A few weeks back, my wife and I journeyed to BC wine country for a few days of rest and vacation. For four days we lounged by the pool, walked amidst the vineyards, and visited wineries. The highlight of our trip was a private tour of the winery where we were staying. Our guide, Sophie, took us throughout the winery, explaining the process of hand harvesting, gravity-fed fermentation, and barrel toasting. We saw the large steal fermentation tanks, the temperature controls, and the hundreds of barrels of wine lining the cellar walls. Sophie was incredibly knowledgeable, filled with wisdom about the art of vinification. As she spoke of the particular climate of the area, she mentioned how the vineyard will occasionally reduce the yield of the harvest in response to temperature of the season. “We will green-harvest the grapes, thus allowing the nutrients of the vine and increase the health of the remaining grapes.”
So it is more important to have a healthy harvest than a large harvest? Exactly.
I couldn’t’ help but wonder if this has any sort of application to the life of the church today. We all know that denominational numbers are on the decline. Studies have shown that less and less people are coming out to church these days. Membership in mainline denominations, such as my own –The Anglican Church of Canada – tend to skew toward the middle to later in life, with a noticeable absence of the teenage through young adult years. Sometimes this has been termed “The missing generation.” When we talk about this reality in the church, it often comes with a tone of fear and anxiety. We fear that we are losing the battle, or that we are failing at church. “Who will be there after we are gone?” “How will the church ‘survive?’” Underlying these statements is a certain belief, never articulated but there nonetheless, that bigger equals better; a larger yield is a more blessed yield. This keeps us focused on the number of individuals we have coming through our doors on a weekly basis. And if our numbers today are not as large as yesterday then something is amiss. Because the most important things is having more and more grapes, right?
But what if that’s not the case? What if there are times where the yield of individual grapes within the church actually needs to go down in order to ensure the health of the entire vineyard?
Now I’m not suggesting that God, the true Gardner, is actively keeping people away from the church, or that we no longer have the mission to share the good news of Christ. But it is an intriguing question isn’t it? Could this time of numerical decline, rather than speaking about a failure of the church, actually speak to a process of pruning? For us who remain in the vine, could God be using this time to draw us more deeply into the richness of his life-giving spirit? Remember, Jesus himself said “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2) The act of pruning is done so that the remaining grapes are able to receive more life, more health, more nutrients. Sometimes we look to this verse and think that ‘fruitful’ means ‘more grapes!’ But what if fruitfulness speaks more to health than number?
What I am suggesting is that God desires us to be a healthy church rather than a large one. After all, is it actually the case that God wishes every church to become a mega-church? Like a wine-maker that is only interested in the number of individual grapes, could this understanding of the church’s mission actually work against the overall health of the entire vineyard?
I believe that we in the church today should shift our focus away from the primacy of numbers. Just as knowledgeable winemakers cares more for the health of the vineyard rather than the number of grapes per yield, we need to stop looking to the size of individual churches as the testimony to overall healthy and stability. Instead, we need to look to how we are engaged in the ongoing process of being formed in the image of Christ Jesus. How are we being united to Jesus, through devotion to the Apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers? Do people actually read their Bible? Are people’s lives being touched by the Spirit of God? Are church members becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, or more patient? The answer to these questions cannot be found in an appeal to the number of people attending church on Sunday. These questions expose what is really going on within the church and speaks to the church’s health and vitality.
For any winery, more important that the number of barrels it produces each years is the health of the wine within those barrels. It is the health of the wine, not the number of grapes, that makes or breaks a vineyard. Similarly, for any church, more important than the number of people lining the pews on Sunday morning is their spiritual health and Christ-likeness. This is the heart of our mission, our witness, and our Christian life.