Spiritual Botany

Published on September 7, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories


I attended a dying church this past Sunday.  My father was asked to preach at their service, and I decided to come hear the old man address this country church.  I knew it was a small church, but I was surprised to walk in and see about 15 people singing from the bright red hymnals in their hands.

A man in a gray suit greeted me at the door with a smile.  He said, “Are you new here?”  I thought to myself, “You know all 15 people here, right?”  But he was just being kind, and I was not, so I told him “yes,” took a bulletin, and walked in the room.

The rows of chairs were bundled into three sections.  To my right, on row 3, sat two women in their late 70s, one of whom would drift in and out of sleep throughout the service.  No one sat to my left.  In the center section, another 10 or so people were scattered among the seats.  The worship leader sat by himself on stage in front of a synthesizer.

As the service went on, I began to wonder why these people were there.  They were of very different ages, the youngest being in her early 30s and the oldest being in his 80s.  They were of different races, and they seemed to be of different backgrounds and social status.  They seemed to know each other; during the announcements, several of them talked about upcoming events with each other and the leader on stage.  But they also didn’t sit together, and I couldn’t help but wonder what draws them back week after week.

This church may or may not be dying.  But I was more struck by the metaphor to our own lives of faith.  Our faith is a growing one, where God is continually conforming us into the image of His Son.  And if we are to be growing kinds of people, then we need to understand a few things about our spiritual botany:

  1. God gives the growth.  Someone once planted the gospel seed in our life, and someone else watered, but God is the one who gives the growth.  We can, and should, plead with Him to grant us the grace each day to grow, but we must continue to put our faith in a God who is accomplishing the good work He started in each of us.
  2. Ritual can destroy growth.  Gardeners will tell us that the ground must be tilled at times, and replanted at times, and laid bare at times.  Planting and watering in the same way over and over may work for a while, but it will eventually destroy the ground.  Sometimes, dying churches slowly fade away because they cling to their rituals rather than Jesus.  And sometimes, dying souls slowly fade away because they cling to their rituals rather than Jesus.
  3. Isolation inhibits growth.  We are like plants that wither alone but flourish together.  The Christian life was never meant to be lived in isolation; we are a body that works together under the head of Christ.  If our experience at church is limited to coming and sitting and never engaging with the body around us, we will likely wither over time.

May we be a people who understand the botany of our souls, who look to the creator and giver of spiritual nourishment, so that we might grow up into Him, bearing much fruit for His glory and our joy.

Question:  Where is God growing you at this moment?

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    It's difficult to see a church in decline. Jesus loves each of those 15 and wants the best for them. He sees their loyalty. Peace to you, and them.
    My recent post Mondays Meditation- Hearing the Symphony

    • http://cravesomethingmore.org Chris_Tomlinson

      Thanks, Ray. I remember one of the women turning to me and saying, "We're small, but we love Jesus!" That was cool to see.

  • Amy

    Right now I'm experiencing something all too familiar in our country; I am unemployed. The Lord is growing me to dependence; a branch trellised and abiding – not a wild vine. He is asking me to trust Him… to walk with Him through this difficult season. He's asking me to find Him enough when friends aren't around because they're busy with their lives and jobs. I'm learning what it looks like to give my days to Him and to look outside of myself to the needs around me rather than focusing on my own needs. I think the most difficult part of it is two-fold: Fighting fear and finding His balance (not mine) between time spent being out and about in order to minister to others and time spent in (by myself) doing things to find work. Daily I have to ask myself what trusting Him looks like today and not give in to the fear of how I'll make my bills.

  • http://cravesomethingmore.org Chris_Tomlinson

    Amy, thanks for sharing your story. Wow. I don't know what to say but thanks, and you display a great deal of wisdom. I know God promises us joy in the midst of loss and blessing, and I know much of the way we come to depend on God most fully is through the times when we feel like we can't depend on ourselves anymore. It sounds like you already know all of this, and are walking in it by faith, with hope, because you serve a good Father who is working all things together for your good. May He continue to give you the grace to continue to trust Him as you are–and to give you the perfect job at the right time!

  • Melinda

    Does the size of a church mean it is dying, or is that a worldly definition? I would disagree completely with your definition of a dying church, and instead cling to the scriptural definition that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matt. 18:20). The church may be in a rural setting where not many people can attend, the people may be aging and in their latter years, but I find it strangely arrogant for you to pronounce "they are dying" after sitting in only one service.

    Do you suggest that elderly Christians drive long distances so they can attend churches that are larger? Is it wrong to live in rural areas because you can't attend a church that is "big" enough to be deemed healthy?

    I personally have attended large churches that by the world's standards seem successful and healthy. And I have smelled the stench of spiritual rotting in those churches. Size is not everything, and nowhere does Jesus equate size with success. That, I'm afraid, is a very materialistic view of the church!

    May the Lord bless his children who seek to worship him in spirit and in truth, no matter what church setting they attend. And may He teach us real discernment about what is, and is not, spiritual health.

    • http://cravesomethingmore.org Chris_Tomlinson

      Melinda, thank you for your comments and the passion I can read behind them. I share your desire to oppose the world's definition of success and cling to the promises we have in Christ! I also appreciate your willingness to confront where you thought it was merited in order to encourage me and all of us to the same end. Your comments are well received, although I think perhaps you saw a bit more in this piece than I intended to communicate. The focus for me was really on the spiritual health of our souls (what I called here "spiritual botany") and the primacy that God takes in our own growth. I meant the focus to be far less on the spiritual growth or dying of a church. To be fair to your comments, the piece does lead with a statement that I attended a dying church, and perhaps this is where dramatic license can go a bit too far, but I meant to clarify those comments later by saying I didn't really know where the church was dying or not–and then to move on to the focus of the post. I affirm alongside you that size is not a primary factor in the spiritual health of a church–faithfulness is. Urban, rural, large, small, none of them matter so long as God is glorified, the gospel is preached, and gifts are used to build up the church into the unified body of Christ. Along these lines, you raise a very interesting question about how the Bible speaks of the church. The passage in Matthew 18 is such a powerful promise to us of the proximity of Christ (literally being present with us when His people are gathered in His name), but the context of this passage would suggest this promise is related more to church discipline than to the definition of church or even prayer. What the New Testament does seem to testify is the reality of the global church of God's people (as the body under the head of Christ) and local expressions of this body with distinct giftings and leadership for the edification of that body. And as you intimate, the health of these bodies is far more along the lines of the gifts of the Spirit than the size of the community. I hope you will continue to read and interact here, and thanks again for taking the time to comment!