Planting Forests

“But that might take hundreds of years!” my new local friend protested.

This potential seeker had attended our church plant’s baptism picnic and had pulled me aside to talk politics and societal change. I was trying to convince him of the goodness of slow, bottom-up change that begins with changed hearts.

“It’s like living in a jail here,” he said. “If I can get my hands on $5,000, I’ll definitely try to get smuggled out of the country.”

Sadly, this is a very common sentiment among the young men in our area. They view the government as hopelessly corrupt. And they would rather risk death while being smuggled to Europe than stay with their limited options. They believe the only other way to access a better life is to align themselves with the corrupt elite. But many don’t have the means or stomach to do so.

I often find myself in this kind of a conversation with frustrated young men. And I resonate with some of their frustration. After all, I also long to see this society transformed – but by the presence of hundreds of healthy local churches, acting like good leaven which spreads and transforms the rest of the dough. Instead, we find ourselves laboring hard only to see few results, and those often choked out by the weeds of an Islamic society which expertly strangles nonconformity.

And yet, here Church history is an encouragement to persevere in the long and slow work of planting the seeds of movements and even societal reform. What began as a very small group of marginalized Jews made infanticide illegal in the Roman empire by the early 300s. In the 400s, Patrick’s seemingly quixotic attempt to reach Ireland with the gospel is what led to the Irish re-Christianization of Europe at the dawn of the Medieval period. Luther did not start a movement, so much as unleash the energy which had been growing for a long time, as evidenced by pre-Protestant groups like the Hussites and the Waldensians. The practice of local church democratic governance in the English-speaking world eventually led to the peaceful democratic governance of entire societies.

Yes, it often took hundreds of years for the momentum to grow strong and wide enough for large-scale change. But should that mean we don’t make the attempt? Not at all.

I challenged my friend that if he really wants true freedom, he won’t find what he’s looking for by merely changing his environment. Instead, he needs to become a free man in his spirit and his heart. Christ can pardon him and change him and make him truly free, and he will be able then to live as a free man even under the worst of human governments.

Free men never influence only themselves. The freedom they have found as citizens of heaven is compelling, and whatever small circle of influence they have takes note. As that small circle is impacted, it often grows. That free man might not live to see his society changed, but he might see his family and friends radically transformed. And that is no small thing.

“Long before movements, Jesus often creates faithful remnants,” I shared with my friend. “And without the hard slow work of that faithful minority, movements never happen.” And though I didn’t share this kind of info with this local, the history of missions even bears this out. The verifiable church-planting movements that exist have taken place in areas with hundreds of years of missionary work. Contrast that to Central Asia, where missions was largely nonexistent before the 1990s. We are likely living in the beginning of the faithful remnant stage, only thirty years in. Our grandkids or great-grandkids may be the ones to see the movement. Should we complain about this and move on to where God is “really at work?”

“Think about planting a forest,” I said, “Planting a forest is a noble goal, and one that takes a lot of work. But if we start today, we will be old men before we get to truly enjoy the results of our labor. But once we were old, we would say it was all worth it, even though it took a long time and a lot of sweat. For us to get there, we must hold onto hope. Without that hope, we would never even start. We need to think less like the social media generation and more like farmers. But if we do, we might build something that truly lasts.”

My friend affirmed that he got my point, but he wasn’t yet convinced. This was not too surprising. He doesn’t have a new heart yet. Once he experiences that impossible transformation, then he will know what true hope is – and what ultimately transforms entire societies.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

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