Our yard is under a blanket. The oak tree out front has let go, and now leaves cover every inch of the yard. This weekend I’ll head out with rake in hand and create enormous piles that the kids will run and jump into a hundred times before we eventually bag them all up and send them away. Next spring, that very same tree will bud tender green shoots that will soon become the leaves my kids will jump into next fall. And so it goes.
A problem with “go and make disciples” as a sole mission for the church is that it is linear, not cyclical. A linear orientation cannot be forced into a reality that is inherently cyclical, that waxes and wanes over time.
The church growth movement illustrated this reality. When the church’s mission was minimized to just increasing numbers, the systemic anxiety increased dramatically. The only direction acceptable was “up,” and the season was most definitely “down.” But rather than acknowledge this as a season and look ahead into God’s preferred future, the church as a system kind of panicked and couldn’t get unstuck from the present.
If you think about it, a whole lot of faith is cyclical. The daily cycle of rising, doing our day, and sleeping again – the weekly cycle of worship, work/school/home, Sabbath rest, and back to worship again – the yearly cycle of Advent to Easter through the year back to Advent. Personally, we cycle in our relationship with God, sometimes growing closer day by day and sometimes experiencing those dark nights of the soul when we feel utterly lost and alone.
Salvation is not a march in a straight line from point alpha to point omega, so why should the church’s mission be? The idea that all the church is supposed to be doing is adding numbers to the list underestimates the mission we are truly supposed to be on. Plus, if all we are supposed to be doing is adding people to our list, how will we know when we are done?
If we think in cycles, we don’t even have to ask ourselves that question. We will be done when God completes us. Our task is simply to be present in the seasons of faith and avail ourselves to what God is doing in the world.
It is November, and we do not lament the leaves’ departure from the tree and frantically scramble to prevent them from falling, then try to invent ways to get younger leaves to attach to the baring branches. We do no such things, because we know it is just a season, and it will run its course, yielding to a new season in time.
But in the meantime we respond appropriately to the current season, and work diligently as that season dictates we should. I’m not advocating passive ambivalence; discipleship is hard work, no matter the season. If I may paraphrase Scripture, there is a time to rake leaves, a time to shovel snow, a time to buy mulch, and a time to pull weeds.
Seems to me the trick for the church is to discern the season and what type of work needs to be done in it, knowing that it will cycle away at some point in God’s timing and a new season will begin.