We bought a cherry tree about five years ago. We only have a small lot but we love cherries, and I like to grow things. We waited until the fall when the few rejected trees at Rite Aid were on sale.
Our poor tree struggled to survive. Deer ate most of its branches and leaves while it was still in the pot. Nonetheless we planted it and amazingly it survived the winter, producing fine new branches and leaves the next spring. But again the deer found their way back into our back yard and they again stripped our poor cherry tree bare. It must have an extremely persevering spirit for it again produced some leaves, survived the summer, and grew again the following spring. It helped considerably when we fenced our back yard!
The tree has grown tall (about fifteen feet) and luxuriant but has yet to produce more than a few cherries. A few years ago I noticed that our tree was exuding an amber, gummy substance from several places on the trunk and branches. I discovered that my tree was infected with a bacterial canker, sometimes known as gummosis. Little hope was held out for my tree—most sources suggested that death was the only option.
I am stubborn! Why cut down such a large, beautiful tree if it could be saved? I read as much as I could and started upon a plan of revitalization. I avoided pruning, applied a liberal amount of fertilizer, as well as applying a lot of lime. I embarked upon the correct schedule of spraying copper—no mean feat with my travel schedule. This summer I will limit watering—one possible cause of gummosis is wet soil. Right now the tree is covered with cherries and the gummosis appears to be mostly gone. I am in hopes of a harvest.
I feel like the vineyard-keeper must have felt in the parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-7! I wonder if he was successful in revitalizing the fig tree.
I thought of my efforts with our cherry tree, the parable of the fig tree, and the ministry of Village Missions as I recently read the 9Marks Journal (November-December 2011). Josh Gard, a Village Missionary, sent it to me some time ago but I just read it on a recent flight. The title of the Journal is “Revitalize: Why We Must Reclaim Dying Churches—and How.” You can find it by clicking on this link or by going to http://www.9marks.org/ and looking for the Nov-Dec 2011 issue under “Articles and Reviews.”
Finally someone was affirming the importance of what we do in Village Missions! So often the belief in Christian circles seems to be “Let dying churches die and start something new and fresh!” Cut down that tree and plant something different! The editor introduces the topic by writing:
Church planting is a great thing, and there’s no need to take anything away from it. But there should also be a default setting in a Christian’s heart that always longs to see dying churches revitalized. It’s not like the debate in your head about whether to fork over $2000 to the mechanic to fix your clunker of a car or to just buy a new one. It’s more like a decision about whether to walk away from a dear but difficult relationship. Our hearts should never want to do that, even if once in a great while we must.
In an article by Bobby Jamieson entitled “The Bible’s Burden for Church Revitalization,” an excellent Scriptural case is made for church revitalization. One argument for revitalization is that God’s people bear God’s name. Concern for the honor of His Name should motivate us to revitalize a church. Writes Jamieson:
So a concern for the name of God, which he has placed upon his people—and upon their corporate gatherings in a special sense (Mt. 18:20)—should move us to reform and revitalize churches. As Mark Dever has so often said, church revitalization is a kingdom two-for-one. You tear down a bad witness and set up a good one in its place
However, every article in the Journal makes the case for church revitalization in the suburban or urban context. The case for church revitalization is so much stronger in the rural context!
First, in many places where Village Missions serves if the church dies, the presence of the Gospel dies with it. The Christians may travel somewhere else to attend church but the non-Christians will not. Generations will grow up without any meaningful knowledge of Jesus Christ. Seeing a church turned into an antique store in a location where there is another church is somewhat disturbing. Seeing a church turned into an antique store where no other church exists sends a chill through the committed believer’s soul.
Second, the impact both of a dying church and a revitalized church is magnified in a rural community. People in a rural community don’t just see a rundown, fairly empty building—they know the people in that building and their history. They probably know what brought that church to its current sad state. They will also know equally as well when Jesus begins to bring life back. They will know each individual story of a changed life and will directly interact with that life. They and their children will personally benefit when a church body is doing its kingdom work and shining the Gospel light in the community. Village Missions has seen this happen in thousands of communities since 1948!
Third, when rural churches languish a disproportionate impact occurs on the entire church. Rural churches have traditionally produced 75% of pastors and missionaries and have been the most faithful in supporting those missionaries. One only has to visit a rural church to see why. Visit a rural church and you will see the young people actively involved in ministry. You will see intergenerational influence and mentoring. I watched recently as at least two older ladies participated with children under ten in a water balloon toss! One of those ladies ran up to a teenager and doused him with a bucket of water! That same teenager played the piano for the worship service. If you would like to see pictures of these folks click on this link. Committed followers of Christ are made in the context of such intergenerational fun and support!
Fourth, a community inordinately suffers when the church dies. Most rural communities lack the social services suburban and urban residents take for granted. In the community we served in Red Feather Lakes, CO we were fifty miles away from such services. For example, we started a food distribution program that continues today. When the church closes or is dying, people have no place to turn to for help.
Fifth, a rural church may be in need of revitalization through no fault of its own. Young pastors will simply view the rural church as a steppingstone—a place to gain experience before moving on to the situation and place they want to be. Writes David Hansen in his wonderful book, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All the Answers
Ladder-climbers destroy churches. There is a crisis in the small churches in our country. Many of these churches are weak, ingrown, and damaged. Many do not trust pastors. They have never known a pastor’s love; they have only known a pastor’s lust. They have been simply rungs on the climb to success. These churches are so accustomed to being used by pastors that they never learn how to love a pastor. They have been courted and jilted time and time again. They learn not to trust. They punish pastors. Pastors willing to engage small churches in long-term, substantial ministry can teach these churches to love and trust pastors again, but it’s hard work.” (Hansen 1994, 69)
What an opportunity we have to send a couple who is called and committed to the rural church—who desires nothing more than to “Preach the Word and love the people!”
The rural church, like our cherry tree, has had a hard past. But what a potential for fruit if someone will care!