February 13, 2008

What I Learned About Church From Roses

2008 1504 page24 capN 2004 I JOINED A ROSE CLUB. I like growing roses, but they’ve been hybridized and overbred to the point that they’re a “special needs” plant—immensely rewarding only when all things work together for their good (which rarely happens, and you rarely know exactly why). Success demands perfect soil and sun, precise and timely doses of fertilizer, pesticides, and fungicides, not to mention winter covering and proper pruning. My wife says growing roses is like caring for a lot of frail children, only a few of which might grow up to make their parents proud.

In 2004 I was strolling through a midwinter home-and-garden show (something that happens in four-season climates to keep people from going crazy after months of ice and snow). I stopped to ask a few questions at a booth set up by a local 2008 1504 page24rose club. The man at the booth that day (who, though I didn’t know it at the time, is an internationally recognized rosarian) invited me to attend the monthly meeting of a rose club for men.

If you assume men who grow roses would be a delicate bunch (as a few of my friends implied), you’d be wrong. Most of these rose growers are retired professional men who grow roses in their backyards with the same zeal that made them successful in their professions. This is gardening with testosterone—it is not unusual to hear heated arguments about whose fungicide recipe is best or who grew the largest blossom.

Right away, though, I began to feel déjà vu. The club reminded me of something. I finally identified what it was: the social dynamics were like those of a small church! I’ve spent a lot of my life in small churches, usually on the pastoral side. Now, though, I was sitting in the pew and experiencing what visitors to our churches may feel. And I distilled a few lessons from the experience:

Lesson 1: If people don’t know about you, they won’t come.
I would never have imagined being part of a rose club; I didn’t know it existed. Only by accident did I come across that booth. It could have escaped my notice entirely.

Recently, Seventh-day Adventist researcher and pastor Monte Sahlin shared with me the results of a large-scale survey he did in eight eastern U.S. cities. He found that only about a third of the public had ever heard of Seventh-day Adventists, and only 1 in 10 could give one accurate fact about us. That’s a sad and, frankly, disappointing finding for people who like to tell ourselves that we are God’s special group.

Several years ago Adventist world church president Jan Paulsen asked the church this question: “If your church disappeared tomorrow, would anyone from the community miss you?” Not if they don’t know we’re here!

Lesson 2: People are won through relationships.
Even had I heard of a rose club and been given good reasons why I needed one in my life, I never would have attended had it not been for one member’s diligent recruitment. The same retired physician whom I met at the rose club booth personally picked me up at my office after work, took me with him to the meeting, and bought my dinner. Whenever I miss a meeting, he calls to see if I want to ride with him.

2008 1504 page24There is much breast-beating in churches about soul winning and church growth. We keep trying to find effective methods of attracting people. In much of our evangelism we rely on methods from a century ago. Yes, the message is still true. But fewer are attending to it. The problem is precisely that it has become programmatic—there is too little “personal” in it anymore.

I have often told my congregation that if all of us were genuinely interested in others outside our group and invited friends to our church, we’d have more members than we need without ever holding a public meeting. I suppose some don’t feel brave enough to invite others to church. Others, I suspect, are a little ashamed of their church (sometimes with reason). But it remains true that in spite of the endless talk (and even guilt) about soul winning, people rarely do anything about it personally. As a church member said to me once when I announced an evangelistic series, “Oh, dear, I had just gotten acquainted with everyone and now you want to add new people!”

Lesson 3: Experience trumps content.
I almost didn’t return to the rose club after the first meeting. You see, that first time no one talked to me except my host. I noticed that the other members were talking and joking with one another. But not one person took the initiative to get acquainted with me.

Fortunately, I’m not easily discouraged; as a pastor I’m used to taking the social lead, and so I approached people and introduced myself. But the experience made me wonder how the average visitor feels on walking into a church for the first time. I’ve entered churches where I had to wrest the attention of the greeter from his or her friends, and then all I got was a canned smile, a bulletin, and a request to sign the guest book. I have been at churches where not one person went out of their way to talk to me. After such an experience, it really doesn’t matter to me how good the sermon was; one would have to be very determined to return.

The monthly rose club meetings feature excellent lectures. But information, no matter how true and accurate, probably wouldn’t keep me there. You’ve got to feel like part of the group in order to sustain participation. I was able to make myself part of the group; not everyone can.

Lesson 4. Groups that survive must be flexible and adaptive.
Our rose club leaders are worried about the club’s future. They should be. As I look around the room, the four of us who are in the neighborhood of 50 years old are the youngsters! A not uncommon announcement at our meeting is that another elderly rosarian has died, and where you can send cards or flowers.

2008 1504 page24Now, the problem isn’t that they aren’t nice people. I’ve generally found gardeners unusually nice folk. They’re also very knowledgeable in rose growing and showing. One of 
our members is a world-class rose geneticist, and others are nationally recognized rose exhibitors. But this club was started 50 years ago, when gardening clubs were all the rage. People don’t join clubs as readily now. And if you walk into the room and see only gray hair, it isn’t encouraging to younger recruits. Sometimes one of the longtime members will say, with a sigh, “I remember when we had to set up twice this many tables.”

And yet I don’t see the flexibility that might lead to a stronger future. We run on a rigid schedule inherited from the 1950s: minutes, treasurer’s report, new business, old business, dinner, lecture or demonstration, and adjournment. Every season’s schedule of meetings and rose shows is similar, too. There is little new under the sun. (It was a major change when we voted to remain seated for the prayer before the meal, out of deference to quite a number who couldn’t stand up easily anymore!)

I know many churches in similar situations. They moan about their steady diminution but don’t have the flexibility to adapt for a more prosperous future. A pastor friend of mine tried to update the worship service in his small church and was crossly ordered to keep things the way they were. Yes, we want our church to grow, the leaders told him, but not if we have to change anything. People have to come here on our terms.

Churches like this, no matter what they say they want, are terminal. They may hang at the precipice of death for years, but ultimately they will close. Other more flexible and adventurous churches will step into the breach.

Lesson 5: Higher purposes trump institutions.
Someone asked one day, “What if this rose club folds?” It likely will, eventually. But people won’t stop growing roses. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new rose club spring up a year or two later, led by younger people who think they’ve just started something that no one ever thought of before!

Not every individual church has a future. But God’s church does. People won’t quit worshipping Jesus. The truths, the relationships, the rituals, and the power of the Spirit will conspire together to keep the church going. Will it look the same as it does now? Not exactly. But God’s big-picture goals are more important than an organization or institution. He’ll see His people through to the end, though our children’s church may look very different from ours.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church.