lest my last post sounded sour or pessimistic…
I don’t see pruning, either in the garden or in covenant groups, to be a harsh matter of “getting rid of the dead wood”. Pruning is a matter of giving shape to future growth.
There is a common misconception that when we look at a plant in the garden, the leaves and blooms, we are seeing the plant. In fact, we are only seeing the “public face” of the plant. The real identity of the plant lies in the roots. And the future of the plant lies in the seeds.
If you have any doubts about this, try pulling out a dandilion. Or creeping charlie. Or a volunteer tree. Or lemon balm, milkweed, bellflower, or any of a thousand other semi-invasive varieties. You can toss as many leaves and flowers and stems in the compost pile as you like…and the roots will send up more. And that’s to say nothing of the seeds which may have been scattered – or which may be scattered through the very act of pulling out the plant. Roots, and seeds, contain the entirety of the plant. It’s almost as if the branches, the structure of the plant, is incidental.
When I look at what is happening with our covenant groups, I see a variety of patterns. A few individuals attend almost every scheduled weekly meeting of their group. That’s great; it provides consistency both for the participant and for the group. But truly, that’s the exception rather than the rule. For most of us, our lives offer up frequent barriers to a regular weekly commitment: Work schedules. Family responsibilities. Illness, whether our own or that of a family member. Commitments to other valuable ministries. And some individuals who made an initial commitment to a covenant group, who feel within themselves the call to grow in discipleship and faithful living, have had a change in personal circumstances (pregnancy, new job, moving) which make it virtually impossible to continue to attend a weekly meeting.
These patterns are the branches. Not the roots, the source of life and identity. Nor the seeds, which yield future growth. Not even the beautiful blooms and fruits which make a garden worth growing. Branches, only. External structure.
Form should follow function. Our shape should follow our purpose. Our purpose is to provide both support and accountability for each other as we love God and love our neighbor. Our purpose is not to meet weekly. If meeting weekly serves our purpose, that’s great. If it doesn’t, if it becomes a barrier or a stumbling block instead, then it needs pruning, to take on new shape.
There must be a hundred ways to provide that support and accountability to each other, to fulfil our purpose and continue to grow in grace. Weekly face-to-face gatherings are only one way. If we bind ourselves to that one structure alone, we will miss out on the tremendous grace that awaits us in unexpected places, growth which will burst out of swelling buds and send branches reaching out across the garden.
Covenant discipleship shouldn’t be about attracting people to join a particular method. It should be finding whatever it takes to support each other so we can be about our calling…just as in the larger church.