Trees walking: transience, rootedness, and church planting

Scripture sometimes compares people to trees. Oaks of righteousness. Trees planted by waters. You wouldn’t expect to see a tree uproot itself, and yet that’s what people do all the time. In this blog, Dominic Palmer, of the Antioch Network, helps us think about rooting up and rooting down in our churches. 

Church Planting
An image of Dominic Palmer Dominic Palmer
12th June 2024

The Bible frequently describes people as trees. Think of “oaks of righteousness” in Isaiah 61, or “trees planted by the water” in Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17. The image suggests that people, like trees, grow and bear fruit with deep roots and stability.

But if that’s true, what happens when a forest keeps digging up its own roots and wandering off?

You might say that’s what’s happening in Britain today. We live in an increasingly transient and mobile society. Rising rental and house prices, university education, and international migration, contribute to a high level of people movement, especially in urban areas.

For church plants (note the metaphor), this transience is both helpful and challenging. When populations move frequently, it’s easier to meet new people, but harder to form lasting relationships. It might be easier for church plants to begin in transient areas, but it’s harder for them to thrive over time.

So how can we respond? I’d like to suggest two ideas: embracing transience (the likelihood that someone will leave) and increasing stickability (the likelihood that someone will stay). In other words, saying a good goodbye, and saying a good hello. These two things might seem contradictory, but I think they go together.

Embracing transience – saying a good goodbye

For a church community, the most painful part of transience is when people leave without saying goodbye. It’s demoralising, energy-sapping, and inevitably raises questions without clear answers: did we do something wrong? In a highly mobile society, this is going to happen. But it can happen less.

Some months ago, a city-centre church plant I’ve been working with welcomed several asylum seekers, one of whom was baptised in the church. When the Home Office told the men that they would be moved at short notice from their hotel to cities across the Northwest, church members followed up and prayed with them over several weeks. They shared their new addresses, and introductions were made in the new places where possible. It was sad to see them go, but it was a good goodbye.

I also think of a Japanese student, in Manchester on a short-term English language course. We knew he was going to return home in March, so we spoke with him, put a date in the calendar, and prayed for him together in the church gathering. It was sad to see him go, but it was a good goodbye.

This took some initiative, both from people staying and people leaving. And although it’s easier to do this in a small church, there are opportunities for everyone. Overseas missionaries usually have a ‘sending church’. But in a transient, mobile, and globalised society, every church is a sending church. The question is, how are we going to send?

Increasing stickability – saying a good hello

In order to say a good goodbye to someone, we need to know them: something of their story, their hopes, and their plans. In other words, saying a good goodbye requires the kind of relationship that would make it more likely that someone would stay.

But how do we get to that relationship in the first place? We need to say a good hello.

In a small church or new church plant, everyone is the welcome team. If someone new walks in, it’s going to be noticed – so someone needs to respond. If you’re used to a larger church with more specialised roles, this takes a shift in awareness and a level of flexibility. It also takes some emotional sensitivity: if the whole church swarms to the door to greet the newcomer, it’s going to feel a bit much.

But again, this isn’t just for small churches. One of our best friends settled in her student church because the student pastor remembered her name on the second week of term. This was a large church, but that seemingly small action communicated value and care even at the busiest time of the academic year.

As that story shows, welcome isn’t a one-off. And there are many factors that contribute to someone staying in a church. Do we love one another? Are we growing in prayer, learning from the Scriptures, and experiencing the presence of God? Is there a sense of vision – the journey we’re on together? Is our venue warm, clean, and comfortable? Do people usually look happy in each other’s company? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then we’re likely to be saying a good hello, growing strong relationships, and increasing stickability.

Trees walking: the challenge of resilience

Saying a good hello is important, but growing relationships with a constant stream of new people can take an emotional toll on a church community, especially when many will leave. So how do we keep doing it?

First, say good goodbyes. As I’ve mentioned, goodbyes are much harder when they’re not done well – or not done at all. They’re still sad when they’re good, but they’re sad for good reasons, and not as demoralising. Good goodbyes and good hellos go together.

Second, people are like trees: we need refreshment. When we find out what our friends in church deeply enjoy doing, and then share those things together, it’s like a long drink to thirsty roots. And a happy church is usually a welcoming church.

You might notice a tension here, between existing friendships and new connections. That’s always going to be there. It’s important to avoid cliques, but it’s equally important to avoid shallowness. This interplay of existing and new friendships points to something at the heart of human experience: sometimes we are called to leave, and sometimes we are called to stay. We put down roots, and we seek new landscapes.

The Bible does describe God’s people as trees, but it also describes us as pilgrims, wanderers, even exiles. From Psalm 84, “Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” And from Hebrews 11, we are “foreigners and strangers on earth […] longing for a better country.”

Maybe ‘trees walking’ isn’t a bad description of us after all.

Prayer

Gracious Father,

Sometimes rootedness feels nourishing and secure,
sometimes it feels restrictive and mundane.

Sometimes change feels exciting and invigorating,
sometimes it feels bewildering and strange.

By your Spirit, work through us:
to welcome and to send as you welcome and send us,
to form communities centred on Christ,
and to extend your grace to the world.

By your Spirit, work in us:
root and establish us in your love,
and keep our hearts set on your pilgrim way.

Amen.

 

This article is kindly reproduced by permission of The Antioch Network.

Written by

Dominic Palmer

Dominic Palmer lives in Manchester with his wife and their young son. Between 2020 and 2021, he and his wife co-led Upper Room Church (Cheetham Hill) as volunteers. Having been a secondary-school English teacher for several years, Dominic now works for the Antioch Network of church plants and is due to begin training for ordination in the Church of England this autumn.

An image of Dominic Palmer
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