December 3, 2019

Shade Trees are Important in the Kingdom

God is challenging us to look past the tyranny of the urgent and plant some shade trees, creating what will eventually be a stronger and more cohesive outpost of the Kingdom.

I don’t usually rely on Warren Buffett for my theological inspiration, but a saying attributed to him has been making the rounds on social media in the summer: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” This saying is filled with common sense. It’s also dramatically countercultural when spoken to an increasingly myopic church and world. It was Charles Hummel who coined the phrase that defines much of our contemporary ministry: tyranny of the urgent. What do these two things mean for us in planning and leading worship? Everything.

If you’re active in parish ministry, you’ve either thought about this Sunday already and are taking a web-break to read this blog, or you’re procrastinating thinking about Sunday by reading this blog, or you’ve got everything finished for this Sunday and just catching up on backlogged reading before thinking about the next. Wherever you find yourself at the moment, either this Sunday or the one(s) that follow are in your tight focus. If you’re really good you’ve got the next several months sketched out. Then what? What will your congregation look like 5–6–7–10 years from now? Who will be there? Are you nurturing them now? What/how will they be singing, praying, and learning? What will they know of the gospel story and the Savior to which it points? Who is going to be sitting in the “shade” of the “trees” you’re planting right now?

That’s a crucial question for me this year. In my current congregation, I inherited a scheme of worship and a Sunday morning schedule that probably made sense at the time it was implemented twenty years ago. Two decades later, we are living in a different time and dealing with many unintended consequences:

  • Twenty years of two services with two very different styles of music and worship have created two unique congregations who are letting their preferences estrange them from each other

  • The elimination of a dedicated discipleship time has resulted in the almost total decimation of a once vibrant adult education ministry

  • The “convenience” of simultaneous children/youth Sunday School and worship at two different hours, rather than encouraging broader participation, has led to a deadly “one-hour” mentality—kids go there, parents go here, and then we all get on with our day—as well as the virtual elimination of any children’s participation in worship

This year we are taking this challenge head-on. While I’ll admit to having been somewhat complicit in sowing seeds of discontent, it is the leadership of the congregation, the elders and deacons, who have launched this evaluation of the status quo. And we’re not settling for easy answers. If what we are envisioning works, we will never have worked harder at incorporating the gifts and abilities of God’s people into a vibrant expression of corporate worship, discipleship, and mission on a weekly basis. Could this be a total train wreck? Absolutely! Especially if people only see us tinkering with the schedule. But we feel God is challenging us to look past the tyranny of the urgent and plant some shade trees, creating what will eventually be a stronger and more cohesive outpost of the Kingdom. Stay tuned…we covet your prayers.

Editorial Note: Part of the challenge facing churches is a lack of knowledge about worship’s meaning and purpose.  The next theme issue will include articles and resources for helping our congregants learn just that.  There is still room in that issue for additional material, especially resources. If you have any you think will bless the wider church consider submitting them

Digging Deeper:

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).