I won’t sugar coat it. 2017 was hard.
But I can’t lie. I — and our church — grew in 2017.
I’m not talking numerical growth. I’m talking spiritual growth.
So what happened?
On August 25, Hurricane Harvey hit our city and our church. Even now, four months after the fact, I struggle to find words to describe the enormity of that disaster. Hundreds of miles of Gulf coast was devastated. 51 inches of rain fell in three days in the Houston area. FEMA estimates that 450,000 homes were flooded. The weight from the amount of rain was so great it literally pushed down the earth’s crust on the Texas Gulf coast. Harvey is the most expensive natural disaster to date. To summarize, it was an exceptionally devastating event to our area.
On top of that, our church campus was flooded, taking away our primary facility for doing a host of ministry in the area.
We worked almost around the clock for weeks after the hurricane hit, to the literal point of exhaustion.
After Harvey, we wanted to see how it had affected our church. We noticed two primary things:
- We were a bit smaller than we we were before the hurricane. It’s difficult to quantify because of facilities being flooded and schedules being affected, but our attendance did decrease after Harvey.
- We were spiritually and organizationally healthier than we were before the hurricane. Our giving did not suffer; we have more adults in groups than ever before; there is a sweeter spirit in many of our gatherings that before; our people are serving. Most importantly, we are seeing the Lord working in many lives in a rich way since the hurricane. Oddly, the hurricane has brought about the healthiest spiritual season I’ve experienced as pastor.
So we are healthier and stronger than we were before the hurricane. Yet we are also smaller. Why?
Here’s my best understanding of what I see the Lord doing in our church:
John 15:2 says, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
I’ve studied pruning in John 15 before. But Harvey made it personal. God brought this verse to my attention multiple times when I would question Him about our church: “Why would our church do this much good in the community and actually shrink?” There were some obvious logistical answers that came to mind — our flooded kids’ building being near the top of the list.
But the Lord continued to draw me this phrase: “every branch that *does* bear fruit he prunes.” I used to think of pruning in a negative sense. Pruning happens because you are not bearing fruit. But that’s not what John 15 says. John 15 says that the branches *not* bearing fruit are actually taken away. But pruning is reserved for those branches that *are* bearing fruit, but that the Father believes can bear *more* fruit.
In short, pruning is not punishment, but is instead preparation. I do not know all of the details regarding why our church is smaller. It simply is.
In short, pruning is not punishment, but is instead preparation.
I do know, however, that we are bearing more spiritual fruit than we have at any season in my tenure as pastor. We are seeing lots of people come to faith in Christ; we are seeing spiritual openness; we are seeing the Lord answer prayers; we are seeing the Lord do some great things in our midst.
I know of no other way to characterize a church getting smaller and healthier at the same time than pruning. Pruning means that God is preparing us to bear more fruit; if that is the case, then I’ll gladly receive it.
But growth doesn’t only happen through pruning. It also happens through fertilizing. In Luke 13, Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. When the landowner wants to cut the tree down, the vinedresser (Sidenote: the Lord is referred to as a vinedresser in John 15:1) answers, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:8–9)
We don’t preach this parable a great deal, because it refers to…manure.
That’s right — poop.
How does the gardener bring growth to the barren tree?
He fertilizes it. But the fertilizer is manure.
Eugene Peterson expains: “Manure does not rank high in the world’s economies. It is refuse. Garbage. We organize efficient and sometimes elaborate systems to collect it, haul it away, get it out of sight and smell. But the observant and wise know that this apparently dead and despised waste is teeming with life — enzymes, numerous microorganisms. It’s the stuff of resurrection. [Emphasis mine.]” (Peterson, Tell It Slant, 70)
Did you catch that? Manure is the stuff of resurrection. Have you ever heard anyone wax so poetic about manure? Me either.
Manure is the stuff of resurrection.
But I think he’s right.
How does the Gardener grow his people? He piles on the poop and waits for it to do its work.
And what better fertilizer than a hurricane?
We’ve been pruned and fertilized, and we’re experiencing growth as a church. I’m experiencing growth, personally. Maybe the same is true for you. Maybe you were pruned this year. Maybe you thought it was punishment, but now you see it’s because the Lords wants you bear even more fruilt. Maybe you were fertilized this year — the Lord piling on the poop. No matter what you experienced, if you trust the Lord, He can use that fertilizer to bring growth into your life. That’s what Romans 8:28 is all about.
In case you were wondering, I call dibs on the sure to best-selling book title: Pruning and Poop: The Painful, Stinky Truth About Growth.
So here’s to pruning and poop. It’s painful and stinky, but it’s how God grows us.
And, in light of that, maybe 2017 wasn’t bad, after all. I didn’t say it wasn’t hard.
Just not bad.