Frankly, I’m tired of books about the church. With some exceptions, they are impatient critiques. And for a working pastor, though they have some salient points, as a steady diet they become deeply wearying. The church is never “missional” enough, “radical” enough, “spiritually disciplined” enough, “relevant” enough, “creedal” enough, “Reformed” enough, “doing justice enough,” or “growing” enough. But none of this is news to any experienced pastor who is trying to nourish the Lord’s sheep, most of whom are just surviving amid cancer, divorce, bankruptcy and temptation. I have discovered that an obsession with the failures of the church instead of the victory of Christ will not help the church in the ways some sociologists imagine. Plus, it’s depressing and unbiblical.
All this critique tempts pastors to try to shape the church to appear more like what they think the latest emphasis is, and be anxious when their church is not impressive in these ways. This shaping has to do with pleasing often-imaginary pastoral peers, the authors of the books that line the shelves. But the church is not our project, or at least not primarily ours. It is Christ’s church. He trims it for fruit, not for looks.
Topiary is the science and art of trimming bushes or trees to look like various “non-bush” things—like Mickey Mouse for instance. You see a lot of it at Disney Land. It takes considerable skill and is quite impressive when done right. The problem with topiary is that the actual fruit of the bush or tree is an obstacle to the beautification project. When I worked as a grounds keeper I remember spraying giant olive trees so they would not bear olives because the olives were messy. I think much pastoral literature coerces us into being grounds keepers instead of farmers.
One thing I have learned is that, though I must keep learning even from critiques, the church is not Disney Land. It is a working farm, with all the mess and inefficiency that a working farm experiences. Pastoring is not marketing, manufacturing, or topiary. It is not glamorous or flattering. Farming is hard, seasonal, long-term, humble work with lots of set-backs, dependent on many forces outside our control (weather, God’s providence), and focused on fruit, not impressiveness. There is virtue in patience, as every farmer knows (James 5:7).