At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9
This passage from Luke, which includes the Parable of the Fig Tree, is a good one to hear and consider during Lent. It’s a sobering reminder that as followers of Jesus, our lives need to reflect repentance and the producing of good fruit that God expects of us. This parable is often used to think about our individual lives – as we examine ourselves, personally, during Lent and other times of the year. That’s important, but I want to suggest that this text has a larger, more communal message, too; a message for the Church at large. It isn’t anything radical to say that as the Church, the Body of Christ, we’re expected to bear the fruit that Christ established it to produce in the world; and if we don’t, there will come some time of accountability – some time when we’re cut down, as it’s portrayed in the parable, and replaced with something more productive.
If the fruit that we’re expected to produce is to express and illustrate God’s love and good news, and to let more and more people see and understand and know that love – and I think that’s a pretty safe assumption – then it’s no secret that most American churches are failing miserably at that task. For several generations now, church membership and attendance, across all denominations, is in numerical decline. That would be bad enough if the overall population had stayed constant, but of course, it’s increased dramatically, making the actual percentage of the population who are churchgoers even smaller and less significant. Overall, the ways that we’ve been proclaiming the gospel through our worship, our words, and our actions, have failed because we’ve locked ourselves into ways of being the Church, and proclaiming that gospel, in ways that resonate with an increasingly smaller and smaller sliver of the population. Many congregations have already folded. Many other congregations have already crossed the point of no return, their failure guaranteed because they’ve failed to produce good fruit for too long. Many others are very near that point.
We’re not exempt from this danger here in this congregation, either. To be blunt, if nothing changes, this congregation is no more than a generation away from unsustainability, and it doesn’t do any good to ignore it. Look at our internal demographics. A substantial block of our membership is more than 55 years old. Look around this morning and think, in just 20 or 25 years, just how many of the people here this morning will sadly have passed away, or will be in assisted living centers or nursing homes or otherwise a shut-in, and no longer a very active member of our week-to-week life as the church? And while we’ve certainly attracted some younger members – frankly, we’ve done better than a lot of other congregations – it’s still nowhere near the rate that would be needed to replace those who will no longer be here in just that short a timeframe. Our new, younger membership isn’t sufficient for us to even maintain where we are now, let alone bear fruit by growing in proportion to the population.
This isn’t complicated. We can all see that this is an unsustainable model for survival, let alone growth as a church. We simply are not bearing the fruit that God established us for, and expects from us. So why are things this way? I suggest it’s because we’re simply not living as people of the kingdom of God in ways that resonate in the hearts of the people around us.
With a few excellent and notable exceptions, we do very little structured, hands-on mission work that’s congregationally sponsored, which is actually one of the foremost ways that many people today, young and not-so-young, tap into and express their spirituality. We’re very proud of our official Welcoming Statement, and we should be, but in reality it’s a passive thing – we’re waiting for someone else to take actions in order to solve our problem of a lack of diversity. We’ve done very little to proactively improve the diversity of our Sunday morning worship.
And when it comes to that worship, to be honest, I think that what it is that we do, we do very well – better than a lot of congregations – and we’ve made steps to make our worship even better. The problem, though, is that sometimes, simply doing what you’ve been doing better, even if you do it better than anyone else, isn’t enough. You might make the best buggy whip in the world, but that isn’t going to do anything to increase demand for it. And the reality is that most people see the way we’re currently being the church, and living out God’s good news, as just being a religious version of a buggy whip. No matter the details, we’re just not producing the fruit that God wants us to.
Those are harsh words – harsh to hear, and harsh to say. But they certainly aren’t new words, and they certainly shouldn’t be surprising words. I don’t mention these facts to dwell on them, or to focus on the negative, but only to identify the reality of our current situation. In order for the Church to produce good fruit, it has to move from Point A to Point B, and you can’t do that without first being realistic about where Point A is, and that’s what we’ve just done.
