While writing the book “Rooted in Good Soil” I felt the Lord impress upon me an analogy or word picture that over time began to impact my leadership. While not initially profound, the Spirit persisted to illuminate its depth and it slowly began to change me. In time I believed God was calling me to communicate these very simple principles to my Boise team for the purpose of altering our course. On the first of January we launched a concerted effort to gently turn the helm of our ship together and as we did we immediately experienced the exhilaration of a fresh thrust of momentum. In order to grasp this idea of what we are now referring to as “Heirloom Christianity” it is essential to go back and explain again the crucial differences between heirloom and hybrid seed and why these differences illuminate a prophetic parallel to the truths God is presently speaking to His church.
Heirloom vs. hybrid seed
Three or four years ago I hadn’t even known about heirloom seed much less that there was a difference between heirloom and hybrid seed. As far as I knew, a seed was a seed and if planted in the vegetable garden they would eventually grow into something that resembled the picture depicted on the cover of the envelope they came in. It wasn’t until I was given an article from a horticultural periodical that I learned about the growing controversy concerning the commercial pressure to transition from heirloom to hybrid seed use.
For thousands of years all seed was what is now being referred to as heirloom or heritage. As far back as the Garden of Eden and the days of Cane and Able, farmers harvested their crops and set aside a portion of the seed produced for the next season’s planting. The DNA of any species of fruit, grain or vegetable was passed from one generation of harvest to the next through the seeds they produced. That is, until sometime early in the twentieth century. It was then that man found a better way.
Through a process of artificial cross pollination a discovery was made that it was possible to manipulate nature producing what became known as F1 hybrids (The “F” stands for “filial”, a word used in genetics describing the relationship between two parental lines and the first generation of offspring – thus F1). By cross pollinating desired species of plants agricultural scientists discovered they could develop produce that was more beneficial to mass consumerism. Fruits and vegetables could be produced that were consistent in size and shape. They could be scientifically engineered for higher yield and special adaptations as well as insect and drought resistance in specific regions. Even their coloration could be enhanced, and for the first time in human history a watermelon could be seedless. This amazing discovery revolutionized modern agriculture as it appeared to bring a solution to the problem of feeding a rapidly growing world population. By WWII nearly all major farming projects relied on hybrid seed causing heirloom seed to slowly and quietly become sidelined.
The truth was there were great advantages to F1 hybrids, but there were unseen disadvantages as well. The successes of hybrid crops were evaluated more on the basis of tonnage or quantity than on taste or nutritional value. For those who noticed, the substance and essence of produce was not what it once was. Although there was greater uniformity, there was less diversity. For example, while there were literally hundreds of varieties of heirloom apples, there were only a handful of hybrid varieties. The original DNA of some heirloom species which fed humanity from the beginning of time was not only gradually forgotten, but lost altogether.
The greatest disadvantage of F1 hybrids, however, was the fact that they could not naturally reproduce. Because hybrid seed is sterile, the farmer and gardener are rapidly becoming dependant on commercial seed production. No longer can a farmer regenerate the seed of his previous crop. Instead, they must purchase new seed every growing season. Just as a mule is a hybrid animal resulting from the crossbreeding of a horse and a donkey and cannot carry on the mule breed, hybrid seed is also a genetic dead end. Without man’s commercial intervention, hybrid seed is incapable of regeneration.
Heirloom seed, on the other hand, has passed on the original authentic DNA from one generation to the next. Independent of man’s intervention they have stood the test of time through seasons of drought, attacks of pestilence and every kind of environmental challenge. Heirloom plants may not produce fruits, grains and vegetables with advantages such as watermelons without seeds, but they have faithfully nourished and sustained the human race for thousands of years. Because they can reproduce season after season without man’s industrialized intervention, they have effectively regenerated life on the planet from the beginning of time. So then, what is my point?
The pitfall of hybrid Christianity
Like many American baby boomer pastors I was saved and called to ministry in the 1970s during the heat of the Jesus movement. There are some that would say the Jesus movement was not a true revival, yet those caught up in the swirl of the life it offered would attest that it was far more than status-quo Christianity. It was, in fact, transforming. Experiencing the thrill of momentum in a movement of faith that magnetically drew us to life changing decisions, challenging us to lay down normal life for the sake of service in the Kingdom of God, was to say the very least, exhilarating. Those of us who entered full time ministry in those days never wanted it to end. Everywhere we looked we saw authentic salvation in Christ, miracles that could only be attributed to the genuine interventions of the Holy Spirit and young non-traditional churches that were rapidly growing even though they were being led by young, inexperienced leaders. It was a miraculous time and we knew it.
I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but sometime in the early 1980s something subtle crept into the purity of the amazing thing God was doing. I don’t believe it happened because of a lack of integrity or corrupt motives; on the contrary I think it happened because we desired more than anything to diligently ensure that things kept moving. Because of the momentum and synergy of God’s presence among a generation of broken and desperate people, many churches grew to uncharacteristically large sizes for the day. There was no such word then as “mega-church” but it was not unusual in that time to observe a number of churches across the nation that grew to a thousand or even two thousand. It also stands to reason that pastors of those rapidly growing churches became esteemed and were looked to for methods and models for what we naturally began to identify as being “successful”. I believe this became the catalyst to what we now historically refer to as the beginning of the “church growth movement”.
