Theology & Those Untrimmed Bushes

The comment could come in many different settings.  Maybe it’s an afterthought from a member who’s leaving after the Sunday Morning service, a final word with a handshake on the way to the parking lot.  Or maybe it’s from someone who raises a hand in a Church Member’s Meeting only then to be called upon to speak in front of the whole congregation. I don’t know how it will come, but it always does.  “Something that should be done, is not being done.”

It doesn’t really matter if you’re a pastor or not, this sort of comment is always unsettling and often confusing to Christians.  Is it an accusation or a suggestion? Is it a demand or a request? Is this person volunteering, or are they implying that someone else should be “volunteered”?

Let’s imagine the scenario like this: on the way out the door, the pastor is thanked for the message by a faithful member, who then pulls him slightly off to the side and says the following.  “Pastor, I’ve noticed that the bushes have not been trimmed as they should be.” The pastor, a little lost for words since he’s just finished preaching a sermon that did not involve the bushes, stumbles to remember the last time he noticed or inspected them at all before replying, “I’ll have to take a look at that.”  The member responds with something apparently less than gratitude but not quite satisfaction, saying, “That would be good.”

These odd encounters can involve matters great and small in the church. Since I’ve obviously chosen a small one, it won’t surprise you that this article is primarily concerned with the theology and implications behind the comments that are made. I want to show that a basic comment about the church bushes is far more complex than we might imagine.  The solution to the problem may be as simple as a set of hedge trimmers, but the thinking behind those trimmers can teach us quite a lot.

So let’s begin with two basic principles.

First, God is the one who determines what should be done in his church.  It’s not the pastor’s job to decide what should be done in the church, nor is it the deacons’ job or the congregation’s job.  It is God’s job to decide what should be done. It is our job to seek out an understanding of what God has decided that we should do.

This may sound basic, but it’s often totally passed over in the day-to-day operations of the church, and if you pass over this one principle, the floodgates of discontentment and overbearing labor and frustration might fling open and drench the spirit of unity in the body of Christ.  We all say, “The Lord’s will be done,” but then we take a look around and start making our own lists without the slightest thought or prayer given to whether or not God is in it.  Sure, we think it best to have a prayer meeting or two before the really big decisions, but in the day-to-day operations? In those, we’re often bursting with false confidence that we know the will of God without any consultation whatsoever.

For instance, we are far too quick to say, “Well, of course God wants the bushes trimmed!”  But have we bothered to ask him about that?

Just because there’s no law in the Bible against trimming bushes, that doesn’t mean they must be trimmed.  And just because we have bushes, that doesn’t mean that we’re somehow necessarily under some spiritual obligation of “good-Christian-stewardship” to faithfully trim them.  So the first principle we have to come to grips with is a basic one, but often neglected in the day-to-day: God is the one who determines what should be done in his church.

Which brings us to the second principle we should consider.  Whatever God determines for his people to do, he will grant them the resources to do it.  In other words, God doesn’t tell his people to do something and then withhold from them the resources to obey.  He doesn’t command obedience, then issue commands that cannot be obeyed. If God has willed it for the church, he will grant them the power to follow his will.

Now, when you apply these two principles to the issue of untrimmed bushes, we are left with only two reasonable conclusions.  If someone says, “The bushes should be trimmed, but no one is doing it,” then they are either (1) wrong about the need for trimmed bushes, or else (2) the church is not using God’s resources to accomplish God’s will.  No other conclusion seems possible, and when you think about it, this really applies to any concern of negligence raised in the church.

If someone were to say, “We should be singing different songs,” they’re either right about that, which means someone is failing to sing the right songs, or else they’re wrong about God’s will concerning the music.

If someone were to say, “We should be giving more to missions,” then either it is in the Lord’s will for more money to be given to missions and the church is failing to do it, or else, they’re wrong about what the church should be doing.

My point is, if principles number 1 and 2 are both applied, then the church can never say, “God wants us to be giving more to missions right now, but he hasn’t given us enough money to do that.”  Neither can we say, “God wants us to sing different songs, but we aren’t able to do it.” What God wills for us to do, he enables us to perform. If he is willing for us to do something in the church right now, we can and should be doing it.  This article isn’t about what we imagine God is moving us to do in the future. It’s about someone claiming that we aren’t doing what we definitely should be doing now.

