Growing churches is like growing trees

Principles of church growth drawn from the natural world

Ricardo Norton, D.Min., is an associate professor of Christian ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Though Scripture warns that fruitless churches will be cut down like bad trees (Matt. 3:10), it also compares healthy believers to trees planted by waters, with deepening roots, green leaves, and much fruit (Ps. 1:1-3; Jer. 17:8). In fact, the growth of trees and the growth of churches have much in common.

To begin, trees grow upward, reaching toward sunlight, which they need to live. Quality, intensity, and duration of exposure affect their health and growth. Insufficient light hampers photosynthesis and interferes with the tree's production of oxygen and other important organic compounds. With out light, trees die. In dense forests, only those trees that stick their necks out over others can get sufficient light. In their quest for light, branches covered by shadows reach out in desperation, at times making incredible twists and turns. Light is so important for trees that some botanists have classified them according to the light they receive.

Jesus Christ is to the church what sun light is to trees. He came to the world to give light and life to those who were in the shadows of darkness and death (Luke 1:79). He is the Sun and illumination of the church and of all who wish to be bathed by His saving rays (Mal. 4:2; John 8:12; 12:46).

Growing churches look up to Christ for their sustenance. They are Christocentric. Christ's light shines in their proclamation, relations, and actions. They know Christ as the only one who can melt human hearts. A church without Christ is lifeless. He is the source of real life (John 3:36; 5:24; 14:6; 1 John 5:13,14).

This Christocentricity, attested by the Scriptures (John 5:39; Luke 24:27) is what makes the church truly Christian. The biblical centrality of Jesus not only challenges us to develop a Christocentric approach to ministry but also mandates a Christocentric dogma and kerygma. As growing trees continuously strive for new heights in the quest for sunlight, growing churches also reach upward to the Sun of Righteousness, the Source of power and life.

Next, trees grow internally by the multiplication and accumulation of new cells. These cells form the tree's structure, the leaves, stems, and roots. These different organs work in synergy, giving the tree sup port and all the other ingredients needed for subsistence. The roots dig voraciously for nitrogenous compounds, water, and other nutrients. Roots often spread beyond the width of the crown anchoring the tree sol idly to the ground, securing it from winds and other forces that may topple it. The different stems, with their hollow cones firmly joined, give the tree mechanical support and serve as food storage. The leaves absorb light energy and through photosynthesis provide oxygen, hormones, and other life-giving organic compounds. No organ in a growing tree is idle. Each performs a particular task, but all work in unison.

Like a tree, growing churches also need the synergetic participation of all members. No church can subsist on the efforts of the pastor alone. "The ministers can do their part, but they can never perform the work that the church should do." 1 Unfortunately, in a lot of churches, one person is doing the work of many.

In trees, different organs perform distinct activities for the benefit of the whole. Likewise, in the church different members with diverse gifts accomplish different functions for the whole. Not all members can do the same thing in the same manner; all have different personalities, inclinations, interests, and gifts. But all work in unison with dedication and unselfishness to make a perfect whole.

Further, the pattern of growth differs in trees as well as in churches. In some trees the terminal leader branch grows more each year than the lateral branches below it, giving the tree a conical shape. In other trees, the lateral branches grow almost as fast or faster than the terminal leader, resulting in more rounded or ovate tree crowns. The growth of trees is also influenced by light, shade, climate, and soil quality.

Church growth is also influenced by geographical location, leadership, human and financial resources, and the climate around the church. Most people prefer warm churches with friendly members, located not too far from their homes.

In the Old Testament, Lebanon was famous for its vast forests (see 2 Chron. 2:8; 9:16), especially of cedar trees. The psalmist sees in the health and grandeur of cedar the majestic handiwork of the Creator (Ps, 104:16). Churches will grow "like cedars of Lebanon," when they are planted in the Lord (see Ps. 92:12,13). God provides the church with the nutrients and light to live. He protects the church from enemies, as the bark tissues of woody plants shield them from bacteria, chemicals, and unfriendly insects.

Fascinatingly, trees have reproductive organs flowers, fruits, and seeds. The seed, of course, is the most important, but its existence depends on the fruit and the flower. How tiny seeds come to life and grow into the largest living things on earth is a wonder of God's design and power.

The perpetuation and survival of trees depends on the preservation of seeds and how they are planted in other places. Trees use ingenious methods to reach far away places in order to give rise to offspring. Some trees cover their small seeds with light fibers that stick out like hairs so they can be carried by the wind many miles from their dissemination point. In the case of some plants, birds and animals eat their fruit and deposit the seeds in distant places. Some animals like squirrels bury for winter more seeds than they can eat during a given winter, thus collaborating with the tree's efforts to multiply.

Likewise, growing churches need to use different methods in order to reach different people in different places. The church must study the most appropriate method for a particular region.2 Growing churches must also multiply and expand. They must plant the gospel seed, confident that the Lord will make their efforts fruitful (see Ps. 126:6; Isa. 55:11; Eccl. 11:1; Prov. 11:30). The growth of the seed in the soil of the human heart will be progressive and automate. The Greek word automate (NIV translates it as "all by itself" in Mark 4:28) infers a natural by product of divine intervention. Lasting church growth is the result of divine power, not human schemes, even though God works through human instruments. The apostolic church experienced enormous growth because divine power was at work (see Acts 2:38-41, 47; John 15:16; 16:8).

God's plan for the church has always been global to reach every corner of the world, to radiate His light among those in darkness. The church exists to absorb the light of Jesus and reflect it. It has no light of its own. Once the light of Jesus is in the human heart, shining becomes automatic. Believers would not be able to conceal it. Shining for Jesus be comes part of their lifestyle. "If Christ is dwelling in the heart, it is impossible to conceal the light of His presence."3

God created trees to be a blessing to humankind. We are dependent on them in many ways from food to wood, from soil conservation to ecological balance, from medicine to air. Likewise, God has planted his church to be a blessing to humanity. The blessing includes more than the spiritual: The church is the only hands God has on this earth, to reach out and touch the sick, the poor, the needy, and the destitute of this earth.

Yet the church is composed of its individual members, who, if faithful, can fill the words of Jeremiah the prophet: "Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit" (Jer. 17:7,8). Much rather those words be fulfilled in us than the words of John the Baptist: "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:10).

1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 4:69.

2. See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 106,125,126.

3. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), 41.

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Ricardo Norton, D.Min., is an associate professor of Christian ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

April 1998

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