Alaska has the second largest rain forest in the world – second only to the Amazon. I learned this from our guide who led the way through winding footpaths that snaked amidst towering pines and hardwoods, clinging vines, lush plant-life and an impenetrable maze of moss and lichen-covered undergrowth. A drizzling rain (measured in feet, not inches) dripped from every branch and leaf, filling small pools on the forest floor and trickling into streams that meandered toward rushing valley rivers. Misty fog hovered in the trees giving the eerie appearance of an ancient primordial world.
We paused as our naturalist guide pointed out a large rotting log, three to four feet in diameter, that lay across the forest floor. Exposed to the elements, its protective bark long gone, decay was slowly reducing the giant into the soil from which it had emerged centuries earlier. A closer look revealed the presence of young green shoots sprouting from the fallen tree’s spongy surface. “It’s a nurse log,” our guide informed us. It supplies moisture and nutrients to seedlings. Its elevation above the congested forest floor offers seedlings exposure to sunlight and even provides them protection from certain pathogens hostile to particular tree species. Once germinated in the rich decaying humus, a young tree will push its roots downward, into and around the nurse log, and eventually embed them into the earth. In death the nurse log gives birth to new life.
A little farther into this lush-green world, we came upon a huge tree supported by massive roots that supported its main trunk several feet above the forest floor. A full-grown man could easily take shelter beneath the cave-like opening at its base. “The child of a nurse log,” our guide told us. When the nurse log which gave this great tree its start eventually disintegrated, it left open space beneath the tree. Here bears, birds and other rain forest creatures had taken shelter over the years. The nurse log, even in her demise, had created sanctuary for others.
In this pristine rain forest whose unending eco-cycles have endured across eons of time, I was reminded of another unfolding evolution. The divine Breath that gives life to the intricate natural world has breathed a distinctive life into the human creation. Down through the centuries the Creator has stirred within the spirits and affairs of humankind, touching lives and shaping the course of history. The church, like great trees of the eco-forest, is one of the more visible manifestations of this creative force. And like trees, the unfolding history of the church can be charted in both the new shoots that spring forth in every season and in the decayed remains out of which they emerge.
There still exist rare towering giants that have remained for centuries, magnificent specimens that have endured the storms of conflict and fires of persecution. But old-growth forests inevitably yield to the ravages of time. Winds of adversity, political climate change, pathologies of various sorts, and old age all take their toll. Roots weaken, limbs fall, strength ebbs and one by one these once vital structures topple to the earth and quietly disappear. It is the cycle of life – institutional life as well as that of the natural world.
The Western church is in such a decline. Viewed against the backdrop of history, however, the current demise of denominations is predictable. In time, all institutions follow a similar pattern. They begin as fresh movements, new and exciting, abundant with vision and creativity. But in order to survive, a movement must development structural strength – mission statement, doctrinal distinctives, leadership structure, decision-making processes.
Vigorous change takes place during this organizational phase as a seedling becomes established, sinking its roots and spreading its branches. Staff are hired, budgets are created, policies are instituted, goals and objectives are set, property is purchased. As the organization matures it becomes a source of security for its employees. Health insurance, vacation pay, cost of living raises, retirement benefits are negotiated. Gradually the mission shifts from the founding visionaries to hired employees and with each subsequent ring of management the passion that originally inspired the movement becomes slightly diluted. Marketing, management, and funding consume increasing amounts of organizational energy. With its own sturdy root system, it now commands its fair share of sunlight and space on the forest floor.
By the time the organization enters the institutional phase of its development, it is fully vested in its own self-preservation. Instead of a movement spending itself on behalf of a noble cause, it has become a respectable institution consumed with preserving its own viability and legacy. It may still use the same stirring language of its past movement days, and it may still perform important work, but it spends the lion’s share of its energy on buildings, communication systems, internal politics and self-promotion to ensure its longevity. Good stewardship demands its preservation. It is the way of all institutions.
The timeline from germination to maturity is influenced by far too many factors to explore in a brief reflection. However, many experts in organizational theory say forty years is a fairly predictable cycle. In other words, by the time a church is two generations old, its culture has been set, it will be clinging to the security of the familiar, and it will be concerned with its own longevity. Little wonder that a younger generation of progressive, open-minded “seedlings” seek out new ground that fosters their creativity and values their ideas.
It is sad to see great trees weaken and topple. It is never-the-less reassuring to see the profusion of new shoots springing to life from the deep, rich ecclesiastical soil layered century upon century. Consciously or not, these seedlings are being nurtured and shaped by fallen nurse logs that fulfilled a vital role in the history of the faith…and still do. It is the cycle of life.