Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gardening

About 10 years ago while living in Iowa we received a Gurney’s Seed and Nursery catalog in the mail. The pages were filled with colorful, delicious fruit that could be grown in your own garden. All you had to do is order it, plant it, and harvest it. I set aside two full acres (we lived on a 70-acre farm) for my first-ever independent garden. I ordered strawberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, dewberries, blackberries, gold raspberries, pumpkins, and several varieties of watermelons. My dream was to grow as much great fruit as I could.

The summer started dry. No rain. Since you can’t have watermelons without water I spent countless hours carrying five-gallon buckets of water to the scores of watermelon plants. As the early-summer drought continued the berry bushes began shriveling. More water was needed – so much more that I pumped the well completely dry.

Sometime in mid-June the skies decided to open and release their moisture. And with the rains came weeds – 2 acres of them. Instead of watering plants I was now spending countless hours pulling weeds. The rain wouldn’t stop. As the entire strawberry patch was now flooded I faced a new problem. How do you get water out of a garden?

You can imagine the summer I had. My garden was a mess by the end of the summer. Weeds were growing everywhere. Every plant in the garden had evidence of varying degrees of neglect. Even so, nature did its part (have you ever seen how many watermelons can be grown on two acres?) I began giving watermelons to the neighbors. I’d take them to work and give them out. I loaded up my truck and handed them out after church services– more than once.

The foolishness of my gardening endeavor didn’t completely sink in until the weeds died in the fall. The whole hillside was covered in melon carcasses. Literally thousands of pumpkin and watermelons littered the landscape. What an embarrassing revelation for the entire countryside to see! I wonder what the neighbors thought!?!?

Even with my best efforts I was able to only rescue maybe 10% of the harvest. And the 10% of the fruit that was rescued wasn’t very good. Acceptable at best, but not good. I learned a valuable lesson that year. Just because you have a thousand melons on your hill doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re all rotten.

We often operate our youth ministries like I did my garden. Just because you have hundreds of kids in your youth room doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re not producing good fruit! Fruit production takes patience. And a fruit farmer can only handle so much fruit in his garden before he becomes ineffective and inefficient.

8 comments:

Joel Diaz said...

Amen.

Mike said...

what he said

Todd said...

SMOKES! This is good stuff. Keep on...

jerlight said...

what if some volunteers came along that were just as committed to fruit as you were? What if, instead of trying to grow and harvest the fruit all by yourself, you became the co-ordinator so that others would experience the joy (and, yes, the hard work and sometimes the frustration) of growing and harvesting fruit? just an (apparently radical) idea...

Mike said...

jerlight, i think we would all agree with you. a big farm needs plenty of hands in order to do all the work effectively. the problem with much of modern youth ministry, especially program-driven ministry, is that churches expect the "professional" to do much of the work of discipleship. for example, i am responsible at my church for discipling (or at least knowing and being connected to) 50 boys, and i am part-time staff. i can't care well for that many boys, and yet that is the expectation my boss has for me. i ask why we don't recruit mature adults to help lead, and my boss responds by saying that the kids don't want leaders who they will see as "parents"...the problem is exacerbated because my large, suburban church has very, very few folks between the ages of 20 and 30. so we're left with a small number of (sometimes immature) college kids who grew up in this church, never left home, and are hanging out.

i think the post is saying that often we, as youth workers, are expected to disciple far more students than we possibly can. and the church expects more kids, and more kids, and rather than the larger body participating in the discipleship of these kids, it is shunted off on the "professionals," who add to the problem by obsessively hanging on to the programmatic model

jerlight said...

mike - I agree with what you're saying but I think that I have heard some faulty assumptions in the reaction to the programmatic model. One is that the programatic model is a large group issue - I have experienced several smaller groups that were program driven. Another is that the only solution is to get small. I am just proposing that there may be another solution.
I recognize that the farming story is an analogy and so it will break down at certain points. At the risk of carrying it too far, I wonder what the alternatives for the farmer would be: becoming a smaller farm by not planting as much seed? That's one solution. However, I really do believe that another solution is to find workers to help tend the fruit and bring in the harvest. This increases the impact the farmer can have in his area (by blessing people with fruit).
Yes, I know that it is hard work to recruit volunteer staff and that it requires a paradigm shift (btw, do the students see the adult volunteers as parental figures or is that just the excuse adults give to not have to get involved? One way to combat this is to ask some of the students, "if you could ask three people from our church to come and be youth leaders, who would they be and why?" and then you have some great ammunition!) and in no way am I criticizing those youth pastors who are being dumped on because they are the professional. I also am aware that time is precious but I am worried that sometimes the urgent takes the place of the important: it's urgent that I plan something for this week but it's important that I find, equip and develop volunteers so that the students who are already coming can become healthy disciples of Jesus Christ.
I am also worried that our own desires sometimes prevent us from increasing the harvest: I got into youth ministry because I was passionate to see students be growing disciples of Jesus and because I really loved students. However, as more and more students starting finding a place to connect here, my role changed - I still work with students but my primary role became equiping and coaching volunteers. There are some days I really miss working with students and long for the simpler times of a smaller group but when I see the opportunity to plant seed and harvest fruit that my volunteers are having and the number of students who have the opportunity to be impacted by the good news message of Christ...
Anyways, that was a long comment to simply say that I think there's an alternative to planting fewer seeds and cultivating less soil.

Mike said...

jerlight,
i absolutely agree with you. as for the "parental figure" excuse...well, that is really just my boss hoping to avoid oversight. extremely problematic.

my current role is as paid staff in a large church with a large youth group, but reporting to the head director. so i've thought through some of how all this might work in the context of a larger group. and the only solution (it seems to me) is to change the culture, find more volunteers (namely volunteers interested more in discipleship than entertaining) and to do whatever you can to engage the students in the larger church body. all of these (and this is certainly not an exhaustive list) are hard.

how do you go about connecting students to the larger church body?

jerlight said...

one thing we don't do is run a youth worship service on Sunday morning (we still do Sunday School - that program seems to have 9 lives and rather than kill it because it had no purpose except that we've always done it that way, I've given up and decided to inject purpose into it) so that students can attend a worship service with everyone else. That's basically the extent of our "strategic" plan to connect students to the larger church body (besides having adult volunteers who run small groups but that tends to primarily be young adults).