Of Trees and Saplings

37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” – Matthew 18:6 (NRSV)

Some years ago my wife had a vision, and she saw it again just recently. I think it is relevant to the whole church. She saw a wooded area with large trees, covered with branches with abundant foliage. The woods was beautiful to look at from the outside, and showed all the signs of life and growth. But on looking more closely, she saw that there were young shoots trying to come up, and saplings trying to find a place to grow, and that the luxuriant growth of the big trees was blocking out the light and taking up the water and nourishment that the young trees. She also noticed that there was no fruit on the big trees-they looked good and had lots of foliage, but they were not producing fruit. She heard God say that he was going to prune those larger trees, and make them let in the light so that the younger plants could grow. Maybe they would produce the fruit that the larger trees had not.

This vision isn’t very hard to interpret. We can see folks in the church who are pillars of the church and community and yet who force the church to remain simply a country club–member’s only! New people had better plan on spending ten or fifteen years just getting used to the way things are done in the church before they can really move into leadership. Young people are welcome, so long as they’re seen and not heard, and so long as the sight of them is not too startling!

But according to Jesus, God loves the little ones. He’s talking here about people who believed, new believers, those weak in the faith, those who didn’t have the experience and didn’t know precisely “how we do that in this church.” I think he’s also talking about the physically young, who are often the spiritually young as well. There are so many ways to stumble in one’s spiritual walk, and it is so easy for the more experienced, stable, deeply rooted, “better” person to put road blocks in front of the less experienced.

Here are some of the attitudes we can have as more experienced believers, as folks who assume we are further along in our spiritual walk than others:

  • “I’m just saving them from heartache. I know that won’t work, and they shouldn’t have to try it like I did.” But have you considered the possibility that where you tried and failed, one of those younger people may succeed? Is there a fear born of pride-a fear that they will succeed, and prove better than you?
  • “They’re not prepared.” There’s a value in preparation, but one can also spend so much time preparing that one never does anything. Is this a reason or is it an excuse? Are you afraid that they may embarrass their family, their church, or the ministry of Jesus through his body? Think about this: Is it really possible for the church to be any more embarrassed by enthusiastic young people or young believers that it has been and is embarrassed daily by some of the dead wood that references themselves as Christians?
  • “They need to learn first, or they’ll just share ignorance.” It’s very likely that people will share ignorance. People do it every day. There is a good reason to have sound teaching in the church. But the older believers often share just as much ignorance, only in their case it’s combined in entrenched prejudice as well. Wouldn’t youth be the time to encourage the habit of studying for oneself and not just accepting the word of a superior?
  • “They don’t take things seriously; they just play around.” This makes me wonder whether the serious people haven’t missed the message of Jesus, the joy of being a disciple. But when it’s applied to our youth, I also have to wonder just what is expected when they spend the week in school, with expectations that they be studious. Shouldn’t there be some time of relaxation related to spiritual things? Fun isn’t a sin, though many believers seem to think it is.
  • “They just want to sing, instead of hearing sound teaching.” As a teacher, I must respond that learning doesn’t only take place when the teacher is talking. It takes place when the group is discussing and coming up with their own ideas. It takes place while young people are relaxing and talking. It even takes place while they are singing. Being a disciple is not about learning a particular set of facts, it’s about following Jesus. The facts are just a framework that helps us be better disciples.
  • “We’ve got to take care of the older members because of their long contribution to the church!” I totally agree that we must take care of the older members. We should be thankful for their contribution, and reward it. But this is simply part of caring for the entire body. The younger members can get involved in helping the older members. But don’t make taking care of the older pillars an excuse for putting a stumbling block in front of the younger ones. Gently, but firmly clear the way!

Over the last few years I have seen Sunday School classes for young people cut off because the young people weren’t getting precisely what the leadership expected. Now most if not all of those young people aren’t there any more, and leadership wonders why they can’t keep the young adults. The pillars of the church were afraid that they were going astray in church–now they’re not in church at all. Your reputation is safe, but what of the kingdom?

I have seen young people ready to participate in worship, leading music, scripture readings, providing their testimonies, taking up offerings, praying and even speaking. But because they were never put to use, they slowly began to fade away. Now you don’t have to bother with them, their mistakes, their stumbling as they read. Your church service is well-run and orderly, but what of the little ones in God’s kingdom?

I have seen young people gather for music and prayer, but because they didn’t do all the things that the leading pillars thought right, it was cut off. Now someone is working an empty hall, but the right things are being done there!

“It’s not about you,” says Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church. But how many times have I quoted that in order to carry out my own agenda? How many times have you quoted it to someone in order to carry out your agenda? “It’s not about you,” I tell someone else. But what I really want is for it to be about me.

As we grow in our spiritual walk, the worship service should be less and less about what we want and more and more about what others need. Worship is to focus on God, but the service can either help or hinder those in the congregation in their effort to worship. Telling them that worship is a choice is often an excuse on the part of leadership for providing a service that makes it very hard to choose to worship.

Those of us who are “old” in the faith or “old” in physical life, or both, need to make it all about those who are young, about making it possible for them to grow. If that means we need to meet for “our” service at some odd hour during the week or early on Sunday morning, then we need to do that. If more of the pastor’s time needs to be taken on the younger members because they need more help, we need to make the sacrifice. Let the lay people work.

It’s all about making disciples-not about self preservation.