But we also have to be realistic about where Point B is, too, and that’s what I really want to focus on. The Church as a whole is at a critical time in its history, and we have to be very mindful, and work very hard, to make the Church bear good fruit, not just for the next generation, but for the next major era in its history. So if we see the Church as the fig tree in the parable, and if we’re the gardener, we need to understand the what the end goal is supposed to be as we water the tree, and improve the soil its rooted in, and prune back the dead branches to spur new growth. So what might that new, better, more resonant expression of the church – the Point B – actually look like?
There’s an old joke about things looking better through “beer goggles.” It’s a bad and inaccurate claim, to be sure, but today, for just a few minutes, let’s borrow it, turning it in a positive sense for church. Let’s think about seeing a better future church through what maybe we can jokingly call “Communion wine goggles.” If we look through them, what might we see?
Imagine a church that’s recognized that while diversity is important to truly living as the people of God, it isn’t going to happen by itself. So this church formed a partnership, a “sister-church” relationship with a local traditionally black congregation, and together, they committed to joint worship. One Sunday a month, the mostly white congregation didn’t show up at its own building, but instead, worshiped together with the mostly black congregation in their building. And another Sunday each month, the black congregation came over as a group and worshiped with the white congregation. And they worked together on community initiatives, promoting diversity and social justice and racial reconciliation. In the process, new friendships were made, and some old friendships were strengthened, and guards were let down, and without having to say a word, the children in both congregations learned that racial prejudice and separation have no place in the kingdom of God. And people outside their congregations saw that these were people who didn’t just talk the talk; they lived their words out in actual practice. People noticed.
Look through those goggles again, and see a congregation that understood the importance of ecumenical relations and showing compassion and unity as God’s people, so they decided that four times a year they’d not show up for worship at their own building on that Sunday morning, but rather, as a group, they’d become a church flash mob, worshiping together with some other local congregation. Imagine the good will it would engender, how wonderful it would be to worship together with fuller pews and more voices for singing. And people noticed.
Look through those goggles again, and see that this church recognized that no matter how many visits, and cards and letters, or home Communions are shared with shut-ins, it still isn’t the same as worshiping together with your church family. So they decided that six Sundays a year, they wouldn’t worship in their building, but as a group, they’d actually hold their worship service with their shut-in members and all the residents at a local nursing home or assisted living center. Imagine what it means in the lives of those shut-ins to know that their being a valued part of the church family isn’t just lip service. And when they did this, people noticed.
Look through those Communion wine goggles one last time, and see that this congregation realized how many people expressed their faith through their hands, so they committed to hosting one congregationally structured and led local hands-on mission activity every month – in their case, it was a unique blending of a worship service and a free pancacke breakfast that, as a group, they hosted for the local community, working to improve the problem of food scarcity. And they also committed to one out-of-town domestic mission trip per year, and at least once every other year, putting together an international mission trip. And people noticed. They heard, and saw, that this was a congregation that lived the gospel in word and deed and truth.
Just imagine that church of the future, and how it showed to the people around them – and frankly, to themselves – that it was worshiping God in ways that are real, and concrete. How it showed that church isn’t where you are, it’s what you are. That Church is the people of God, and worshiping God is doing things that are pleasing to God. That’s producing good fruit.
Would a church like that attract more people to it? I can almost guarantee it. Would it upset some people, even some much-beloved, long-time members who would end up leaving because their church had become something different than what they were accustomed to? I can pretty much guarantee that, too. But I absolutely guarantee that if a church has any hope for survival in the new era that we’re already in, it’s going to have to stop defining itself in the ways it has been, and move toward these or other, similar ways that will show we’re serious about living our faith, and that will resonate in the hearts and spirits of the people around them.
When understanding Jesus’ parables, it’s important to understand who the characters in the parable might represent. Sometimes, the parable can be understood in different ways, depending on who we assign to those representations. In this case, I think we could be seen as simultaneously being the fig tree, as well as the gardener who has the ability, and who’s been given the task, to nurture the tree back into production. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s take off the Communion wine goggles, and get to work.
Thanks be to God.