Friday is fire-day and I’m now sitting by my second fire of the day. This one is a civilised affair in the living room fire-place, but the first was a proper bonfire as I cleared my lawn of the last of the cuttings from the trees which were keeping the sun out of the garden.
There were a lot of clippings, and over the last few weeks I’ve spent several hours watching them burn. While I’ve done this I’ve been reflecting on how tending a fire is a great illustration of how to lead a church.
What follows is not meant to be a serious theological treatise, but ten observations on church life and growth using the metaphor of fire.
#1 Wood that isn’t on fire only ignites when it is next to wood that is. So church growth 101 says that you need to have a church that is alight in the first place. And that people will only become christians by being exposed to people who have already made that commitment.
#2 If you throw an accelerant on the fire it burns, but the wood doesn’t. Sometimes a mission event or special course means that there are a lot of flames. This might not mean that the congregation are burning more brightly, merely that the effort you’ve put in is temporarily burning. Paraffin is only useful on bonfires when it has soaked into wood or paper, likewise special events which cause a big stir need to be backed up by Christians who are ready to use them to ignite those around them.
#3 Some logs are green or wet and take a very long time to catch fire. In a wood pile there will be twigs which with catch fire straight, there will also be logs which need more time to dry out and season before they will catch fire. In a church congregation, these green logs are often husbands or partners who have been on the fringes for some time, but show no real signs of interest. They need to be near the fire to dry out, and in contact with burring logs if they are going to catch fire, so find ways to keep them involved, and find excuses to get them into church.
#4 New wood needs to go on where the fire is burning. On a bonfire, it’s not uncommon to have one part burning strongly and one side fairly cool. On the bonfire you need to put the new wood on the side that is burning otherwise it won’t catch fire. Similarly, new people need to be put in contact with the parts of the church which are on fire. It’s no good adding new people to a ministry which is dead, they won’t revitalise it, they will just sit there.
#5 You need to keep moving to wood to keep things burning. In the same way that new Christians need to be added to the burning parts of the church, sometimes you need to move people around to keep them alight. As an example of how this might work: at my church during Lent this year, we’re giving people the chance to temporarily change home groups, this will hopefully have the effect of mixing up those parts which are burning and those parts which have got a bit cool.
#6 It is easy to put lots of very flammable material on the top of the fire, which will burn brightly, but will make no difference whatsoever to the bottom of the woodpile. And this is easy to do in church, all you need to do is start a vibrant youth or student ministry and everyone will see the flames. The difficult thing to do is to enable these flames to work their way through the pile when there is no cross-over between your new ministry and your core.
#7 It is possible to put a fire out by smothering it with too much new wood. However brightly a fire is burning, you can still put it out by cutting off the oxygen to the core. Initiatives which attract people in large numbers can have the opposite effect to the one you intend, as meeting their needs stifles the flow of oxygen to the existing congregation. Instead of the new wood catching fire, the core is starved of oxygen and begins to cool. (Oxygen is your attention, pastoral care and preaching.)
#8 If you take a piece of burning wood out of the fire, it doesn’t stay alight for long. Likewise if a Christian tries to go it alone, they will cool off very quickly. The writer to the Hebrews says ‘don’t give up meeting together, but keep encouraging one another’ (Heb 10:25) that’s because we need each other and the heat of the fire to keep up burning. This is an especial warning for evangelists, who are most effective among non-christians. The danger is that away from the heart of the fire, they cool off quickly.
#9 Sometimes you need to use put the lid on an incinerator to really gets things burning. For the past few weeks I’ve been using a metal dustbin with a hole in the lid to burn my garden waste. My technique is to put green twigs in the fire and put the lid on, and then after five minutes to lift the lid. The dried out twigs then blaze up very quickly. Residential camps and intensive courses are like an incinerator, they get people burning much more rapidly, but you need to take the lid off to really see them burn.
#10 Your job is not to keep the fire alight, but to burn all the available wood. It really doesn’t matter how warm the little pile of remaining sticks gets, what is important is that your bonfire has the power to ignite the new wood around it. There are plenty of churches which are small and not really interested in growing but church leaders should not be content with palliative care, our call is to nurture churches which reach out with the incendiary Gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Ok, there are many more ways I could apply this, but that’s enough for now. If you want to add fuel to the fire, why not post a comment below?