‘Tis the season to be about pruning. As an avid gardener with multiple fruit trees in my yard, I find myself thinking a great deal about pruning this time of year.

Gardeners know that each type of fruit tree requires a specific type of pruning. Peach trees, for example, should look like an upside-down umbrella when pruning is finished. Apple trees, however, require a central leader that takes precedence over all competing branches. The result is a pyramid shape that requires annual renewal.

The first year of an apple tree’s life, one must identify the central leader and ruthlessly prune back all challengers. That central leader becomes the main trunk of the tree. It must always be the tallest part of the tree, and each year it is necessary to eliminate rivals that shoot up and challenge the central leader for supremacy.

I visit and talk with many churches that could learn this lesson from the apple tree. There can only be one central leader, and all rivals must be subservient to it. Pruning an apple tree means eliminating perfectly good sprouts that seem intent on challenging the central leader.

Now, before the ministers in the crowd are tempted to think I am talking about everyone giving way to their leadership, I need to clarify. A strong and healthy local church must be crystal-clear about its ultimate reason for existing. That is their central leader. The central leader is not a person, but a reason for being.

The mission and vision of a local church must be held in higher esteem than any of a thousand good ideas that come calling or winsome personalities with their pet causes. In fact, pruning is sometimes called for so that rival visions and agendas do not challenge the ultimate mission of a congregation.

That mission, the kingdom of God coming here on earth as it is in heaven, was explicitly taught by Jesus and spelled out in the pages of the New Testament. Every congregation would do well to spend time learning and articulating its distinctive understanding of what it means to make Jesus’ mission its mission.

A friend recently shared with me this remarkable quote from Craig Van Gelder: “It is not the church of God that has a mission in this world, but the God of mission that has a church in the world … . God is on the move and the church is always catching up with Him. We join His mission …”

Have you stopped to ask if you are living out his mission? Far too often we substitute programs for mission. We can even confuse missions with mission. Numerous churches fall for the idea that methods are supreme. They wear themselves out chasing ministry fads. The burning question for a church is not what style of music to sing or architecture to build or what age of a pastor to call. Our ultimate question is whether we will make God’s mission our mission.

When it comes to life in a congregation in the 21st century, the good is often the enemy of the best. Well-intentioned ideas crowd out our organizing center. Jesus was unrelenting about this dilemma: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.” The Kingdom was the central leader in his life, and his church is invited to follow suit.

Some days when I am pruning a fruit tree and look down to see all the branches that have been discarded in the process, I am tempted to doubt the wisdom of pruning. Can’t I let them all live and thus have more fruit? It is not to be. There can only be one central leader. There can only be one compelling central mission. Everything else must give way for the tree to bear fruit as God intended.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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