I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a tomato grown hydroponically. You probably have, even if you don’t know it. Hydroponic tomatoes are ones that are grown in water (along with a few additive minerals). It’s kind of an amazing process. It’s one thing to water your plants; it’s entirely another to grow them in water.
Once, when my wife was on a weeklong business trip, I was left in charge of watering her potted plants. I forgot to water them until the last day prior to her return. It was summer, and the only reason I remembered was the sight of the wilting flowers. A few of them burned out, and none of them were very healthy looking when she arrived home.
The next time that happened, I wrote myself a note to avoid a similar occurrence. I watered like a fiend. I literally drowned some of them. And to think I had once entertained the idea of becoming a farmer. For normal plants, water is critical–and too much is deadly (as I sorrowfully discovered).
In our day and age, many churches are unwittingly making an attempt to grow without soil. While you can pull that off with tomatoes, it’s not a good plan for congregations.
When the loyal commuters are gone…
What happens is this. A church is established in a neighborhood over a period of years—often for generations. Then people begin to move away for whatever reason. If their move isn’t too far, they continue to attend on Sundays. Anything scheduled during the week, however, necessarily has to be ignored by these loyal commuters.
Eventually, more and more people move away, and fewer and fewer continue to attempt giving long distance support. Other members die. A small remnant is left behind holding the watering can, and the roots of the community are now elsewhere.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will give one a deep sense of the fact that the church was always a community of people deeply rooted in the soil of the surrounding neighborhood. When the roots are stripped away, they must necessarily be replaced. The church, unlike hydroponic tomatoes, cannot be separated from the soil.
“They will eventually wither and die.”
Many of our congregations today are attempting to grow absent that soil. The neighborhood, for them, is something that used to be theirs. Now it’s someone else’s. If they don’t work to become a part of that neighborhood, they will eventually wither and die. Hydroponic churches simply don’t exist. And neither can they exist with new roots that merely float in thin air. Any new roots must dig deep into the nearby soil.
The church, it seems to me, was always meant to be an integral part of her neighborhoods. The neighbors can no longer be expected to show up just because the church building is still present in the community. That day has passed.
We need to plant our seed (and ourselves) in the things God is doing locally. If we don’t, we’ll surely fade into the sunset.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]