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A while back, my wife and I went to Napa and Sonoma for a brief wine-country getaway to celebrate our anniversary. At one of our stops, we were treated to a private tour of the vineyards at Trinite Estates around Chalk Hill. This isn’t something we would normally get to do, but since business has been slow everywhere, the owner seemed eager to have people to interact with.
Fully masked and socially distanced, our new friend Pascal and his faithful cat “the boss” showed us the hills where he and his family grow traditional Bordeaux grapes. He lifted a few of the overhanging leaves to show us a small bird’s nest with newly hatched chicks sleeping inside. He pointed out the parts of the vineyard that had burned in the Kincade Fires last year. Pascal was deeply connected to these vines and this land.
He went on to tell us about how he cares for the vines and how important it is to do the right work during the right season. The harvest was coming up, which is always the busiest time for any vineyard. The winery becomes a hive of activity as workers arrive at dawn, pick the grapes during the brief window when they are perfectly ripe, bring the clusters to the warehouse to be cleaned and processed before being sent to the tank for fermentation. During the winter, it’s a completely different story. There are no more leaves or grapes on the vines. The juice has already fermented and is quietly aging in barrels along the cellar walls.
But winter is the season for pruning—when the farmer cuts off the dead shoots from the vine so new ones will grow in their place come spring. Pascal told us how he had hired outside workers to help him with the pruning one winter and they nearly ruined his vines. He said if you cut off too much of a shoot, you risk damaging the vine. If you cut off too little, new shoots won’t grow properly and you’ll have a poor harvest. He said this process is too delicate to trust to people who don’t know the vines like he does, so now he does almost all the pruning himself.
It’s equally important for a church plant to do the right work during the right season. In my head, I thought 2020 would have been more like the harvest season. I pictured our church plant as a hive of activity as we connected with new neighbors, met with our launch team, curated a worship space, organized community groups, and much much more. But in reality, this time has been much more like winter. Things are quiet and any new growth is a long way off. And that’s OK. Pascal doesn’t get upset when his vines don’t produce new shoots in the dead of January. It isn’t time for that, it’s pruning time.
Likewise, it’s been pruning time for this ministry and myself. Thankfully, God is a skilled pruner who knows what to cut and what to keep. He’s been trimming away my pride and impatience. He’s been pruning away my sense of hurry and self-importance. It was painful at first, but I have to admit, I feel lighter and more free than ever. I’m ready for what comes next. By starting with a season of pruning, God has made space for new shoots to grow when the time comes.
We are waiting patiently during this winter season of our church plant, but we know spring is around the corner. Once the pandemic begins to fade away (which might still be a long time from now) we will be pruned, cleaned, and ready for the new growth God has planned. And what an exciting season it will be! I can’t imagine a better time to plant a church than after a culture changing event like this pandemic. People will be eager to find community, they will have deep questions about the experience they went through, and our church will be there with the only message that can address all of their deepest longings—the gospel of Jesus.
For this winter season, our ministry is focusing on deepening our roots and pruning away the things that might hold us back instead of worrying about new growth. It’s a challenging time and the work is slow, but I know it will be worth it. The best wines always come when the vines have gone through a struggle; and if that’s the case with church plants, we will be in for one memorable vintage.
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