What the Church can learn–and better appreciate–from the West’s struggle to rebuild Christianity after severe losses.
Forest fires are terrible things, but the natural world has amazing ways to overcome the loss of plant life and entire ecosystems to the blazes.
The first flora and fauna that make the leap from habitable environment to the burned-out segments are fascinating species. These plants that are first on the scene are called “pioneering plants.” They work their way through rough or burned out terrain and require very little water, spreading fast over terrain that is inhospitable to most other life.
These pioneering plants are smaller than larger weeds or shrubs or even ivy. Lichen or moss are most common, but small hearty plants like the fireweed (picture above) can grow on burned out forests after a short time–or even recent lava flows. The following picture shows that two years after a major forest fire, moss that has made its mark on the blackened forest floor.
As we see, all is not lost when there is a wildfire or lava flow or simple environmental shift from human construction or abandonment. The pioneering plants are there: smaller than other plants, but hearty, and the forebears of more flora and fauna to come.
Pioneering Church Plants
As we think about plants, we also think about the new church plants that the varieties of Christianity has begun in the West.
Honestly, I feel for church planters in the scorched Christian parts of the West.My ministry context of the Pacific Northwest area has the highest number of non-affiliated Christians and the fewest churches. While we can frame it as the Abundant Zone rather than the None Zone, it’s a hard place to plant because the West got burned out on Christianity.
For the better part of a quarter century, television has depicted Christianity as the Religious Right and cable TV charlatans, while the working poor and desperate have been preyed upon by Prosperity Gospel preachers. With the more progressive West finding little in common with the largest Protestant denominations, little wonder church attendance and membership has been falling across the board, but most severely in the West. I cannot say I blame the West for rejecting Christianity at the highest rates of America.
Any church plant that tries to lay down roots and thrive in this region that is burned-out on Christianity has to be a hearty church plant indeed, and deserves our prayers.
Wildfire recovery folks celebrate the tiniest fireweed in the ashes that would normally be passed over or even rooted out in more lush areas only a mile away.
Likewise, we are in folly if we judge church plants in the West by the same standards as church plants in the Bible Belt.
I wonder if the pioneering plants look at where they came from like church planters look at the Bible Belt church plants. They are so much bigger, with their parent organizations often giving so many resources and training. Many of the Top Churches in my denomination of United Methodism are in the South and were planted by their current pastor. The scale and expectations of growth are just bewildering to the West, and yet our modest gains are seen as folly to visitors from Texas who see the largest United Methodist church in Oregon and say “what a nice little church you have here.”
I believe we are called to celebrate each tiny aspect of growth, to change our metrics, to invest in people not programs, and to see how we can better grow together and be better connected. The flora that follows the fires are smaller but connect together in intricate ways. While they don’t provide the tall steeples of the Bible Belt, they provide a connection and a resiliency that is commendable–and one that needs to be supported.
Not pioneering forever
One last factoid: the flora comes in first through hearty moss and weeds like the fireweed, but the fauna (the shrubs and trees) come later after the way is cleared by the groundcover. These larger plants eventually provide shade for animals under their leaves, leading to larger herbivores and predators over the decades. Eventually, a whole ecosystem is created in a new makeup to what was there before.
The pioneering plants provided a way for others to come and become part of a new ecosystem that were not there before.
The West may be burned out, but the new parts of the Body of Christ are new ecosystems of faith and activism that are not often seen in other more lush parts of Christianity. As they grow in and provide more diverse and replicating church systems, we will see a transformation and a method through the madness when creeping secularism reaches the Bible Belt’s doorstep.
We are all in this together–so let’s celebrate our pioneers, give them the resources they need to figure out how to “be” church in Post-Christendom, before the crisis reaches the highest steeples in the land and it may be too late for us all.
Thoughts? Thanks for your comments and your shares on social media.