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Multiplication as Spiritual Gardening

by Chris Atwell

Many church planters want to play the role of church planter rather than live the role of spiritual gardener. Enjoying the results of the harvest requires faithfully attending to the crops in the field. The Bible’s major metaphor for spiritual growth is one of vine, branch, and fruit (John 15, Galatians 5). Jesus Himself is the Vine. God is the Vinedresser. Oh, that as pastors we would see our role to faithfully tend God’s garden. And in God’s garden, He’s growing fruit-bearing people.

Ministry is still a people business. Many of the church planters I know look the part. If I were to make a church planting action figure, he would come equipped with graphic tee, Italian denim, and conspicuously noticeable tattoo. Accessories would include an oversized watchband, interchangeable facial hair (ala soul patch!), and large frame spectacles. We’ve got this part down. But let us never forget, ministry isn’t a style, it’s a lifestyle.

And this life we lead is an often foolish, messy, cross-bearing, burden-lifting, praying, Gospel-sharing life. As John Piper puts it, “Brothers, we are not professionals.” May I dare to add, “Brothers, we are not promoters.” In a culture of social marketing, planters should choose the more difficult task of people production rather than program promotion. I love technology as much as the next guy. I didn’t, after all, write this post by quill pen and candlelight. But if I read one more tweet about the burrito you just ate, I’m going to cancel my Twitter account. The self-indulgent, self-congratulatory tone of cyber-promotions is the pastoral equivalent of “Pastors Gone Wild.” Just because you posted your event doesn’t mean you’ve done ministry today. Log off the Internet and log into the lives of your people. Get some spiritual dirt under your nails by joining God’s discipleship work in the field.

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne deal with the necessity of discipleship in their book The Trellis and the Vine. In their analogy, the vine is the Gospel work of people conversion, change, transformation, and maturity. The trellis is the support structure: “management, finances, infrastructure, organization, and governance.” Marshall and Payne bemoan the fact that, although good trellis workers are important, we have a natural tendency to favor work on systems and structures because they’re “less personally threatening” and, at the same time, “more visible and structural.” Not only can church planters be distracted with style over substance, we can also choose trellis over vine. Both are necessary, but let me suggest that vine work is primary.

In my work with aspiring church planters, the question I get the most is “How do I make this thing grow?” But we know the answer to that question, don’t we? Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Through baptizing and teaching, we participate in the vine dressing work of God in the lives of people. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11-12, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” We teach and equip that God’s fruit might bloom in the lives of His saints.

Pastoral ministry in a twenty-first century world is still a people ministry. The size of my church—including the tools and technology accessible to me—has changed. But the essential nature of my calling has not. I may not equip every believer who walks in the door anymore, but I haven’t graduated out of personal, life-on-life equipping. In the lives of my staff, elders, and deacons – do I prune, weed, and water – that the fruit of the Gospel might bloom in them? It’s even more necessary for me now to not only teach, but also to teach teachers how to teach. As church planters, we’re not to dress up as postmodern hipsters with a Bible. We’re to dress for the messy, backbreaking work of gardening.