If you ever need any advice on gardening, then I’m definitely (not) your man!
I knew I needed to do something about my overgrown rose bush when it started taking over the corner of our small garden and we hadn’t seen any roses for a long time. So three years ago, I set to work. (Gardeners and those of a sensitive disposition should jump to the next paragraph now!) With hedge shears in hand and no clue in my head I began to hack away at this agrarian interloper until I was left with little more than a small brown stump. It was in that moment that I realised I had gone too far and probably killed it! Imagine my surprise the following spring, when looking out of my window I saw beautiful roses (yes, plural) growing from a rather healthy looking rose bush! What would it have been like if I had pruned it properly?
Although I would never recommend such barbaric pruning, nevertheless in all walks of life there comes a time when coming back to the basics, trimming away the extraneous and reconsidering what is important, plays a vital role in the health and welfare of our lives. Business advisors tell their clients to refocus on their strengths. Doctors warn patients to give up certain foods. A new football manager tells his team that they will be refocusing on the basics of defence and attack. It is worth taking time out as Christians to consider areas where we might grow through pruning back and considering if we have lost sight of the vital behind a haze of the merely helpful or interesting.
Pruning is necessary for health
In his diary, the renowned pastor, Jonathan Edwards, describes his practice of reviewing each day, week, month and year to consider areas in need of cutting back, checking on growth and ensuring God-glorifying spiritual health. Of course, we know that we must severely deal with the sins of our own lives. We must kill them (Colossians 3:5). But maybe an area which we don’t consider for pruning is the places where good things have overtaken the necessary. Churches that have been overrun by programmes and meetings require times of analysis as to whether these serve the basic necessities of a healthy church or are beginning to strangle them. As a pastor, I’ve also become aware of how distracting the latest evangelical ‘church growth’ fads are to the way God actually grows his church. Even excellent, biblical courses can, at times, be distracting. Barry Cooper is the co-author of the Christianity Explored evangelistic course. He wrote this on his website: ‘As Western evangelicals, we have become increasingly reliant on courses, programs, techniques and methodologies to do the work of evangelism and discipleship… At their best, programs increase our reliance on God and his Word. But at their worst, programs simply increase our reliance on programs.’ Church elders must do on the corporate level what Jonathan Edwards did on a personal level: regularly reviewing whether the basics of church health are being served or strangled by old programmes or new innovations. They may not be but surely it is worth diarising a review? Pruning is necessary for health.
But how far back might we need to prune? There are, of course, a number of marks of a healthy church. In his book, 9 Marks of a Health Church, Mark Dever suggests: expositional preaching, biblical theology, a biblical understanding of the gospel, conversion, evangelism, church membership, church discipline, discipleship and leadership. I want to mention two; two that lie at the heart of all truly fruitful churches — preaching and prayer.
God leads his church through the declared Word of God, preached by those he has gifted and called for that specific work. It is an awesome moment when we sit down on that chair on Sunday and the Bible is opened, read and preached. In that moment, God is communicating with his people, communicating with you.
‘Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ,’ wrote William Ames in The Marrow of Theology.
At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Christ illustrates the wise life that is built on healthy foundations. The builder with the healthy foundation is the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does them’ (Matt. 7:24). The hearing of the Word of Christ, followed by obedience to what we have heard, ensures stability through the storms of persecution (Matt. 5:10-12), temptation to sin (Matt. 5:21-47), anxiety (Matt. 6:25-34) and much more. James 1 tells us that God’s people must faithfully listen to the preaching of God’s Word and obey it immediately, willingly and joyfully. ‘Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do’ (Jas. 1:25). As Joel Beeke and Mark Jones remind us in A Puritan Theology, each local church must ensure that we have ‘an ethos where preaching stands at the centre of worship and devotion’. We must keep it at the forefront of our minds that God builds his church primarily through preaching.
Along with that we must understand the vitality of prayer. The apostle Paul often wrote to churches to remind them of this. To the church in Rome he said ‘be faithful in prayer’ (Rom. 12:12); to the church at Philippi ‘in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil. 4:6); to the church at Colossae, ‘devote yourselves to prayer’ (Col 4:2). For Paul, every church must knuckle down to pray together, faithfully and earnestly. A church that does not prioritise prayer should not expect powerful, life-transforming preaching or spiritual growth. The excuse of tiredness for not attending prayer meetings is as old as the disciples in the garden. To them Christ said, with a sense of incredulity, ‘Can you not watch with me one hour?’ (Matt. 26:40). We cannot bemoan a lack of revival if we do not devote ourselves to prayer. How quickly do we forget Christ’s maxim that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?’ (Matt. 26:23). Until we realise the reality of these words we will be careless in prayer for we have forgotten that salvation is only possible if God acts.
Where must I prune?
Regularly coming back to the basics of preaching and prayer is necessary for long-term spiritual health. Individually and collectively we must ensure that our spiritual priorities are truly given the time, the place and the enthusiasm they require. We must be skilled gardeners, wisely snipping away and cutting back, until we are ready for growth. Healthy flowering results from wise pruning.