By Dr. Brad Brady
Rev. Gene Cariker, a retired United Methodist pastor now living on St. Simons Island, was one of my early mentors in ministry. Gene often used gardening terms when describing the process of forming disciples. “Cultivating” was one of his favorite terms, or at least it is the word that has had the most influence on my ministry.
Of course, Gene was borrowing from Jesus, who often used gardening images when teaching about the enterprise of connecting people with God in ever-more-intimate ways. That is what disciple formation is all about!
I suppose you can be a fairly passive gardener. Such a concept would be an oxymoron for most true gardeners. You can go so far as to prepare soil, plant seeds, and water the ground and then take a “whatever will be, will be” attitude about the results.
After all, Jesus did talk about the Sower who did even less. The Sower broadly cast seeds so that they fell on four types of soil. Three-fourths of the ground types upon which the seeds landed were not receptive hosts. Seems pretty passive to me.
This relatively passive approach to gardening leaves everything to luck – which way the wind blows, its velocity, and the climate are what determine whether the seed has a chance of growing.
Certainly there are occasions when we cast the gospel seeds broadly and some fruit is borne in due season. But I don’t think Jesus was giving us a universal teaching about gardening techniques or disciple making when he described the Sower randomly casting seed and then walking away.
Jesus unquestionably demonstrated a more active and intentional approach when introducing persons to God and the abundant life that God desires for all humanity. There were “come and see” moments with the wide distribution of seeds. But almost immediately thereafter were opportunities for personalized attention when, like plants of a master gardener, the would-be followers were carefully tended with love, nurtured in the deeper truth, and cultivated for growth.
What kind of garden is your church? Is your church more like the median on the Interstate where, whatever grows, like the intermingled wildflowers and weeds, is left to the random acts of nature? Or is your church more like a well-tended greenhouse where everything possible is done to generate conditions where people are connected with God in ever-more-intimate ways?
What if each church sought to become more like a spiritual greenhouse where everything is done to create the optimum conditions for people to hear the gospel, follow him as Lord and abide in the Vine of Life?
Disciple making churches are comprised of lay and clergy disciples who take on the attributes of active master gardeners when it comes to cultivating people for ever-deepening faith experiences.
Most of us need to start with just a small garden. Like those who take just a corner of the yard or segment off a portion of the patio, we may need to start with a manageable effort. When forming disciples this will look more like a small group of no more than a couple of people with whom we are seeking to partner with God in the disciple formation endeavor.
Like in a greenhouse, the space you create for connecting with others will be as safe as possible. Everyone who risks learning more about God’s claim on our lives needs an accepting, loving climate where they can relax and explore what it really means to repent and believe the gospel. Like Jesus’ inner circle, we need opportunities to learn deeper truths in ways that we can apply in our lives.
Like in a greenhouse, the nurture offered each individual will be customized with appropriate proportions and timing. While each of us moves through similar stages of faith development, the “master gardener” will patiently cultivate each one toward deeper faith while respecting the uniqueness of each person’s past experiences and varying degrees of readiness to respond.
Like in a greenhouse, the gardener recognizes that he or she can only do so much. The climate can be just right and the soil well tended. In gardening and in the spiritual life, we can talk to and encourage each plant or person as we expectantly watch for the signs of breakthrough. All the while, God is at work in mysterious ways cultivating new life through grace. Even with all the work we do, which is part of God’s grace filled process, the fruit will only come forth when “the time is right.”
Jesus started with just a few individuals. He taught the masses and then explained to the few who were brought close for intensive cultivation. They watched Jesus and then experimented with faithful practices. Jesus clarified, encouraged and coached. Safety, love, nurture and patience were in generous supply. Each emerging disciple was respected for his or her uniqueness and freewill. People responded to the invitation and challenge to follow Jesus Christ.
People still do! When care, intentionality, respect, patience, and practical faith sharing form the climate into which God’s grace flows, people respond to the invitation and challenge to follow Jesus and accept him as Lord.
Wouldn’t it be great to be part of this same phenomenon? Why not look for a person or two with whom you can join to form a little greenhouse experience. Together, create the space, provide the nurture, and build the expectancy that God will meet you where you are and invite you into a deeper faith experience.
As your garden grows, expand your reach, impact more people, and watch God do amazing things in your midst.
Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.