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Is Your Church Carrying Too Much Deadwood – EN

My column in Evangelicals Now for the New Year –

IS YOUR CHURCH CARRYING TOO MUCH DEADWOOD?

Walking through the Bush near our home in Sydney my heart was heavy for the state of the church, both in Australia and in the UK. What is wrong? What can be done about it? I’m sure there are many answers to that, and I have spent a great deal of my life thinking about, and experiencing, much of what is wrong – as well as rejoicing in what is good, right, pure and holy. As I walked it struck me that there was an explanation right at my feet – deadwood.

‘Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.

Here in Australia we are in the midst of bushfire season. Last year, as the world knows, it was one of the worst ever, with considerable areas of the country being burnt. But bushfires happen every year – and they are not necessarily bad. Except when there has not been a fire for years and there is a lot of deadwood which acts as fuel for a much more destructive fire. The fire cleanses, regenerates and enables plants to flower that would not do so without the heat. The Message translation of John 15:6 is fascinating: ‘Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.’

What if the church has a lot of deadwood, including amongst the leadership? Jesus tells us that His Father is the gardener who cuts of every branch that bears no fruit. But what if the Father has stopped pruning and left us to our own devices? The indigenous people in Australia have for many centuries had a policy of ‘backburning’ or ‘controlled burns’. But the Europeans largely don’t like that. It seems wrong to deliberately set fires. Besides which it creates too much smoke. As a result, in recent years, in order to preserve our own comfort and because we can’t be bothered, there has been little controlled burning. So, when the fire inevitably comes it has years of deadwood to feed off. I wonder if one of the things that has been happening in the church is that we have forgotten church discipline and we have permitted a significant amount of ‘deadwood’ – just to keep the peace? Perhaps what Paul says in Romans 1 happens to society (God leaves us to have it our way), has also happened in the church?

Why is there deadwood? Because it has not remained in the vine. It is attached to the vine but is no longer living. Sometimes you can’t tell until a wind comes and breaks it off, and the fire comes and renews what still has life. I wonder how many churches will survive when the storm comes? I wonder how much of our work will have turned out to be wood, stubble and straw, when the fire comes to test the quality of each person’s work (1 Cor. 3:14).

Two fires

There is a fire of persecution and the fire of the Spirit. That’s why the Scottish Presbyterian Church (and many Presbyterian churches throughout the world) took as its emblem the burning bush with the words ‘nec tamen consumebatur’ – ‘yet it was not consumed’. The fire of persecution did not destroy the church, and the fire of the presence of God renewed her. My own experience of ministry is that if the church is to continue to grow and develop, it is not our strategy plans or new programmes that are the primary need, but spiritual renewal and the pruning done by the Father. At times this can be extremely painful – when the One whose eyes are like blazing fire (Revelation 1:16) are on you it can be somewhat unnerving! – but it was always ultimately cleansing and invigorating.

Perhaps the church in the West is carrying way too much deadwood – including in its leadership? Perhaps in this New Year, both corporately and individually, we need to know something of Pascal’s ‘fire’ experience? On Monday 23 November 1654 between the hours of 10:30am and 12:30pm Pascal had such an experience that he kept these words sown into his coat for the rest of his life:

‘GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

‘I have departed from him: They have forsaken me, the fount of living water. My God, will you leave me? Let me not be separated from him forever. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.’

Or as Stuart Townend puts it in his additional chorus to Cowper’s O For A Closer Walk with God:

O Fire of God, come burn in me

Renew a holy passion

Till Christ my deepest longing be

My never-failing fountain

Or maybe we just prefer to talk and sing about the Fire – but we don’t want the real thing – because it burns?

Letter from Australia 15 – Australia’s Burning

What is the Truth about the Australian Bushfires?

The PC (Post-Covid) Church – Evangelicals Now

18 comments

  1. Maybe it’s just me, but I really dislike the way some of the original psalm/hymn tunes are modernised. In my opinion, there is only one tune which suits ‘Oh for a closer walk with God’ and that is the beautiful original. The original music suits the sentiment of the psalm perfectly. I just love it and love to sing along with it, adding the occasional ‘grace note’ (as my mother called it!)

  2. Amen, David! Amen!

    It is the same fire burning the dross and the deadwood, that refines the gold and forges the iron. Let all Christians pray that we be found in good mettle!

