The Gospel of John reads like a poem. An image from nature emerges, crisp and familiar. I see the vineyard, the vineyard keeper, tromping in God’s muddy boots, snapping off brown branches and trimming curly green vines, eyeing a plump grape, beaded with rain water. Then in a flash of truth, which is the way poets work, the vineyard is life itself. We are green vines. What is trying to flow is love. What is trying to grow is joy. What are we to do… oh people of God? John says we remain. Some translations prefer abide. We stay.
It tempting to respond, “Is that all? Hang in there?” I confess I often prefer the practical to poetic. Sometimes I prefer Mark’s gospel that moves breathlessly from one Jesus exchange to the next. Sometimes I relish Matthew, all the heft of Hebrew scholarship crashing into the Jesus moment. Sometimes I want to pound the pulpit with Luke, bringing that social justice heat into view. But John, poetically, quietly says remain. Remain connected. Stay grafted into the true vine. Abide.
It strikes me sometimes that remaining, abiding together, is the most important call there is. And the hardest.
Earlier this year, I was at a clergy lunch. Well, it turned out it was bring your own lunch, which not everyone read in the email, a cost saving plan that would have been forgivable had not the coffee pot also malfunctioned, pouring coffee all over the table. We were not starting off on the right foot.
Regular pastor talk ensued. “What do you worship?” “We worship about 200, but our ASAs are up 300%. The bounce house ministry has helped.” Folks turn their heads to the large bounce house in the Fellowship Hall, kids rising and falling on a random Thursday. People said, “hmm,” which is the sound of being both refined and wildly impressed. I said, “Excuse me – ASAs? I am not familiar.” Four people chanted together Average Sunday Attendance. “We have metrics for everything. I could tell you how many givers you need per parking space to remain in ministry.” Another pastor said sheepishly, “We were just told that we are not viable. Our building to clergy ratio is not good. The consultant’s graph gives us 2 years, tops.” Folks sigh.
A Rabbi blurted out, “Does anyone else find this deeply disturbing? I want my people to be talking about God, not parking space graphs.” An African American Baptist woman’s eye welled up with tears. “Yes, by all those numbers, we have no future. We make no sense. We are a little church that’s taken big risks to be a welcoming space for gay and trans people. Maybe the only one for miles. And you know what…. We actually believe that Jesus wants this congregation to remain.”
I left that not-lunch meeting, my stomach grumbling. My heart was grumbling too. Which one tells us who we are? Is it the graph or the graft, that stubborn vine of Jesus Christ?
The graph says congregations are losing members, says the cultural winds are in our face, says churches are splintered and hurting and our country is fraying at its seams.
The graft, that ancient vine, says, “love one another. Bear fruit.”
The graph says there is not enough. Not enough young families. Not enough pledging units. Not enough hours in the day to turn this ship around.
The graft says, “my grace is sufficient.” It says, “I am about to do a new thing. It springs up. Do you not see it?”
The graph says, “Your worth and viability are found in columns 1 and 2 of the annual statistical report. In whether people choose you over other Old Town churches. Or over Orange Theory. Or over Costco. Or over a few more hours of sleep.”
But the graft holds on ever tighter. We hear our voices say, “Where would we go, Lord? You alone have the words of life.” The graft sets our feet on a rock, puts a new song in our mouth. We even trip over a shoot of new growth that we had no idea was even there. It was not one of our leader’s 3 year goals, but there it is, beaded with the waters of baptism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love graphs. I am the daughter of two Presbyterian accountants. That means I am predestined to value numbers. But, I have become convinced that when we worship a few of our numbers, when we give them authority to dictate our identity and viability, we have made them into an idol. That is true of bank accounts and scales. It is true of church budgets and attendance. The graph may tell us about our past. But only the graft, the place where we connect with the grace of Jesus Christ, lays claim to our present and our future.
About a decade ago, I noticed an odd thing going on with our graph at Trinity. Our weekly worship attendance was falling from about 300 to 224. But our building said something different. About 180 people were worshipping in Spanish on Wednesdays as part of Lunch for the Soul, an outreach ministry with Spanish speaking day laborers. Our graph did not know this, because they would never join or pledge. A year later, a new Ghanaian congregation started worshipping in Twi Sundays at noon, the congas usually calling people to worship downstairs at the precise moment when I said, “Let us continue our prayers in silence.” The floor rumbled with praise but the graph was un-phased. You see, they affiliate with a different denomination. When 600 people gathered to pray and weep together because one of our beloved youth passed away in a horrible car wreck, the graph… it callously ticked down by one.
