This week I have glanced at some stuff on natural church growth. It all sounds very fine and lovely but it doens't quite connect for me.
The true fruit of apple trees, it says, is not apples, it's more apple trees: the raison d'etre of apple trees is to make more apple trees. Hence, it claims, by analogy, churches exist to make more churches. Well, hmm.
In the wild, apple trees don't produce all that much fruit, enough presumably to ensure that there will be more apple trees, though most of the 'offspring' clearly won't survive, otherwise the planet would be overrun by apple trees. Further, the point of reproduction is that apple trees don't live forever - they die, so if they don't pass on their genes there will be no more apple trees.
Also, apple trees, as we tend to think of them, are grown and tended for the specific purpose of producing apples. They are pruned and grafted to generate the desired product. And this has biblical precedent in the analogy of John 15 - I AM the vine. These aren't 'natural' vines, they are subject to vineculture. Vines and apple trees have a productive life after which, unless they are wild, they are cut down and mulched or burned; even in the wild they will sooner or later die of old age. Maybe the natural church growth models recognise this life-cycle issue, that churches have a finite span, but I didn't spot it (they talk of leaves forming compost but not dead trees). Maybe because churches are often seen as more like oak trees or redwoods which live for centuries we just never quite face this reality.
I think churches do eventually die, not because they have failed to reproduce (though they may have done) but because they are old, sick or tired. One of our difficulties is our reluctance to accept this - we inject the latest bought-in package for evangelism, discipleship or outreach, we pour in money or personnel in a desperate attempt to keep to keep an old, frail body alive when what it really needs is to rest in peace. Sometimes it is possible to resuscitate or even resurrect a church, but sometimes it isn't. If we claim to be 'natural' in our approach, might there be a time to quietly annotate the metaphorical medical file of a church with the letters DNR (Do Not Resuscitate)?
None of us want to be esslesiastical undertakers or palliative care nurses, but it is a valid ministry. Just as the hospice movement recognises that success is a good death rather than prolonging life, so we in church life need to learn when to intervene, when to stand back and how to make endings as healthy and hopeful as we can.
PS As I typed this I recalled ths story of the fig tree that Jesus 'zapped' at the start of holy week. Sometimes this leads us to make an unhealthy association of death with punishment for unfruitfulness (in the case of this poor tree when it wasn't even fruit season). Lack of doing/being what churches are meant to do/be will have its consequences, but that isn't the same as dying 'old and full of years.'