One of the great surprises for gardeners is the volunteer, those that blossom in unexpected places. Sometimes delightful, like the beautiful poppies that arise in my tomato beds, and sometimes not; the virtual maple forest that germinated in my backyard one spring required a lot of undesirable labor. The hundreds of little saplings were not all that surprising given the countless seeds that had dropped in the grass beneath the tree the fall before, but the flowers that sprout in the vegetable frames far distant from the flower beds are a welcome wonder. As every gardener knows, the appearance of these plants is not attributed to my work or intention; birds or wind or the coats of the dogs had serendipitously been the sowing agent that brought these joys to my soul.
There’s a similar joy found in the ministry of believers blossoming in unexpected places. What makes these unexpected joys stand out is that they are not where we expected them, and they’re measures of spiritual movement that a stagnant church easily misses. Many churches measure their health and ‘success’ using a yardstick marked out in segments labeled attendance, budget and programs. When the pews and offering plate are full, and the program schedule grows more and more crowded, we celebrate ministry. When the opposite is true and fewer seats are occupied and the budget constrained, these measures of success move the pointer into the red. A sense of failure rises, soon followed by discouragement. This can lead to an unfortunate blindness to the power of God at work, especially where we least expect it.
Wild abandon is the natural state of the forest and the volunteer doesn’t stand out among its equally random neighbors. The volunteer in our garden is surprising because of its location. The seed that falls to the ground and germinates, even if carried a distance on the wing, is doing what it is designed to do, creating after its own kind [Gen 1:12]. If we as Christ followers are faithful in discipling others, we too will reproduce after our own kind and the fruit they bear (Rom 7:6) will be the natural result. This is the genius of God in making soul shaping a normal part of life and not a program. We teach by living out our beliefs (Dt 6:6-8; Mt 28:19) and shaping hearts as we walk along and when we lie down and when we rise.
We’ve become accustomed to looking for ministry results as an outcome of a program. If we have the right music and preaching style, worshippers will come. We pour into the children and teenagers so that they make it successfully to adulthood. Our discipleship, more often than not, has a start and end date where success is measured by a completed workbook. We need to look deeper though; we need to spy out the volunteers that have been carried by the wind to unexpected places. By the design of the Lord, this is where the measure of a spirit-guided heart is going to be found.
What of the ministry that a transformed heart started that now serves the community? What about the bible study conducted by folks who take their discipled souls south for the winter? Your ministry plan didn’t have a bullet point for either one of those activities. What of the fellowship that surrounds an elderly member who is by themself and refuses to let them be alone? This is the work of the heart surrendered to the Lord. Success is not measured by programs, the Lord measures it by heart and if your discipleship is transforming hearts, you never know where the spirit is going to take them next. Your church is never commanded to be the biggest or have the most programs. It is called to be faithful in shaping the hearts of Jesus’ people and then trusting Him to put them to work in the places we least expect.