Our last parsonage had a huge grove of trees in the backyard, several of which had grown to about 25 feet. We loved their shade and the privacy they provided during the summer. In the fall, however, the trustees noticed they needed attention. The branches were getting thick and rubbing against each other and there were quite a few dead limbs.
I know virtually nothing about trimming trees, so I was glad when the trustees had a tree surgeon inspect the trees. He told us that some posed a safety risk and needed to be removed. Other trees were basically healthy, but they needed pruning. Many trees were no longer beautiful, no longer producing fruit, and served no useful purpose.
Jesus uses a similar analogy for our churches:
“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)
There are negative and positive aspects of this passage, although both involve painful processes.
As hard as it might be to admit, disciples and their churches are not immune to even the worst kinds of sin and evil. Paul writes these words to churches, not to ‘sinners’: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5). Like dead branches on a dying tree, these must be removed completely. Prayer, fasting, seeking forgiveness and repentance are not purely negative: they help a church thrive.
Like a tree with dying branches, churches must go through a process of “pruning their programs” in order to thrive. Programs and events that effectively served the community for years eventually become internal traditions. While they have powerful memories attached to them, they no longer serve the mission of the church in a changing world.
The concept of pruning is clear in John 15. God calls us to prune that which does not bear fruit. We need to understand the effectiveness of our ministries both in hard numbers and spiritual impact, and then be willing to prune thoughtfully so we can focus our time, talents and treasure on what matters most to God.
We might agonize over how this might hurt the church and its people. Whether it be our personal habits or church programs, pruning is a painful process. So, we must remember 2 things: 1) God is the gardener (or the tree surgeon); 2) Removing old branches makes it possible for beautiful, useful and fruitful branches to grow.