July 13, 2007

I stood at our second story bedroom window shortly after midnight stunned by what I saw in our backyard. In the dim light of a distant streetlight I could just barely make out the form of a large animal standing next to our apricot tree. Grabbing my flashlight I gently woke up my wife, Babs, and whispered excitedly,
“You’ve got to come see this!”
Leading her to another bedroom with an open window I shined the flashlight down into our backyard illuminating the area around the apricot tree.
“It’s a deer,” she proclaimed suddenly wide awake.
“A buck,” I added, “with a full rack and three, no four, points on each side.”
“How did he get in here?” Babs asked. “Did he jump over the fence?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “That fence is way too high, even for a deer. He must have come around the side of the house from the front yard through the place where we don’t have any gate. The drought has probably driven him down from the hills.”
We watched the handsome creature for several minutes until I began to get a little irritated at all the apricots he was consuming. Confronting the deer in the backyard I managed to shoo him away from the fruit and chased him back around the side of the house where he promptly disappeared down the street. The very next night, however, he returned apparently hungry for another meal from our apricot tree. Perturbed by the repeat visitation I erected a barrier on the side of the house using our trash bins hoping that this would discourage the persistent thief. So far my defense has worked perfectly.
If only the rest of our apricot woes were as easily fixed. Ever since we first moved into our present home eleven years ago and inherited a backyard orchard we have looked forward to a bountiful harvest of fruit. Our apple tree, lemon trees, and plum trees have fully met our expectations. The apricot tree, unfortunately, is another story. Between the birds, squirrels, insects, and now deer, we have enjoyed precious little fruit. For whatever reasons, the tree has never produced an abundant crop.
But this year it looked like our fortune had finally changed. A few months ago we rejoiced to discover that the apricot tree was loaded with little green fruit. As the fruit ripened and began to turn a bright orange we could see that the tree was completely covered with apricots. Our joy soon turned to dismay, however, as the growing fruit began to significantly weigh down the branches. We grabbed some old lumber and tried to prop up the limbs as best we could but soon the branches had sagged all the way to the ground. Then, tragedy struck. One of the branches broke off and hundreds of immature apricots were ruined.
I had intended to prune the tree last winter but a busy schedule and then a broken arm combined to postpone the work until it was too late. Now we were paying the price for our neglect. In the worst of timing, nature was doing the job I had procrastinated. We can only hope that the apricots will ripen quickly before any more branches break. There have been, however, a few benefits coming from our apricot tragedy concerning some valuable lessons I have learned, about procrastination and raising fruit to mention two, but also about the church. What follows is wisdom gleaned from nursing an over-burdened fruit tree and an unfruitful experience in trying to compel a mid-sized congregation to grow.
No matter what statistical analyses you consult, the future of the institutional church in this country looks bleak. (Check, for instance, The Present Future by Reggie McNeal.) At the same time, interest in spiritual matters is on the rise. Clearly, people are not rejecting spirituality. They are abandoning the traditional church in this culture. Why is this phenomenon occurring? Perhaps our apricot tree has a few clues.
For years we have measured success for the churches in this country by the size of their Sunday morning attendance. Regrettably this has precipitated an unbalanced focus on the numbers of individuals warming our pews as opposed to a focus on whether or not all that “fruit” is actually maturing. The problem with the church in this culture is not that our congregations are too small, but rather that they are too large. For someone, like me, who attended seminary during the height of the church growth movement of the last century, this last statement may seem like heresy. But my own experience and our prolific apricot tree has taught me the truth of that assessment.