So, back to the bushes…

If someone says, “The bushes should be being trimmed, and they’re not being trimmed,” we’ve established that only one of two things can be true.  Either they’re wrong, and it is not in the Lord’s will to have the bushes routinely trimmed, or they’re right, and God’s will is not being done. Let’s think through both of these possibilities, beginning with the distinct possibility that they’re wrong about the bushes.

Conclusion 1:  They’re wrong about the bushes.

It could be that the bushes have not been trimmed, and that’s perfectly fine with God.

Just because bushes aren’t trimmed, doesn’t mean that someone neglected God’s will.  After all, plenty of churches seem to be thriving all over the world with rowdy bushes and unmowed grass.  The same could be said about any complaint in the church that isn’t clearly addressed in the Bible. The music may actually be fine.  The sermon length might be appropriate. The building project may be right on track with God, even if it’s missed a checkpoint or two on someone else’s timeline. People can mistake the will of God, or give no thought to it entirely in their comments and suggestions.

A task that’s not be done is not the same as a task that should be done.  Not all tasks must be done. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that many people are routinely consuming themselves with accomplishing tasks that have no bearing at all on the kingdom of God.  After all, Paul warns us about filling our lives with wood, hay, and stubble that will ultimately burn up in a conflagration of worthlessness when our Christian lives are brought to judgment before Jesus.  Not all tasks need doing, and some of them are just plain distracting from the work that actually ought to be done.

But, it could also be that people actually are working hard on the bushes, and this person just doesn’t notice it or approve of the job that’s being done.  Maybe they are trimmed, and just not trimmed to their liking. In other words, maybe God does want the bushes to be trimmed, and maybe someone is working hard at trimming them, but this person isn’t satisfied with the results.  Which doesn’t mean they’re wrong to be concerned. They could have a valid point about the quality of the work.  

In which case, the pastor or church member has to stop and consider the point that’s being made.  Is this an area of concern where Christians have an obligation to point out their fellow workers’ apparent flaws or insufficiencies?

Maybe so!  After all, someone can be working hard on a job and still do it badly.  If someone is mowing the church grounds and routinely leaving large swipes of knee-high grass, I don’t think it’s evil to gently suggest that a little more care be taken.  Certainly, whoever is going to salt the sidewalk in the winter time needs to be informed if they’re missing steps and unwittingly leaving a bloody passage of skinned knees and gouged hands on the way to the front door.

But it’s also possible that the person doing a less than professional job should be left alone, or possibly even commended for doing the job at all, if they are doing it unto the Lord with an assurance of good, Christian effort.

All of this is to say, just because someone claims that something should be done, which is not being done, that doesn’t mean they’re right.  They could be wrong in two ways. Perhaps it needn’t be done at all, or perhaps it actually is being done well enough for the Lord’s liking and just not they’re own.

But the second conclusion is also worth considering.  Maybe they’re right!

Conclusion 2: They’re right about the bushes, and the church isn’t accomplishing God’s will with God’s resources.

It could very well be that they’re right.  The bushes are not trimmed. God would like them to be trimmed.  Yet, no one is trimming them.

If you’re initial reaction to this possibility is a sense of sadness, then you’re not alone.  That’s a bit like how I typically respond when I realize that God wants me to be doing something that I’m not doing.  However, the joy of our relationship to God in Christ is that I don’t need to be overcome by guilt and sadness when I realize all the ways I fall short of God’s glory.  Instead, because I am a forgiven Christian already, I can move right to what I know will bring me joy and peace: obedience to his will. So let’s consider the possibility that this person is hypothetically right about the bushes.

First, we should gently wonder why it is that we missed this need.  Were we blind to it? Is there a whole area of church oversight that we’ve not been attentive to?  If we find someone is right about a particular song which, on closer inspection, does not have the God-glorifying lyrics we believed it to have, then are there other songs that we’ve been blind to?  

This is an important part of learning for any church. Let’s stop and think carefully about where oversight has failed us so that we may not trip up like this again.

Second, we should admit that even though we’re talking about something as mundane as trimming bushes, if it becomes clear to us that God wants those bushes trimmed, we’re not talking about something small and unimportant.  If God wants something done, it’s hugely important, regardless of how impactful it might seem to us. To say otherwise is to cut the feet out from underneath all Christian labor!  

