Parable of the Wicked Tenants: What are the Lessons for the Church Growth Program?

The Great Commission
The Great Commission via Wikipedia

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally, he sent his son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “this is the heir; come let’s kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you ever read the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

Has become the cornerstone;

This was the Lord’s doing,

And it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it all.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized that he was speaking about them.  They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

Have you ever noticed how of often the lessons appointed each Sunday has a message for you that you don’t realize until you are sitting there in the pews and it hits you between the eyes?  This happens to me often and it happened again today when I least expected it.  The gospel reading warns us to be faithful to God.  OK, I’m doing my best to be faithful, what’s the problem?

As the homilist interprets the Gospel reading from Matthew I realize that the message is that God’s redeeming grace is enduring but that to receive it we must live the lives of redeemed people.  That is—our weekly corporate worship is not designed so that we can just go through the motions of being part of the Body of Christ, we are expected to actually follow the way of Christ!  YIKES!  That means we can’t just coast we have to work for our share of the product of the vineyard, not be complacent but go out there and work the vineyard like you mean it! Right between my eyes, OK, Jesus I get it. 

Is the church growth program Jesus’ call to us to respond to the long slow decline in church attendance, membership and pledging?  Is Jesus telling not only the Episcopal Church but all the mainline religions that we are wicked slaves forgetting whose we are and taking advantage of an absentee vineyard owner?  Otherwise why would we be so neglecting of the church to let it run out of gas and into the ditch?  

Every major denomination has the same problem and is struggling to find the same answer—how do we keep the inheritance?  The people in the pews are voting with their feet and the message is clear—we don’t feel the institutional church is meeting our needs nor helping us find Jesus in our lives so we are searching for new ways to ‘do church’ that will meet our hunger to be part of the body of Christ.

After twenty years of steady decline, something amazing happened in the Diocese of California Up from the pews the faithful began to ask what are we going to do to get the church growing again?  The Holy Spirit must have been cheering because in a relatively short period of weeks that questioning and prayer, confession and hope for renewal had worked its way from the pews to the Bishop of California.

When Bishop Marc came to the August meeting of the Executive Council he told us he felt it was time to place our faith in God’s call to the faithful and to ask the collective wisdom of the laity to go to work in the vineyard to get the church growing again.  He was neither conditional nor tentative, he asked the Executive Council to take charge of this church growth program initiative and run with it. 

We are a little more than one month into the church growth program and the Pharisees are after us.  The church growth program empowers the laity to try new ways to do church.  It invites us to question programs that don’t work as planned, that do not get desired results.  It encourages us to take initiative on our own without waiting for permission.  But change is hard in the church just as it is in other parts of our lives.

Church Growth Program causes trouble by asking hard questions.  It gives us permission to challenge conventional thinking.  That was apparent to me at the Contra Costa Deanery meeting as I described the upcoming workshops of the membership growth team.  When I said the November meeting would discuss the issues of East Contra Costa County I got hit between the eyes by the concerns of several of the congregations in that area that the real agenda of the Diocese was to consolidate them into one bigger congregation, but that they felt the needs of the area were too diverse, the geographic too distributed and the communities of interest too different to work together.  Really?

Change is threatening and so is the church growth program, just like the Pharisees felt threatened by the preaching of Jesus and the disciples.   But if the church growth program is the laity’s attempt to be the Body of Christ and do the work we are called to do by the Great Commission, questioning is going to happen.

  • Empower the Laity. The change envisioned in the church growth program shifts the responsibility for improving attendance, membership and pledging from the Diocesan staff and clergy to the laity.
  • Set Measurable Results for Growth. The church growth program encourages a new focus of Diocesan congregational development to work on our best opportunities to grow the church rather than its current mission effectiveness focus on our least effective ones.  We do a poor job of measuring results and facing realities that we can no longer afford to keep supporting programs, missions and congregations that are not sustainable.
  • Encourage Collaborative Ministries. The church growth program embraces collaborative efforts to work with struggling congregations to try new ideas to help the congregation pursue its best opportunities to thrive without subsidies.
  • Invest in Growth instead of Subsidizing Failure. The church growth program promises to shift the spending priorities of the Diocese from top down Diocesan programs to bottoms up support for congregational efforts to grow by matching the investment and time commitments congregations are willing to make in a mission or ministry program with matching support from the Diocese on a competitive basis across the Diocese.

