My corner of Central Asia has long, brutally hot summers. Temperatures get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit/49 degrees Celsius. This tends to kill most house plants. If, like me, and you’re not naturally gifted with a green thumb, then it’s even more bad news. The majority of our plant attempts have ended in disappointment. We might be able to swing it if we were constantly living here, but with taking six months in the US now and then and occasional trips out for meetings, we have to entrust care of our plants to neighbors or coworkers – which usually means more plants die. Sensing a theme? The brutal sunshine and heat of the late spring to mid-fall even turns the mountains brown. How much more small plants that are attempting to grow in tile and cement courtyards and houses that absorb the heat and radiate it back long into the night?
Yet we have one plant that has become legendary in our family. We inherited this plant in January of 2016 from another expat family moving back to the US. We didn’t know what it was, just some kind of pokey aloe-type succulent. During our first term all our other plants died, but this hardy creature managed to survive and even grow a little bit. In the details of moving back to the US for a six month furlough, we forgot to assign watering duties for it. So we arrived back in Central Asia to find it tucked in a corner of our courtyard, utterly shriveled and brown. It had gone six months, including the worst of the summer, without any care. In a last-ditch faith attempt, I splashed it with a glass of water one evening, not really expecting anything to happen. When I returned to look at it the next morning, I was shocked. It had been resurrected. The dry and drooping leaves had somehow rallied, raised themselves back toward the sun and come back from the pit of death. Mostly dead really is still partly alive (let the reader understand).
We moved cities and took our one hardy survivor plant with us. Then after nine months we ended up back in the US again on a medical leave. Our local neighbors did their best to water our plants, but once again, most died. And yet, that same plant is bigger than ever and even multiplying. During the first lockdown I had done a bit of research and finally discovered what species our pokey desert plant actually was. Turns out it’s called a Century Plant, a kind of aloe known for being… the source of tequila. How in the world did it get over here to Central Asia?
As we marveled at the survival of our tequila plant, we found it to be an unlikely source of encouragement. The attrition rate among our house plants had become a strange parallel to the deaths of local church plants. Our area and people group tend to present a vibrant and hopeful picture in the beginning of new groups forming. Then they all implode. Soon, those promising potential churches are gone without a trace. Where all the methodologies come to die. It’s a sadly realistic slogan for our part of the world. Got a methodology that’s being puffed as the current silver bullet for planting churches (or even movements?) among unreached people groups? Bring it here and watch it wither, just like my Brazilian Jasmine vine. Those flowers and shiny leaves were lovely until they met the wrath of the summer sun. Now they are no more.
And yet, we know that the promises of God for his bride will not fail. Sooner or later, we will have healthy reproducing churches take root among our people group. They will be able to survive the brutal seasons of persecution, fear, in-fighting, and false teaching. But they will have to be unusually hardy, scrappy churches. They will need to be able to come back from the brink of death, as it were. They will have to be like tequila plants. Their fiber will need to be made up of robust biblical conviction and gospel clarity. They will need to be fluent and practical in their putting on of the characteristics of a healthy church:
- Biblical Discipleship
- Biblical Worship
- Biblical Leadership
- Biblical Fellowship
- Biblical Membership
- Biblical Giving
- Biblical Evangelism
- Biblical Teaching and Preaching
- Biblical Accountability and Discipline
- Biblical Mission
- Biblical Ordinances
- Biblical Prayer
These churches will not only need conviction and clarity on the biblical principles for a healthy church, they will also need to find faithful expressions of those principles that fit both the scriptures and our local context. With the same spiritual DNA as a church in Melanesia or North America, these churches will need to find hardy expressions of that DNA for a context that kills off expressions developed in more temperate climates. I’m not at all talking about reinventing church. Whether something feels traditional or new and exciting has nothing to do with it. Rather, as church planters, our sense is actually that we will have to be both more doggedly biblical and more carefully contextual than we have been thus far. We need to be able to draw bright and clear lines from our method to the scriptures and then to the local context.
So locals say a plurality of pastors is utterly foreign to this culture? Well, let’s still do it, because it’s biblical. But lets go so deep into their culture and history such that we find echoes in their past (like tribal elders) that help contextually illustrate the biblical leadership principle. Let’s take off our Western preference for informal/funny leadership relations and put on a Central Asian appreciation for titles, ceremony, and gravitas. Let’s actually try to wrap our minds around the complex patron-client system that dominates this worldview so that we and local believers can address it biblically – redeeming, redirecting, and rejecting as necessary. After all, the New Testament church itself upended the patron-client system of the Roman empire. How did they do it? Let’s not plateau in our understanding of theology nor our understanding of our local culture. Instead, let’s go deeper in both.
If we can work like this, then we just may see local churches emerge that last. We just may see churches that are like tequila plants.