For instance, I don’t think repackaging gloves is all that important in the grand scheme of things, but if a Christian sister works at a glove repackaging center, and if God has given her that profession to work in “as unto the Lord”, then suddenly repackaging gloves is hugely important, not because of the gloves, but because of what that sister’s work says about the God whom she serves!

If we can say that about gloves, then it certainly applies to bushes.  If, after thoughtful prayer, we discern that God wills for those bushes to be trimmed, then we should take that job seriously (while being gracious to the person who ends up doing the trimming).

Third, I think it’s reasonable for any Christian person to say to our hypothetical “concern-raiser”, “Friend, if you believe that God wants those bushes trimmed, perhaps he’s calling you to trim them.”

The church is often afflicted (and I don’t use that word lightly) by Christians who do not carefully consider that perhaps God is making them aware of neglected work because he wants them to do it!  There are, I believe, many Christians who have the discernment to recognize tasks that God desires, while at the same time being somehow oblivious to the possibility that God’s trying to put the trimmers in their own hands.

The reason this is such an affliction for the church is because, when this is the case, the person whom God is trying to call into a ministry that will ultimately bring them fulfillment and closer to him, actually ends up farther away from God because they begin to grumble and complain and spread discontentment to others around them.  What an irony, that they might actually be complaining about the very same undone job that God is trying to call them to.  If God has made you aware of job, maybe he’s made you aware of it for a reason, and it’s a great kindness to gently point this out to people.

Fourth, however, is the possibility that God is legitimately using this person to point out a new ministry opportunity that they, themselves, aren’t called to.  We have to take someone’s word for it when they tell us, “I think this is something that should be done, but I know God hasn’t called me to do it.” After all, isn’t that what every pulpit committee in the world wrestles with?  They know that preaching should be done, and they know they’re not called do it. In which case, a pastor or church member who is listening to the concern about untrimmed bushes has to pray and consider the next course of action carefully.

See, we live in community with one another, and the authority of the pastor extends only so far as the authority of God’s Word.  I really believe that. Just because we’ve possibly identified something that should be done, the reality of living in a fallen world is that the Christians who should be doing it may not respond to the Holy Spirit’s leadership.  And here’s the thing, the pastor in all likelihood has no definitive knowledge of who exactly is dropping the ball.

If God is calling someone to minister to him in some way, and they’re giving the Holy Spirit the cold shoulder, the pastor doesn’t have some radar gun to detect that sort of dereliction of duty.  I may know that something needs done without knowing exactly who needs to be doing it.

If someone comes up to me and says, “We really should be doing more for the homeless in our community,” I might pray about it and come to the same conclusion.  I might raise this conviction to the congregation. I might even try to begin a few ministries and call people to action. But if the laborers don’t show up, if no one comes forward, if the ministry is neglected, my options are frankly limited.

I can pray.  I can make phone calls and ask people to consider serving.  I can make an appeal publicly. I can demonstrate the principles behind the ministry in my teaching. I could even devote myself to it, possibly to the neglect of other ministries I’ve been called to.  But I can’t go knock on brother Jack’s door and say, “You’re neglecting God’s will in your life because God told me you’re supposed to be passing out water to the homeless on Tuesdays and you haven’t shown up once!”  I don’t have that kind of prophetic insight. I’m not sure I would even want it! It doesn’t seem pleasant!

So it’s possible in a church to know that God wants something done, to do your best to see it done, and still not accomplish it because the community of believers around you (for whatever reason), doesn’t respond.  That doesn’t mean they’re all evil and you should change churches. Frankly, you should be more prone to re-evaluate your own position if the rest of the church seems to be telling you that they don’t think God wants something.  Nevertheless, you may be right, and perhaps God has called you to patiently endure with your brothers and sisters as he continues to work in their lives.

And all of this is a lot to consider, but it’s all worth considering.  To live in Christian community is a blessed challenge, and to serve together is a patient exercise.  The next time someone brings up the bushes outside, remember that there’s more at stake than greenery.  What does God want, and how should we respond? Behind those two basic questions is a world of exploration and joyful insight.