Does your church need a fallow year?
Sounds like apostasy in the ears of many church leaders, but the conversations I’ve been having with pastors, other paid leaders and lay people indicates that the idea of a fallow year might not be a bad thing for your church.
You know what I mean by a fallow year, don’t you? Just as a farmer leaves a field fallow – unsown – for one season, in order to give the ground time to rest and render it more productive for the coming seasons, perhaps our churches could do with a fallow year.
Why does the farmer take what seems to be a risk in not sowing that field: A gamble on reducing the harvest the following year? Because she knows about the law of diminishing returns. Sure there will be a crop if she does sow it. But not as healthy a crop as there could be next year if she leaves it fallow this year. She leaves it fallow in the sure and certain hope that a recovery year will increase the field’s health.
And since I’m a runner, let me throw in a running analogy. It takes a while to learn it but all the best runners do it: take a rest day! When you start running you never take a rest day, because it seems like a wasted chance to improve your running.
And then injury hits. Or fatigue. And soon you are operating under the law of diminishing returns. But the best running coaches view rest as part of the training program. Rest days ensure quality days ahead. Fallow ground in running, means stronger returns in the next race.
I think this could be the same with church. A fallow year. A sabbatical for church not from church. Some white space in the calendar. A rest year. Call it what you will. Staff have sabbaticals, and we put “a day of rest” in place – whether we’re Sabbatarians or not – for our individual lives. But not, it seems, for our communal life together as God’s people.
We call on people to take “rest days”, but that’s a micro-scale solution. Perhaps we need a solution on the macro scale. Yet we rarely, if ever, countenance it.
Why not? Because there’s one word that everyone uses to define themselves, and their ministries, or lives and that word is “busy”. Now we may not be busy, we may indeed by busy, but that word has become a catch-all to self-justify our existence in already crammed culture.
If you want to fob someone off tell them you are busy. If you want to excuse non-attendance at something tell them you are busy. If a besetting sin is getting a grip into you, you can fall back onto the fact that it is a stress-reliever due to the increasingly busy life you lead. Everyone believes “busy”. Everyone respects “busy”. Everyone gives a knowing smile when you say “busy”. Busy can keep a lot of stuff at bay.
Including a fallow year. Including a year when the church spends time – or more to the point – regains time, to give itself a spiritual health check and to listen to where people are at in this complex world.
In recent blog posts I’ve said that many ministry workers don’t have a clue as to the pressures that city workers in their congregations face. Pressures to sign off on increasingly hard secular social agendas that run contrary to a Christian ethic.
When I wrote that I received dozens of replies from city workers who basically said “Amen!” And I don’t think it’s simply because the church leaders don’t care, I think it’s because they’re too busy themselves. No one has got time to hear each other.
But a fallow year also feels dangerous. After all, the business model is that if you’re not moving ahead you’re falling behind. And we know that Hebrews tells God’s people not to drift. Surely if we keep busy we don’t drift, right? Wrong. And the number of very busy, very successful church leaders who have either walked away from the faith the past few years – or been found out as sham – should tell us that busy doesn’t stop sin, often it hides it.
A fallow year is not shutting the church down. In fact a fallow year might just open up the church. A fallow year can open up conversations in the space now available to people which was consumed by program the previous years.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t do church. This is not the break-it-all-down-and-start-again deconstructionism that was all the rage two decades back.
My idea of a fallow year would be to run Sunday church gathering with the ministry of the Word and the prayers and the communion. Just keep the singing worship a little more stripped back, so that it’s less performance and more budget. Strip back one service if you have three.
And then step back. That’s right, step right back. Tell your people that for the rest of the time, it’s going to be a fallow year. Time to allow the field to rest and regain strength for the following year. Time to take a macro rest and assess the big picture. No planned small groups, outreach events, or other programs. A fallow year. If people want to do stuff, they can, but there’ll be no church label on it.
Church leaders can tell the congregation that they’re giving their time that year to sitting down with congregants whenever they want to, to hear their stories, to pray and to help equip them for the increasing complexities of the secular frame. Here’s my number – call me and we’ll slot something into the calendar that contains few meetings, no formal small groups, and, oh, no interstate pastoral conferences to attend.
Of course it will feel risky. It will feel dangerous. What if people stop coming? We’ve got a building to pay for after all! I often hear that concern, couched in other more noble language of course. What if, when we do church more stripped back, people decide to go elsewhere? To which my response is “Well that says as much about why you are doing church, as it does about what they are expecting out of church.“
But here’s what it also says: It reveals that we’re happy enough with the status quo of people turning up just enough times in the year to make running church worth it. It admits that whatever we do, however we do it, we’ve got a churn problem at church. And much – though not all – of that is down to busy.
We’ve become used to a 25 per cent non-attendance rate each week. Sure it’s a different twenty to twenty five percent each week, but we’re factoring for it. We’re factoring for a church experience in which virtually on no Sunday of any year will all of God’s people be together – ever. And we’ve allowed a busy program to justify that. They’re turning up to other stuff, after all.
What if we said: Turn up Sunday in 2020, cos that’s all we’ll be doing this year. If you want to see us or meet and pray with us, or with other people, then you are free to do that too. But it won’t be organised, it won’t be badged, it won’t be a program. We’re having a fallow year, a white space year, to listen and regroup.
Here’s what might happen in the first couple of months. People might not come. They might look at that white space you’ve just given them and fill it in with other stuff. After all so many of us are so addicted to busy that the alternate is often too scary. And it will be scary for the church. What if we have a fallow year, and they fill in all that white space with other stuff? But if that’s the case then you didn’t have their hearts anyway. You were simply competing for the unthinking “busy” they were committed to.
Alternately, if you give your church a fallow year, people might not come because they’ve been given the chance to down tools for a while and they just slump. The adrenaline rush is over and they hit the fatigue wall, and slump. But surely that just shows how much we were aligned with the cultural helter-skelter?
Do you see the problem in all of this? We look at the busy culture and rather than be counter-cultural to busy, in order to defang it in the long term by building non-busy practices into the lives of our people, we decide that we will allow the culture to set the rules of the game – busy, busy, busy- then play by their rules. How’s that working out for ya?
This is where we might just do better trusting God to reshape His people by His Spirit. After an initial busy “bender”, or cold turkey “withdrawals”, our people might start to rebalance. They might start inching their way back to that Sunday meeting, on a more regular basis.
Quietly and at a trickle pace to begin with. But if they start to realise that the Sunday meeting is to meet, and feed on the Word and praise and meet with God, and encourage the brothers and sisters, and then to go out into the rest of the week with just that, it might become unmissable.
And they might feel it gives them a better sense of what it means to be a Christian in the secular workspace. It might give them an opportunity for you – the pastor – to hear their concerns more contemplatively and offer them well-considered strategies.
Who knows, A fallow year might not be a bad idea. A fallow year might just yield a bumper crop the following year. We are described, after all, as God’s field (1Cor3:9). A verse that tells us, almost too obviously, that it is God who gives the increase.
I have a few other thoughts about the practical strategies we could put in place for a fallow year, so I’ll follow up with those in the coming week or so. I’d be interested in your ideas of what a fallow year might look like for you.