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The “Unproductive” Season in Church Planting

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fallow land;
fallow land, cropland that is not seeded for a season; it may or may not be plowed. The land may be cultivated or chemically treated for control of weeds and other pests or may be left unaltered. Allowing land to lie fallow serves to accumulate moisture in dry regions or to check weeds and plant diseases.

This was the not so encouraging information that stared at me from my computer screen as I followed a prompting from God to do a little research on the concept behind the word ‘fallow’. I had kept hearing the word in my mind for some time. It wasn’t an audible voice, it wasn’t loud, it wasn’t condemning, I could ignore it if I wanted to. But there it was and kept coming up again and again over the months. I am not a farmer, I even struggle to look after my pot plants properly, but I knew that fallow was an agricultural term which had the connotation of emptiness, to my mind. My suspicion was confirmed as I researched this notion a little. Words like ‘unseeded’, ‘unaltered’, ‘left to lie’, ‘unused’, ‘may or may not’, ‘still’, ‘wait’ and ‘patience’ kept appearing before my eyes.

Could I be in a ‘fallow season’? I thought. Is that what this creator God is trying to tell me? I’ve been dreaming, planning and praying about planting a church in the inner city for years now. The opportunity has come. And yet it seems like when the moment arrives, this God is telling me to lie still. Is this God who is so other to us, yet has a name that means ‘God is with us’, saying, in order to work through me he must work in me and around me?

Maybe.

But God it doesn’t sound very exciting. It’s not very ‘ta-dah!’, God. It’s quite hidden, and quiet, and slow, and well, out of my control. And pardon me, God, but it sounds a little ‘unChristian’. Didn’t Jesus come to fill us and give us life to the full? What about being missional, God? That means always being productive right? Always being on the go?

That’s right. It’s not very glamorous. It many look like you are going backwards. Lie still and do nothing. Watch God work.

This is something new to me. Coming from having been the leader of a medium sized, suburban, attractional church, productivity was essential to growth, success was measured through visible results. Staying still meant, well, it meant nothing was happening. Is this one difference between leading an established church and planting a church?

But it makes sense that there must sometimes be seasons in our lives when it looks like nothing is happening for a while. It could be that there are other things going on, of course, so we need to use discernment. Often when scripture talks about fallow land, there is a parallel to hardened hearts and an admonishment to ’till the land’ so to speak, or turn towards God.

Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers righteousness on you. (Hosea 10:12)

But what if a fallow season is not about disobedience, hardness of heart or sin but about a time of waiting for God to do a preparatory work that only he can?

And what about if it’s a season akin to the seventh year of the ancient Israelite sowing and reaping cycle? Exodus 23:10-11 says that in the seventh year the farmer was to let the field lie fallow. The whole reason for this was to remind folk that God was looking after the welfare of his people. He was in charge of the seasons, the rain, it was his providence that kept them alive. Trust me, God was saying.

It’s in this “unproductive” season that we lie still and let God do the work. All we have to do is cooperate with him. Seek him. Know him. And that is harder than it sounds because it means letting go of control when we are tempted to manipulate things according to our plans. It means in the same way that a farmer might might cultivate, chemically treat, check for pests and diseases in the land, God will choose to do what he needs to in order to prepare us for his kingdom work. Lie fallow. Can I accept these words? It sounds so counter-intuitive to my production obsessed ears.

But we are on sacred ground. What looks like inactivity, invisibility and downward mobility in the eyes of the world, is in fact success in the eyes of God. Success in the economy of the kingdom has its own definition.

Success in the economy of the kingdom has its own definition. Click To Tweet

And,

We get to watch God work. We wait for the harvest to come.

Read what the writer of Colossians says to the Christ-following listeners who were going through their own unique season;

As you learn more and more how God works you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you will have the strength to stick it out over the long haul- not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the Glory strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us. Colossians 1:9-12 (The Message)

“As you learn more and more how God works you will learn how to do your work”. Profound.

As we lie still, as we allow God to do his work in what seems like the vacuum of emptiness, his Spirit brings order, shape and beautiful design to our nothingness. We are prepared to do his work in his timing.

Lie fallow.

Can you accept these words?

[Photo: Jan Tik, CC via Flickr]

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