Transplanting or Planting?

Years ago, one of the books in the Firefox series was open on my in-laws’ dining room table. The line art picture revealed a sagging pear tree limb growing through a wash tub of dirt that was sitting on a wooden post. The goal of this process was to tease roots out of that limb into the dirt so the rooted limb could be disconnected from the tree and used to start another pear tree.

Decades later I began to hear people talking about “church planting” in the United States. As I listened to what they were discussing, I realized it was actually transplanting. They described a process of gathering a nucleus of people within one church who would form the leadership team that would later move to a new region where there were no churches (or at least not the “right kind” of church). Here these people would “plant” a church that would reflect the spiritual DNA of the “mother church” out of which they were sent.

Please do not misunderstand anything I write below. I value these efforts to spread the borders of the kingdom, but what is being done here is not planting. It is actually transplanting.

Planting involves placing a seed in the ground and watching the mystery of God at work. Only he knows how a tiny seedling tree sprouts. Only he knows how the gospel planted in the heart of a household can sprout a community of faith. Is it possible that our refusal to plant churches in this way reflects a lack of faith in God? Do we actually believe that he is incapable of producing a harvest?

I am leading a class of children in some discovery studies. Their ages span several years and they bless me and challenge me in many ways. I love the ways they respond when they discover insights for the first time. They rarely respond to a passage as though it is “old hat.”

We started the class months ago talking about missionaries that our congregation has been supporting and having each one pray for a particular country. We kept a globe in the center of the table and read passages that discussed sowing the seed. Then we moved to Mark’s Gospel and read it over several weeks with the thought in mind that Mark was writing for a Roman audience that loved a hero. I suggested Jesus’ life story is presented sort of like a comic book, a real-life action hero.

Yesterday I mentioned something about “church planting.” Some of them confessed that this imagery had sounded odd to them when they first heard it. The girls had pictures of spring time when stalks break through the ground and flowers appear. I asked if they had ever done a school project of planting a seed in some soil in a styrofoam cup. All had and at least one of the plants had been a vegetable that eventually had to be transplanted and actually produced fruit.

I asked if any of them had any idea where I got that imagery. They shook their heads no, so I asked them to turn to Matthew 13. We read the parable of the sower and then Jesus’ explanation. Jesus is the one who used this word picture from horticulture. He knew the process that had been launched from creation. He knew we were surrounded by learning labs, if only we have eyes to see.

Then I reminded the class of how we started this whole process with our time of praying for missionaries. I asked about the people for whom they had prayed. I reminded them of the family and their daughter (the same age of some of my students) who had visited our class when they were back in the states. I pointed out to them that this family was busy sowing the seed of the gospel in Brazil.

I am sure some of my childhood memories are why that line-art illustration stuck with me. In the backyard of the house where my great-grandmother lived, there was an abundantly fruitful pear tree. Each fall we would go over to visit her and pick all the pears we wanted (without making a dent in them). Those were the sweetest, most delicious tasting pears I have ever eaten. We would not only eat our fill, we would carefully wrap the pears in newspaper and place them gently in a cardboard box that would be placed in the living room which was only heated Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Periodically we had the treat of another pear until they were all gone.

Years later when I first started preaching I ministered with a congregation just down the road from that house and the pear tree was still there. I would remember those experiences as I drove by and wish that I had a pear tree just like that one.

The illustration showed me how to do it. Now two things keep me from having one in my back yard. The first is the time and effort it would take to get a branch to root. The second (and bigger deterrent) are all the wasps that are attracted to those pears. I hate wasps!

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