I do not know what the right answer is for the East Contra Costa County area is.  But I do know this, the Diocese of California has a big opportunity in the changing demographics and growth patterns emerging over the last ten years that are now being documented in the 2010 Census.  The rapid growth and now stalled economy of East CoCo has given us a new diversity of multicultural richness layered into the underlying fabric of the community.  The Episcopal missions and parishes in Contra Costa County working together are well positioned to respond to those needs with the help of the Diocese.  But alone none of them is able to deal with the size, complexity and diversity of the need.  Some congregations are thriving, others are struggling but few work together in any meaningful way to do the work of the church in this area.

Out of the Pews and Congregation Silos into the Vineyard

Our challenge is to bring together the missions and congregations serving the Contra Costa County deanery area to explore ways they can work together to do God’s work in this part of the vineyard and to define the Diocesan support needs to make it happen.  The difference in the approach to this program with and without the church growth program makes this a perfect laboratory for experimentation with new ways to do church in this part of the vineyard.

The traditional congregational development and misson effectiveness approach is to wait for the Diocese to decide what to do.  The church growth program approach turns that strategy on its head and calls upon the lay leaders of the area to come together, work together, develop a plan to ‘plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press and build a watchtower’ as Matthew described it in the parable—that is to develop a plan and invest in doing God’s work then tend it faithfully until the vines take root and bear fruit and offer it to God, the owner of all of our vineyards.

Do you see the power of this different approach?

The traditional approach to church growth through congregational development and mission effectiveness is to sit in the pews and wait for the Bishop, Diocesan Staff and clergy to tell us what to do.  The truth of our church decline problem should be telling us —-this is not working!

Why?

Jesus is calling us to get up from the safety of our pew to work in the vineyard.  Jesus wants us to work up a sweat by doing the work He gave us to do.  The ‘build it and they will come’ approach to church planting has not worked for a long time.  The buildings of the church are NOT the church.  The church lives in the hearts of the faithful whose lives are touched and transformed by the unconditional love of Christ in our lives and across our community.

To grow the church we must not be afraid to throw open the doors —and our hearts to those who love God and seek Christ and be working in the vineyard where these new seekers and faithful live, work, struggle and pray.  We are wicked tenants because we have failed to follow that call and church decline is part of “putting those wretches to a miserable death” and warning us that God will “lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”  if we don’t get up and get out of the pews and do some honest and holy work in the vineyard he has been calling us to do.

The challenge for the Church Growth Program will be to survive the action planning phase and speak to the hearts of the lay leaders across the congregations to roll up their sleeves and do God’s work in the vineyard.  But the absentee owner promises to come for his produce.  What will he want?

Jesus wants the vineyard to thrive and produce good fruit

He want the laborers in the vineyard to see the Kingdom as one of abundance not a zero sum game where when the landowner gets more the laborers in the vineyard get less. 

God’s economy is NOT a zero sum game and neither is the church growth program.  But it does require honestly facing up to the issues in getting the church growing again.  It does call us to throw open the doors and welcome the faithful from many nationalities, many cultures and languages who love God and seek Christ.  It does call us to stop doing things that no longer work, do not help the church grow or empower us to be the body of Christ.

The consequence of not facing the church growth issues is also clear—-by 2022 the Diocese of California will shrink to a point that it becomes largely irrelevant  from the steady -3.3% decline each year in attendance, membership and pledge units from business as usual.

That is the lesson from the vineyard—be faithful to God, listen to Jesus call to us to make disciples of all nations, and to know that as we do that work in the vineyard, Jesus will be with us until the end of the ages.

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