by Donald A.G. Burling
Spring and summer are a time of growth. Flowers bloom, trees and plants flourish – and so do the weeds. The grass needs continual cutting, if you like to have a lawn looking like a bowling green. The crops on which our lives depend show signs of life as they begin to prepare themselves for harvest.
I have never been much of a gardener – I have been inclined to think of my garden as a conservation area. The front garden had to be kept reasonably tidy as a local amenity; how much or little I did in the back was up to me. Nevertheless I liked to have a vine, a few trees and a fishpond. Sometimes I even tried to grow a few vegetables. Now from my second floor flat I can only look out on the vegetation outside.
Those of us old enough to remember World War 2 (not too many of us now) may recall sheep grazing on cricket grounds, wheat and barley growing in parks and every scrap of land turned into allotments for those who wanted to “dig for victory”. Nowadays with so much of our food imported, the connection between the farm and the table is somewhat obscured. Yet to me it seems incongruous to see a harvest festival display loaded with tins.
Growth is clearly a gift of God; the gardener’s job is to manage it. Often this means removing unwanted growth, by weeding and pruning. Adam was placed in the garden of Eden to tend and care for it, and after he had sinned, sent out to till the ground from which he was taken.
How does this apply to us and our churches? Some churches manage to flourish, but in general we have been through a long period of decline, as old people drop out and younger people do not take their place. We cannot change the culture shift in our society which has turned people away from religion, though we can certainly pray about it. Yet in some churches at least there are small signs of growth as previously unchurched people find their way into our services. Perhaps God is using the Covid scare to make people think about issues of life and death.
Such people, like tender plants, will need care and nurturing. Issues of sin and the need for repentance will need to be faced, but there is a right time and place for that. In talking with a Samaritan woman (John 4) Jesus waited until she enquired about living water before asking her an awkward question. Once established such people may well become keen evangelists.
Outreach is something we obviously ought to be doing, but many Christians are frightened of it. If we pray about it, God may show us there is something else He wants us to sort out first. At any rate, let us remember that it is God who gives the increase, but we are responsible for the groundwork. The growing season will soon be over – let us make the most of it.