Last year my wife and I made a heroic effort to take out three bushes in our front yard. Early on a Sunday morning, equipped with handsaw, pick, shovel, and spade, we set out to clear that particular bed for new plants. The shrubs must have been planted when our home was built, nearly a half century ago. They didn’t look too intimidating, standing about three to four feet (about one meter) tall. Their biggest branches were about two to three inches (five to seven centimeters) in diameter, and they hadn’t done too well over the past year and winter. In fact, most of the shrubs appeared to be dead.
Seasoned gardeners will have already seen a number of warning lights flashing in my narrative. But we had a goal: we were two healthy adults, the weather was decent—nothing could stop us.
We hacked and sawed and dug and pulled and pushed. Six hours passed by in a whiff, and we had not been able to get the roots out. By this time our teenage daughter had joined our effort, bringing new energy, strength, and enthusiasm. The flower bed looked like an archaeological excavation site with deep trenches and mounds of clayey earth. We finally managed to get out the roots of two shrubs, but capitulated on the third, which we just sawed off as low as we could.
Our work bee taught me a number of lessons. Foremost among them is never (again) to underestimate roots. What you see in a tree or bush above ground is generally smaller than the total of plant beneath the surface. Stem or trunk, transport roots, and feeder roots make up about 80 percent of a tree’s proportion; branches, twigs, and leaves only the remaining 20 percent.1
That’s a good reminder of the importance of roots for the well-being of a living edifice as beautiful and majestic as a towering tree or as delicate and attractive as an eye-catching shrub. It also speaks to the necessity of a solid foundation, often not easily recognizable from the outside, of individuals, families, and churches. In fact, any type of community would do well to emulate similar proportions.
Recently I chatted with one of Adventism’s finest evangelists. He has brand-name recognition. He had just returned from a major outreach series and felt somewhat disillusioned when some of the saints disrupted a call to get their pictures taken with the evangelist. It seems that some Adventists, like society at large, are on the lookout for the next superstar. We like brand names. We recognize those whom we know from the flat screen, the magazine cover, or the pulpit.
Yet it is not the leaves or the majestic branches that keep a tree or shrub alive. Small feeder roots sustain the visible part of any tree or shrub. Without them the tree would quickly dry up and would lack essential minerals and nutrients.
This is a good reminder of the essential nature of local congregations forming the root system of what we call the church. While I appreciate the ministries of evangelists, administrators, professors, or editors, without our collective roots as a God-inspired movement in individuals, homes, and local congregations all over the world, this ecclesiastical edifice will not stand.
It’s really tough to pull roots or kill them quickly. They may be hurt; they may suffer damage—yet as long as they are sunk deeply and close to a water source they will flourish:
“But blessed is the man who trusts me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They’re like trees replanted in Eden,
putting down roots near the rivers—
Never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf,
Serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fresh fruit every season” (Jer. 17:7, 8, Message).
That’s the kind of church growth I am really excited about.
2 Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.