Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Wines, not vines

A CHRISTIAN magazine publisher I knew once grumbled that his staff must be doing a bad job because circulation wasn’t rising and “healthy things grow.”

Well, yes and no. People stop getting taller after a certain age, unless there’s something wrong with them. Their less measurable qualities—intelligence, self-awareness, and compassion, for instance—can continue to increase.

Then there are weeds and cancer cells. They grow, but that’s hardly positive.

So simply equating an increase in size and scale with success seems to have its limits. Bigger is not necessarily better. Sometimes less is more.

That’s why Jesus spoke about the importance of pruning—not something I have seen much reference to in all the church growth materials out there.

In His Last Supper address, Jesus warned that those who bear fruit for God will be pruned, so that they can bear more fruit (John 15:2).

By bean-counting standards this seems backward, but that’s only if you are looking at the wrong measure. The point of the vineyard is to produce the best wine, not the biggest vines. Quality, not just quantity.

Wine enthusiast Laura Burgess observes how it works in a blog about the process:

Restricting a vine’s growth might sound frivolous—growers want maximum grapes, right?—until you discover that grapevines are insanely vigorous. Without careful pruning—by which I mean aggressive hacking—vines quickly descend from manicured, productive cash crops to wild, tangled bushes. Messy bushes yield far fewer grapes than their picture perfect counterparts, making timely and efficient pruning critical.

Like a motivational pep talk from a best friend, pruners help a vine focus on its successful areas, and literally remove distracting small branches.

While Jesus was primarily speaking about individuals, His words also seem to have relevance for the church and other Christian organizations. It makes me wonder how many pastors and ministry leaders have lost their way by focusing on the wrong thing.

When the seats are full and giving is up it’s easy to keep adding programs. While they seem like a good idea, that may not be the case. When Jesus talked about pruning, it was in the search for fruitfulness, not fame.

The true measure of a successful church might not be the size of its vines but the sweetness of its wines. Not in how many people are there on Sunday, but how they impact the community they live in throughout the rest of the week. Influence, not attendance. Outcome, not income.

Counter-intuitive though it may be, the best question a growing church might ask itself may not be “What more should we be doing?”, but “What should we stop doing?”

Photo by StefZ on Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND

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