[I’m a preacher, which means every innocuous occurrence in my life gets connected rapidly to a deeper truth. The plants in my back yard couldn’t expect to escape the same treatment.]
I spend a majority of my time thinking about the Bible, about spirituality, about “growing the church.” For so long, the church was ascendant in our culture; even if the mainline was shrinking, the evangelicals were growing. The statistics seemed to tell a certain story: the church was growing fast. Yay for Us! Except, of course, that’s not really the story. Across all denominations, our numbers are falling. The most recent Pew Research study revealed more folk who identify as religious “nones” and “dones” than any previous generation. It turns out, as America writhes in cultural change, that green was a lie too.
The real demands of being a Christian are pretty intense. Love of God is supposed to transcend loyalty to country. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, even if they’re terrorists. Jesus tells Peter to lay down his sword in the face of those who would kill him, and around these parts a mass shooting makes people buy more guns. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has, and some faith-hucksters try to sell you a line that God’s love can be most clearly seen in the quality of the car you drive. The discernible fruits of faith are supposed to be love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But self-identifying “Christians” and “evangelicals” cast their votes for a man who advocates for violence, who practices mockery, who refuses to ask for forgiveness, who specializes in threats and xenophobia.
The church has been portraying itself as a healthy tree to everyone it meets, but folks have started walking away because it is apparent that the roots are dead and any growth has less to do with God and more to do with a strange amalgam of political and nationalistic folk-religion. The green is a lie.
The vine that grew on my trees sure made it look like the tree was healthy; it was green, covered in leaves. But it was a vine that produced no fruit; it was a vine that smothered the tree and stole the light and left it’s host rotting. Sure, our churches used to be more full, the illusion of health. But the folks we preached to produced no fruit, or bad fruit. The faith became captive to politics (both sides, if I’m honest about it), and the teachings of Jesus became secondary to claiming the cultural cache of his name. A co-opted faith smothers the tree of God’s church, stealing its life and causing it to rot. I’m not always sure we should mourn the closing of another church. There’s a high possibility that church had been smothered to death years before.
I cut down lots of those vines yesterday, and today I’ll continue to do so. Sometimes the vines are as thick as my wrists, a twisted bunch of growth. Many of those vines are dead, the new growths wrapping around the dry husks of last season’s menace. Some of the trees that I’m trying to uncover are too far gone, already dead. But the tree that I set free yesterday? It has a chance now.
There is much greenery in our church that is lie. But if we are willing to put our gloves on, and start tearing down that which is killing us? We can live. The tree in my yard will testify to that.