On New Year’s Eve, I went hiking with a good friend of mine at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest near Asheville, NC. I had the week off so he was preaching for me the next day. Bent Creek is a place where foresters try different practices and observe how they affect the forest.
Throughout the trails at Bent Creek, there are signs that explain the different types and cycles of forestry that occur there. My friend, who works with the National Council of Churches, noticed a sign that explained how the old growth of the forest allows for new growth. This would become a central image in his sermon. The old growth provides shelter and shade. The new growth does not have to be directly exposed to the elements. Eventually the old growth will die out, and the new growth will be vital.
I look around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I remain optimistic for mainline Protestantism. Energy and ideas are abundant. There are exciting ministries. God’s story of relentless love remains fresh. Volumes have been learned from a tradition that is committed to being responsive to how God acts in the contemporary world. These new opportunities emerge from a great tradition.
We cannot expect these ideas to prolong the old growth. What we need is new growth. There is enough old growth to take big risks and invest in new ministries. It seems that many presbyteries may have had only one church plant in the past two decades. The old growth eventually falls. It is falling right now. That is okay. Falling trees are not the problem. The problem is that we have not planted many new trees. We have ideas about what new growth might be, but we are too busy putting our resources into preservation. We cannot preserve the old growth forever, yet we can have new growth.
My hope for the church is that we start planting, that we tell the story of Jesus Christ in new and daring ways. The forest floor is fertile. The canopy is still strong. We should stop expecting our old trees to last forever. Let the new growth begin.
Rev. Michael G. Isaacs is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C.