The graph has no patience whatsoever for millennials who visit for years, who attend the Saturday food distribution more often than Sunday School, who give money to the mission trip not the operating fund. I started feeling bad for the graph. The graph kept falling exhausted as lines blurred between the congregation and community. It was bewildered by new patterns of commitment and connection.
And, it’s not just our graphs that are sweating. You see, Since the 70s, companies and non-profits have changed their measurements too. Most have abandoned the idea of a single bottom line. Most talk about their impact as an organization, rather than just a set of inputs and outputs. Did you know that Netflix doesn’t use Nielson ratings? They prefer to assess how their company is doing by how their content affects the culture. Caring most about how their content affects the culture. Sounds familiar.
I’m preaching today because I was part of a team of ornery Presbyterians who wrote a book called Cultivated Ministry. It was written by artists and church planters and professors and pastors and business leaders, folks who know there is a better way to talk about effectiveness than “Do better than last year.” Or, “Do better than those people over there.” And the cool thing is that it works for Methodists too! Here’s a snapshot. Cultivated Ministry suggests four movements are needed when talking about congregational effectiveness. First, theology, theology asks “Why are we doing this program? How does this usher in the Kingdom of God? How does this bring about the commonwealth of God’s love?” Second, learning, and here’s where all the graphs and traditional metrics are useful. We ask “What did we learn through all of this?” Third, mutual Accountability. We need clarity about who is on our teams and what we’re trying to achieve. “What impact are we trying to have and how will we know if that has happened?” Finally, storytelling, we need to tell the stories of lives changed.
Even an amazing graph can’t do all of that, but the graft can. The true vine curls around new people well. It can go up and deep down. It can go out and in. This vine operates on the funny math of God where mustard seeds multiply into subversive and hospitable trees, and a few loaves multiply into food for thousands. This vine actually thrives with pruning… Because when something dies, new life comes.
I suspect most of us feel like we are inhabiting the agricultural meantime, this middle place between staring at this old vine and seeing the harvest. We want to trust in God to bring this good work to fruition. We want to trust light and the waters to do their thing, but we also want to, ahem, help God along. So, we do our other fourfold movement: anxiety, let’s imagine all the ways that this could go wrong? Perfectionism, we must have everything in order so that there can be no doubt that we did our part correctly. Moral outrage, we don a protective layer because we believe conditions in our world may have grown too harsh for vulnerable love, even if that makes our fruit taste bitter. And finally, dread, this fear that we will wither alone on this vine.
Ultimately, my friends, cultivated ministry is about courage. Courage to remain in this together. Courage to be honest to God church. Courage to face our life, our death, our mysterious God, and our unknown future, without letting anxiety and perfectionism and rage and dread poison us to a hungry world. If living is what we are about, we must be brave and hang on to God and each other every day. Anxiety would have us check the graph every day to see if the roots are growing. Anxiety would prefer a small indoor pot where we can avoid the snow of doubt and the heat of pain. But clinging to the true vine means we will dwell outside. But we will grow hearty with courage.
According to John, fruit of abiding like this, the fruit of courage is complete joy, and I believe that. Joy …when a man experiencing homelessness comes into this church, participated in the Ash Wednesday service, and feels a community love him maybe for the first time. Joy… when a child pops his feet up on the pews and adults nearby realize this is the only place where they are not hurried or judged or on their own. Joy when communion feeds that part of us that is so hungry for peace.
You see, joy has never been linear. It prefers all the details that a graph misses. The teardrop that hangs on the edge her nose as she remembers her beloved. The curl of a baby’s ear. The lump in the throat and the odd cross of Christ that leads to eternal life. So, let us not miss the joy. As tempting as it is to be anywhere else, let us abide together.
Not so that giving might be complete, but that broken lives might be complete.
Not so that slates might be filled, but that people hungry for purpose might be filled.
Not so that buildings might be maintained, but that we might taste the Kingdom of God.
Not to attract people to a program, but to set the captives free.
Not to avoid institutional decline, but to walk in the light of the resurrection.