Here in Vermont, the better part of religious devotion is spent on the "local food" movement. When worship takes place at the farmer's market, the peculiar ceremonies and vocabulary of that faith can be impenetrable to unbelievers. And it is up to the priests of this religion—the beleaguered farmers—to pronounce upon devotees the benedictions of the local soil.

Being a pastor is hard. But I've known enough market gardeners and small-scale farmers to know better than to envy them. They work staggering hours at the mercy of a thousand variables, their sliver of a profit margin always at risk from a parasite, a cold snap, a moment's inattention.

But the worst part might be the attention that must be paid to their clientele. Those consumers have appetites that must be satisfied, preferences that must be considered, and questions that must be answered with a straight face. And advice, they have advice that must be endured with patience and grace.

Approaching advice

If you're a market gardener you're going to get lots of advice on tomatoes, for instance. "Stake them," "prune them," "let them ramble." "Go heirloom." "Go hybrid." "Put down plastic," "use cloches," "use mulch," "do companion planting." "Whack them with a broom." (That's right: whack them with a broom.)

If you're growing tomatoes right now, then everyone who's ever grown them anywhere has advice for you.

The problem is that it can be awfully hard to tell the good advice from the bad, because all of it is offered with conviction and sincerity.

Of course it's that way with pastors too. If you pastor a church you will certainly get lots of "you know what would make your church grow — " The advice might be earnest or cynical. It might be wise. It might be shrewd. It might come from the voice of experience or the voice of authority. It might appeal to your vanity or play on your insecurity (or both at the same time). It might be solicited and expensive, or unwanted and free.

But it's definitely coming.

That's okay. We all need advice. But the problem is that it can be awfully hard to tell the good advice from the bad, because all of it is offered with conviction and sincerity.

The anecdotal evidence might be only anecdotal, but such are anecdotes! Advocates of certain approaches to ministry or outreach love to make their arguments in the language of social science, but these disciplines are terribly resistant to hard scientific quantification. And the advice a pastor receives always has a barbed tip. At least it feels that way. While no one would suggest that perhaps the market gardener prefers producing small crops of tasteless tomatoes just because he turned down their advice, that is the sort of veiled accusation that a pastor faces when he or she rejects advice about growing the church. Sometimes the accusation is implicit, but very often it is made abundantly clear. If you were really sincere about growing this church, this is something you would be doing.

How are we to weed through all of that?

Cause or effect?

It can be hard to tell the difference between a program that works at a church, and a program at a church that works. Sometimes a church is just in the right place at the right time. Generations-worth of prayers get answered, God pours out his blessing, and everything goes right. The pastor could start a roller-skating outreach to senior citizens and it could work.

When everything's clicking we can get away with ideas that aren't transferable to other contexts.

Except that it wouldn't. The church would work, and that would be as much despite its foolish programs as because of any of them. When everything's clicking we can get away with ideas that aren't transferable to other contexts. We could buy a whole fleet of metaphorical red sports cars, to no apparent ill effect. That's great news for the used car salesmen of the church growth movement, but it's bad news for pastors of small or struggling churches who are sweating, demonstrating that they love lost people too, and will do anything to bring them to Jesus.

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