  3. “What is wrong? What can be done about it?”

    Simple – become a “churchless” Christian. Disconnect form institutionalised religion that has become “deadwood” and connect with what the church is, the body of Christ.

    It’s just the same principle as what Martin Luther called the visible church and the invisible church. there’s nothing new under the sun.

    I find connection wiht the contemplative community of the World Community for Christian Meditation wiht a couple of meetings there a week is giving me what institutionalised religion perhaps should but doesn’t.

    1. A churchless Christian is an oxymoron. As Augustine said – he who does not have the church for his mother, does not have God for his father. And Luther would not have agreed at all with your comment.

      1. A churchless Christian is an oxymoron.

        What a load of hogwash!
        In the bible the character Jesus had no ”church”, although he was for the synagogue, it seems. Him being Jewish no doubt.
        Furthermore, if memory serves, (me not being as qualified as you, of course) almost every sermon and his teaching were outdoors. He also instructed that prayer should be done in private, unless we are to choose to disregard gMatthew?
        What say you, David?

      2. I say that you need to get to know your Bible better – and try to read it without the glasses of prejudice! Jesus taught outdoors and indoors (the temple, the synagogue, the home). He taught that prayer should not be done for show but did not teach against public prayer or prayer with others.

      3. “A churchless Christian is an oxymoron.”

        In principle I agree David, hence my deliberate and nuanced placing of the words churchless in quotes above.

        You can’t reed the mind of Luther. And you claiming he would not have agreed with my comment does not make you right and me wrong about this. I do however accept that you disagree with me on this and I defend your right to disagree.

        The truth is that the Greek word ekklesia (which we get church from) is defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/ekklesia.html Therefore church is an assembly of people called out by Christ, and centred on him.

        A gathering in an institution where Christ is not present is not church, by definition.

      4. “I read him. And take him at his word.”

        What shows is that you take him at his word but take a somewhat different approach with your “Luther would not have agreed at all with your comment.” I would challenge your assumption about this.

        Again I would assert that church by definition is a gathering of people called out by Christ and any institution without Christ is not church. This seems to be not inconsistent with your “perhaps the church in the West is carrying way too much deadwood – including in its leadership?”

        Getting back to Martin Luther, here is a helpful web page…

        “For German Reformer Martin Luther, the church was always visible because it was made up of people. On the other hand, he recognized that the true church was invisible since one could not examine the heart of others to determine exactly who were the true believers and who were the faithless… The Reformers, perhaps borrowing from St. Augustine, believed that the visible church contained a mixture of members of the invisible church, on the one hand, and hypocrites, or false believers, on the other.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Protestant-Heritage-1354359/The-priesthood-of-all-believers

  4. Everybody thinks somebody *else* is the dead wood. In the secular world it leads to eugenics: in the Church, to persecutions.

    May God the wise Spirit watch us and oversee closely how, and whom, we cut.

      1. Thank you . I think you have helped me understand the meaning of a book title . The book is ‘The Spanish Gardener’ and the author is the Scottish Catholic doctor , AJ Cronin.

  5. After reading this I’m left with practical questions.

    Who should be pruned, who should do the pruning and how should they do it? Does it mean some people will leave their churches of their own volition or will they be asked to leave? And if some people people refuse to leave can they be forced out? My only experience of this was difficult, protracted and it left some people in the church bitter as well as the person who was asked to leave.

    In other words, church pruning is easier said than done.

      1. I don’t disagree with this of course, but how, in practical ways, does God do the pruning? If a particular church has ‘dead wood’ by which, I presume, you mean people who are not really Christians or who are inactive, are non-attenders or are simply there for the entertainment or for selfish reasons (it’s a long list), how are they pruned and where do they go, generally?

    1. I think Cumbria, what “should” happen and what does happen are not necessarily always the same thing. So yes I agree wiht your assertion that is is easier said than done. Talk is cheap an faith without action is dead faith.

      A prophet is without honour among his own people and Jesus wept over a city that stoned it’s prophets, longing to gather people as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but they would not let him do that.

      It is any surprise therefore with there being nothing new under the sun and human nature being the same as it has always been that there at least be some element of this in institutions we call churches?

      There is a principle here – when not being welcomed or listened to, leave and shake it off.

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