I am not a gardener by nature. I love and appreciate beautiful plants. I'm quite thankful that our gardens at church are infused with native plants that bloom throughout the year. I even have some herbs planted in my own garden.
But I am not a gardener.
With that disclaimer, I do have a basic working knowledge of plants. They need sun, good dirt, and water. Most plants need regular pruning and adequate temperatures. Plants vary with their needs of these things, but basically, if you provide these things, plants will be healthy and grow.
Our churches are enamored with the language of growth. We love to talk about it, even though we are often vague exactly on what we mean by growth. Usually, however, we mean, add more people. In the work I've done with churches calling a new pastor, almost all of them want to grow...in size. We gather at clergy conferences and talk about growth. We have, I think, equated success in ministry with church growth, as if we all strive to grow wild and fast and have the biggest church plant on the block.
Sort of like kudzu.
I wonder, however, if we've missed the mark. Growth, as God's creation informs us, happens best with health. Healthy plants grow. Sickly plants who are lacking enough light, nourishment, and water meander and struggle.
I ran across an article a few days ago that asked this question: Are we focusing on the wrong thing in church life by focusing only on growth determined by numbers alone? What happens if we focus on church health rather than church growth?
What if we shifted our focus not to add people and money (which is often the subtext of 'we want to grow') to a focus on being healthy? Honestly, focusing on growth defined by numbers is the easy part. Deep, sustainable growth in faith, health, and love takes hard work.
That kind of growth is difficult to measure. Clergy can't brag about that kind of growth at conferences as easily, and it doesn't make for quick blurbs on annual reports. But honestly, I think Jesus would be much more excited with "We talked open and honestly about addiction and found ways to be a supportive community for those struggling with addiction and confessed our own addictions to much in life" than "We increased our average Sunday attendance by 7578."
Again, I think healthy can be one of those buzzwords that we use to avoid naming actual details. But I'll try. A healthy congregation in my experience is one who knows who they are, who is aware of their history (both the good and bad) and has allowed the history to form them in holy ways without worshipping it or constantly using the hurts of the past to avoid living into God's presence. Healthy congregations are aware of appropriate behavior in times of conflict (and yes, all congregations have times of conflict), and they practice this appropriate behavior instead of sabotage (a detailed list of these behaviors can be found here).
Healthy congregations are nurtured by worship of God, not of the music, not of the building or the personalities, not of their tradition, or their bonded anger (and I know many congregations who worship their anger and hostility towards a particular theology, group of people, the church they all left to come to this church, or annoyance du jour). They are rooted in the call to be a church of invitation, welcome, and connection to God and to each other, not the church of being the biggest or the richest or the most popular.
Healthy congregations always have good boundaries. They realize they are called together as disciples for the work of the Gospel. In that work, they develop deep, abiding connections with one another, and recognize churches are not social clubs. They live into the truth that churches are welcoming of the saint and sinner in all of us, so we will love and like one another...and we will hurt one another. And in all of that, God is present with us, reminding us of our promises to love each other as God loves us.
They remember the promises they made at baptism, those beautiful and difficult promises to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. They remember those promises when life is amazing, and they remember those promises when forgiveness and reconciliation guide us as God grafts us more strongly to each other when, quite honestly, we'd rather prune ourselves from those who angered us and leave.
Healthy congregations find value in every single person who gathers to worship, and they avoid the traps of limiting leadership to the biggest givers, those who are the most popular, or friends with the pastor and throw open wide the call for all to offer their gifts for ministry. And they recognize that some offer their gifts of ministry in regular, prayerful presence and worship, thus avoiding the "everyone has to be on a committee" idea.
They engage in discovering and rediscovering the ways they are called to be a community of faith instead of copying the community of faith down the street, although they recognize good ideas from other communities and use them. I also experience healthy congregations as communities committed to working with other churches and supporting other faith communities in their work of the Gospel. Jealously and ego are almost always signs of unhealth in a congregation.
Healthy congregations know that the hallmarks of love and faith are not found in one blog post, as well. And we also remember that we are rarely 100% healthy, even at our best. We are, after all, human.
We would do well to remember that healthy life in God's creation is diverse and the truth that bigger is not better, just bigger. Healthy congregations grow. Perhaps not always in numbers, but they grow in the measures that matter in the witness of Christ.
And that, I think, is what we as churches are called to do.