Is God pruning American Christianity?

July 8th, 2015

In much of the contemporary conversation about the church, we use life/death language to frame what we say. So, some allege they are in a “dead” church, while just down the road others claim theirs is “alive.” And from there, we expand the conversations to evaluate denominations and other parts of the body of Christ. The recent Pew survey on religion in America is a case in point of how life/death interpreters go to work on the data.

Subsidiary words are also used to carry the freight of the life/death metaphor (e.g. bigger means life, growing means life — the opposites mean death), leaving us with human measuring tools that combine theology, sociology, demographics and trends to form, describe and defend our assessments.

Missing in a lot of this conversation is a third category, one that Jesus himself used — the process of pruning (John 15:2). In every vineyard, most branches were alive and bearing some fruit, but all the branches had to be pruned recurringly so they could bear more fruit.

This is the category I choose to use in talking about what is happening to the church today. Life/death language takes survey data and uses it to say, “If this trend continues, we will be out of business by the year________ (different years for different groups).” And, of course the statisticians are correct, IF it is all about numbers. A vineyard worker would agree — if you keep cutting back the branch, it will eventually be gone. And that is the way most of what I read and hear frames the conversation.

Life/death language gives groups permission to go into crisis mode, requiring a last-ditch effort to save the vineyard — usually described in some kind of divisionary concept or lifeboat call to join “the true believers” in getting off the sinking ship.

The pruning metaphor operates from a different assumption — that cutting back is for the purpose of greater fruitfulness in the future. It is a theological and ecclesial manifestation of “less is more.” It does not require abandoning the existing vineyard, but only tending it with greater attention and care.

I cannot speak comprehensively about pruning because even Jesus said only the vinedresser (his heavenly Father) knows what needs pruning, and how much cutback there needs to be on a given branch. But at least here in North America, I believe God is pruning us along lines that (whether real or imagined) are stunting the fruitfulness of Christianity. Here are a limited number of examples where I believe God is pruning us:

  • Christianity is being separated from the impression that the true version of it is largely located in one political party.
  • Christianity is being pulled from the grip of “media Christians” who use their platforms, institutions, and ministries to allege the country is going to hell in a handbasket, and they are the only ones who can “save the nation.”
  • Christianity is being pruned of dualistic thinking which (among other things) allows one group to claim it holds the copyright on orthodoxy.
  • Christianity is being purged of a top-heavy institutionalism that concentrates power in too few and consumes too much money on ecclesial maintenance.
  • Christianity is being taken out of the hands of “old guys” (and yes, much of it is GUYS), who hang on too long and block the emergence of a new generation of young leaders.
  • Christianity is being salvaged from those who blur the life-giving distinction between doctrine and opinion, losing sight of the fact that the issues we must face are shaped by hermeneutics, not by the false charge that only certain Christians “believe in the Bible.”
  • Christianity is being cleansed of the public impression that it is made up of people who are mean-spirited, judgmental, and arrogant.
  • Christianity is being emptied of concepts that allow quantification (“more is better”) to be definitive in determining its authenticity and vitality.

These cutbacks are threatening to any living on the part of the branch that will be removed, and we can expect the soon-to-be-pruned branch portion to put up quite a fight when the shears begin to do their work.

The pruning is not a sign that the branch will soon die, but that it will be restored to new and fuller life — to the spirit and substance God has had in mind for it all along. Pruning is the prelude to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) on the vine.

In that day, the church will be a fruitful vine. And with that fruit in place, it will be harvested by the Spirit so that the world can drink the New Wine only God can make!

Steve Harper is the author of “For the Sake of the Bride” and “Five Marks of a Methodist.” He blogs at Oboedire.

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