When we try to grow too much fruit on one tree, or cram too many believers into one church, several negative consequences will eventually become evident. Too many apricots usually mean the fruit that is produced will be smaller. There are only so many nutrients to go around. In the church there are a finite number of pastors and teachers available to equip the saints. Equippers are easily overwhelmed and congregants suffer unless leaders are taught to multiply themselves allowing for more “nutrients” to reach the flock. Unfortunately, many pastors are not too keen on training up others to share their job. It was he who gave some to be…pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. – Eph. 4:11-12.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that there will be a few near the top soaking up all the sunshine and consequently maturing quickly, while others on lower branches are shaded from the sun and grow much more slowly. In any type of top-down leadership structure, the more the institution grows the less approachable the leadership becomes. They are too high above it all, inaccessible, spending a majority of their time administratively rather than serving others. In a church this becomes tragic when lower fruit are convinced that only a few highly gifted individuals are actually called to pastor or lead a congregation. The gifts of others remain undiscovered, undeveloped, and unused. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. – Jn. 10:11. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Mk. 10:45.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some will be hidden by leaves and other fruit. These neglected fruit may never ripen and may never be picked because they can’t be easily seen. Our churches are filled with neglected saints who remain hidden in the back pews, whose fruit never ripens and who never get picked to serve in any ministry. It is no great mystery why these individuals eventually fall away from the tree and are consumed by pests or simply rot away. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… – Jn. 10:14.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some fruit will become more susceptible to various unwelcome pests like birds, insects, or even deer. The sheer numbers of fruit involved will mean no one will miss a few dozen here or there. But in the church, Christ makes it clear that every soul is precious and it is the duty of the shepherd to guard the flock from predators and go after those who are lost. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? – Lk. 15:4.
Too many apricots on the tree mean that some branches may become so overburdened that they will break off from the main tree and their fruit will be lost. For years we have witnessed this phenomenon taking place in our churches bemoaning the pain of broken fellowship that occurs and the souls who are lost to the world. Our only answers seem to involve dreaming up more programs to prop up our sagging, overloaded ministry. But when such a split becomes evident more programs will be unlikely to solve the problem and may actually do more harm by requiring additional man-hours for those who are already overworked. The real solution involves pruning the branches at the proper time, before they become weighted down by too much fruit.
What do I mean by pruning? Am I suggesting we actually cut off members of our congregations when our gatherings reach a certain size? No, of course not! But I am suggesting we instill in our churches the value of growing smaller, not larger; of forming a plurality of less weighty gatherings rather than insisting that everyone attend one mass assembly in one location; of teaching that every believer in Christ is gifted and called to ministry; of showing by example that leadership in the body of Christ is servant oriented—bottom-up, not top-down; of affirming that every attendee, no matter their worldly or spiritual status, is vitally important to Christ and His body and should be given every opportunity to grow and encouraged to bear fruit. No Christian believer should be allowed to go to their grave with their fruit still green. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. – Col. 1:28. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. – Jn. 15:16.
I am advocating that we equip our members to minister and then send them out to do exactly that, giving birth to new ministries, planting new churches, and bearing fruit wherever God leads them. Insisting that they remain firmly connected to our particular “tree” is endangering all the other fruit and only serving to inflate our own egos. Jesus was not much of a gatherer. He was, however, a great sender, a great commissioner. He often tried to avoid the crowds opting instead to spend time with a select few of His disciples. He sent out the twelve. Later He sent out the seventy-two. Then He sent us all out. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… – Mt. 28:19.
We need to tear down the defensive barriers we have erected between the church and the world, not to allow the world to infiltrate the church, but to allow the church to invade the world. A fruitful orchard grows not by trying to produce the largest tree, but by planting more trees and keeping them carefully pruned. The church grows not by congregating in the largest gatherings possible, but by equipping the fruit and casting them out to plant more churches. As I’ve said before, the goal of the apricot tree is not to produce fruit, but rather to produce more apricot trees. Bearing fruit is just the natural by-product of progress toward the main goal. And that goal will never be reached unless the fruit falls from the tree.

Bill, a fruitful child of God


  1. Wonderful, Bill. Obviously well-learned and well spoken here. A lot of us have lived this out and been shown the same, and we say amen.

    Blessings, Brother

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