The explosion of Christianity from its Jewish cradle happened because the fruit it offered was tangible and life changing.  It was only later that Christians began to understand the need to structure their life theologically, philosophically and organisationally – giving consistency and coherence to the fruitful experience of lives being changed because the Kingdom of God had come close.

The reality that Christian people need to be organised and structured in their response to God and in their ministry to the world cannot be avoided. The models for organisation with which we work, however, frequently find their roots in the political systems through which Christianity has journeyed.  Their tendency is to produce plenty of leaf, leaving each generation to search for fruit and draw its own conclusion about how much its hunger is satisfied.

It may be that it is time for a new model upon which to base our organisation as a Christian community.  A good starting point for discovering such a model would surely be with the Holy Trinity.  In exploring this possibility I looked at the work of three contemporary authors exploring the doctrine of the Trinity.  Volf[5], Zizioulas[6] and Fiddes[7] each approach the Trinity from very different theological perspectives.  Yet I found a commonality in their work as they each explore the possibility that as Christians we are invited to participate within the Trinity.  The great privilege in the mystery of our faith is that we are invited to participate in life of the Godhead.  This is a rich seam of mystery and possibility, with both individual and corporate application.  The inner life of the Trinity, however, has its expression in fruitfulness – in creation, in redemption and in transforming energy.  A fruitful church is one whose energy is focused and released into being creative and redemptive within its local community, and which is tangibly engaged with people’s lives – not as a formula for growth, but as an expression of the God we worship.

Volf suggests that Trinity is an institution, because it is a stable structure of social interaction.[8] I would suggest that it is this stability of relationship which enables its ministry and fruitfulness.  However, if the Trinity is an institution, then it is one with a very light touch, for it organises itself to respect the boundaries without allowing the apparatus of the institution to be confused with the Godhead.  The Trinity is to be known and experienced through relationships and fruitfulness, not because it surrounds itself with the apparatus of its internal organisation.  Indeed, any such internal organisation is so ‘light touch’ that it becomes part of the mystery into which we search.

If we are invited, as Christians, to participate in the fruitfulness of the Trinity, then a preoccupation with organisation and structure constitutes a worrying blasphemy.  If the experience of being human is to be invited to participate within the Trinity, then our structures must reflect that invitation and have that ‘lightness of touch’ which enables our energy to be focused into being bearers of fruit.

This is an issue for leadership because, too often, where the leader’s attention is focused becomes the focus of attention for the community they lead.  Returning to Morgan’s analogy – if we are in a psychic prison then only effective leadership will break through the walls of our incarceration and into a fresh understanding of how to be the people of God.

Unless we are fruitful, then where is our purpose?  If we are seen to be shining leaves and if such activity is seen to be the priority for those in leadership, whether they be Bishop, Priest, Deacon or Lay Leader, then that preoccupation could be mistaken as being the essence of what the Church is about.  Most worryingly, a heavily institutional Church has the tendency to gather those who enjoy the process of being Church with very little regard for the fruitfulness of that Church.  Church organisations which are peopled by those who enjoy committees, who are fed by ecclesiastical politics and those who protect themselves from risk through an appeal to legalism, make for unattractive communities within the wider setting of life.

I set out to discover more about church growth.  In the event, my reflection has been dominated by the need for us to be fruitful and to recover the balance between the leaves we need in order to be a healthy organisation and the fruit which is our purpose.  The danger is that there is too little fruit for the lost, for the downtrodden, for the widows and orphans, for the lepers, for those who are spiritually hungry in our age.  Growth needs to be founded in our ‘fruitfulness’, as we engage with the world and seek to transform people’s lives through engagement with our communities.  Such ‘fruitful growth’, would enable the focus and thrust of ministry to be beyond the gathered congregation to enable people to belong, to feel important, to be understood and to be comfortable within themselves as they encounter the mystery of God’s love through what they experience, rather than through teaching, religious discourse or the institution of the Church.

We know that if we simply concentrate on making a contribution to an arboretum of Christian religiosity, then the danger is that Jesus will curse our tree.  Yet, if we work for fruitfulness, then the growth of the Church is enduring, for it brings rich blessings to people, enriching their lives as they relish the experience of being human – discovering that the have been made in the image of God.

[1] Mark 11:12-14 and Matthew 21:18-19

[2] Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organisation, Sage, 1986/1997.

[3] See Adair, John; The Leadership of Jesus; Canterbury Press 2001  pages 91ff

[4] Coppin, Alan and Barratt, John; Timeless Management; Palgrave Macmillian 2002

[5] Volf, Miroslav; After Our Likeness; Erdmans 1998

[6] Zizioulas, John; Being as Communion; SVS Press 1985

[7] Fiddes, Paul; Participating in God; DLT 2000

[8] Volf, After Our Likeness; page 235

One Response to “…and he cursed that tree!” – Views from a Sabbatical

  1. I concur with every word you say!
    Coppin and Barratt’s four areas of need were met in my own patch when we hosted four consecutive weeks of 24-7 prayer. People felt they belonged because they were part of something greater than themselves which required their personal commitment; they were important because they made a unique contribution to the unbroken chain of prayer; they felt understood because they were offered a whole range of different prayer resources to explore and discover their own spirituality; and they felt comfortable enough to move from the “feelgood factor” to a sense of calling in mission. This all seems to resonate with your quest for fruitfulness and growth!

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