Don’t you find it strange
That God, He made four seasons
But only one spring?
—Chris Renzema, “Let the Ground Rest”
There are mountains on the ocean floor
They’re rising from the deep, but no one ever sees
They’re moving up so slow, no one ever knows
—Andrew Peterson, “Mountains”
I sat with a group of frustrated pastors this week. Nearly every one shared that their attendance is down about 30% from a year and a half ago, before COVID-19, which is consistent with what we’ve seen at Community Church. No matter what we try, they said, we just can’t get people to come back. And it’s not just attendance. People seem hesitant to jump back into fellowship, to engage in relationship with each other. Some are tired. Some are hurting. Some are afraid. It’s harder than ever to find the volunteers needed to sustain ministry. Rather than running the race, it feels like the church is marching through mud.
As much as we all want the COVID-19 crisis to be behind us, it is still going on, and the ongoing effects are all over the place. Whether we like it or not, getting back to “normal” is taking a lot longer than we wanted. It’s frustrating. But when frustration comes into my life, I am learning that the biggest reason is usually that I had a certain vision of the way things were supposed to go, and they didn’t go that way. If I were open to whatever God wanted to bring my way, I wouldn’t be so frustrated all the time. But when I make plans, or assumptions, and those things don’t happen, I struggle to maintain the right attitude.
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign. This means He is over all. He is in charge. As our office manager Tiffany says, Nothing comes into my life that He has not signed off on first. If that’s true, then when difficult things happen, it’s better to ask the question “What is God doing?” than to ask “Who can I blame?” With COVID-19, there are plenty of people trying to assign blame, and I’m content to leave that (fruitless) pursuit to others. I want to know what God is up to.
God knew churches would stumble through shutdowns and masks. He knew we would have to scramble to figure out live-streaming and all the technological questions. He knew attendance would drop, and that people would be slow to come back. Think about that: God knew our attendance would drop, and He’s okay with it! In other words, steady upward numerical growth is not always God’s plan for His church. While we measure success by what is visible (numbers, dollars, etc.), God seems to think that at times, other things are more important.
We all want to grow, to see progress. Pastors want to see more attendance, more baptisms, more transformed lives. Parents want to see their children growing in maturity. Business owners want to see profit and expansion. We want to advance in our careers. We want to see our loved ones growing closer to God. Hopefully, we want to grow in wisdom and grace as we age. When we don’t see these things happening, we get nervous. Are we doing something wrong? We start wondering how we can manipulate people and circumstances to get the outcome we are hoping for.
Unlike us, our God is incredibly patient. He has a formula for growth that is so slow, you know it wasn’t people who came up with it. For fully half the year, at least in Susanville, most plants aren’t growing, they’re dying or dormant. In autumn, leaves fall and grass turns brown. All winter long, trees just stand there. To all appearances, nothing important is happening. But under the surface, roots are going deeper. Preparations are being made for the next growing season. One of my current favorite Christian singers, Chris Renzema, says: “God, He made four seasons, but only one spring.”
Sometimes it isn’t time to grow, at least not in visible ways. Sometimes it’s time for roots to grow deeper, to strengthen. Sometimes it’s time to cultivate, to irrigate and weed and nourish. Sometimes it’s time to be pruned (ouch!). Sometimes it’s just time to wait and trust that God is working under the surface, doing things we can’t understand right now. But also to trust that this is just a season. Spring will come, and there will be growth. God loves growth. He just pursues it differently than we would. And of course, as with everything, His way is better.
Are you feeling stuck? Like you’re marching through mud? Are you disappointed with the lack of spiritual progress in your life, or the lives of others? Have you begun asking “what am I doing wrong? What should I be doing differently?” It’s possible the answer is “nothing.” If you’re seeking God every way you know how, there’s often nothing else you can do to bring about the growth you’re hoping for. Sometimes growth is slow. Sometimes it’s invisible. Sometimes it feels more like pruning than blooming. But God is at work. Under the surface, where no one can see. What if the things that are happening (or not happening) in this season are exactly what He knows we need to prepare for the coming spring?
So hang in there. In life, as in gardening, there are things we can do to encourage growth, and then there are things that only God can do. And He is doing them, whether we see it or not.
He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”—Mark 4:26-29