What I’m about to say here is a delicate matter and I want to be very careful. To misinterpret my heart in this would mean to miss the entire point. First of all I’m not against big churches. My wife and I planted the church we now pastor which has grown to be quite large. We believe it is on the way to becoming everything we have prayed and dreamt it could be. Biblically I recognize the acknowledgment of numerical growth as a way of communicating the blessings of God on a local church body. Most of us are familiar with the passages found throughout the Book of Acts concerning the growing numbers of people in the church of Jerusalem as God continued to move. Passages such as: “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.” [Acts 2:41- NLT] “But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.” [Acts 4:4 - NLT] “So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem…” [Acts 6:7 - NLT]
It is not a matter of being negative about big church, but rather the methods and motives for aspiring to attract large groups of people. In other words, it is a matter of evaluating success not merely with righteous sounding words, but with authentic and pure hearts. As leaders it is essential for us to come to the place of sincerely caring more about the spiritual and emotional growth of people than succumbing to the cultural pressure to define success on the number filling our auditoriums on any given Sunday. The questions we should be asking ourselves are questions like: Are lives really being changed because of the time they invest in our fellowships? Are we building hybrid or heirloom churches? Are they filled with Christians that look good on the outside but lack substance and essence on the inside? Or, are they filled with Christians that have embraced the heart of God and desire to grow in the likeness of his character?
I can distinctly remember sitting in a national board meeting in the mid 1990s with John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard church movement. I remember it so well because I felt guilty, along with probably many other board members, when John confronted us on our growing reliance on secular business books. His point was that in the desperation to see our churches grow we had begun to gravitate more towards man’s wisdom than God’s sovereignty.
Many Leaders in the ‘90s suffered from feelings of inadequacy when it came to growing and maintaining large organizations. Few of us in those days were trained in administration and management skills. We were forced to learn how to manage growing staffs and programs by the seat of our pants and the school of hard knocks. We needed and wanted help, and started looking to the world to find it. I think we had either overlooked or forgotten that the New Testament Apostles suffered through the same dilemma when the church in Jerusalem grew beyond their leadership ability. (See Acts 6.) The truth was that some of the outside secular voices where quite helpful. Ironically many of the techniques they shared that led to their personal success were actually based on biblical truth. We discovered that many of the characteristics of a successful business were based on the Jesus style of leadership; such qualities as service, vision, purpose, truth, honesty and continual training (discipleship) and commissioning for expansion. It wasn’t the material that was hurting us; it was the motive for obtaining it. The danger was looking more to mechanical or even spiritual gimmicks to attract new people and retain them (keep the back door closed) than to providing honest and relevant opportunity for their lives to change when they were there. The danger was simply building hybrid churches that produced hybrid Christians.
Defining hybrid & heirloom Christianity
When I first learned the difference between hybrid and heirloom seed I couldn’t help but think of their defining characteristics in light of Christianity. Hybrids are seeds that have been manipulated for the purpose of manufacturing something more appetizing in an attempt to meet the demands of consumerism. The yield of crops and size of resulting produce is of higher priority than nutritional value or taste. Conformity has a higher value than diversity.
In an attempt to manufacture seed to meet a specific environmental need hybrids compromise the original DNA. You might even say that hybrids sacrifice the purity of their original roots for the sake of adaptability to culture. Relevance is a higher priority than essence. The greatest difference, and I believe the most tragic, is the hybrid’s inability to regenerate and reproduce even to the point of sometimes being seedless altogether. Considering hybrid Christianity, this reveals a number of things. The most obvious is the inability for a gifted charismatic leader to pass on a mega-church that was built more on consumerism Christianity than on the purity of the simple gospel message. A deep concern for many retiring baby-boomer pastors is the difficulty to identify young gifted leaders capable of taking over their large thriving corporate church organizations. For this reason, there is concern that numbers of mega-churches might well be facing bankruptcy and collapse in the years ahead. One leadership expert put it this way, “A leader cannot be a success without a successor”.
Characteristics of Heirloom Christianity – the real thing
In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul was exhorting the gentile Christians in Rome reminding them not to feel proud about the fact that God had turned from the Jewish nation because of their rejection of the Gospel providing salvation for all men. He gave the example of a branch that had once been a wild olive tree being grafted into God’s tree of holy roots. He said, “…if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too.” [Rom. 11:16] He went on to say, “And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.” [vs. 17-18 -NLT] This is a key test in our discussion concerning heirloom Christianity because it speaks of going back to the original root; tapping into the original DNA of God’s holy plan and provision.
In short it might be said that becoming an heirloom Christian would encompass three characteristics of the heirloom seed we have spoken of: first, it must be grafted into the original stock and thus receive the original DNA. This is an act of faith. Second, an heirloom Christian must not only choose to be grafted in through faith, but also abide in the vine, growing to maturity in both substance and essence – and this can only happen by way of God’s divine grace. And finally, unlike hybrid seeds that are incapable of multiplying themselves, heirloom Christians are agents God uses to reproduce and regenerate his kingdom. It is interesting to note that a synonym for the word regeneration is renaissance. Renaissance speaks of the uniqueness and diversity of God’s amazing creation. As stated previously, though hybrid varieties of fruit trees are limited, there are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties. In the same way there is great diversity in true heirloom Christianity. For this reason, just as the creative arts were stirred up in revivals of the past, the talents and uniqueness of people would be stirred up and outwardly expressed as the American church moves away from the conformity of hybrid Christianity into the regeneration of heirloom faith. Regeneration and reproduction is the good and lasting fruit manifested in the life of one who chooses by faith to be grafted in, living under grace as they abide in the true vine.