Roots and Shoots

Note: This essay has been developed from an original idea by Barack Obama.

Let us begin with a tree…

A tree needs roots, roots that go deep enough to feed the tree with nutrients, and to enable it to stand in the face of a storm. But it also needs shoots, first of all branches that spread and grow, and then leaves, blossom and fruit, that tell us what sort of tree it is, and express its life and beauty.

The tree is a parable of the human life. We need roots that receive nourishment for our minds and spirits, roots that will keep us inwardly secure when life’s trials batter us. These roots grow through receiving love and affirmation, support and care. Where this is lacking, our inner being can wither and die. For the Christian, the greatest affirmation, and so the greatest support for our human roots, is to know ourselves loved by God.

But we also need the shoots. Life is not just about stability through receiving. It is also about adventure, and new life, about reaching out and going on, about showing to others the fruit of our rootedness. Again, for the Christian, the shoots symbolise the call to venture out, to experiment, to do good, to offer love, and show how a rooted personality can spread sunshine and hope in a dark world.

Esther de Waal expresses well the importance of these two life dimensions:

If I stand still without moving on I am in danger of becoming static, of failing to grow, possibly even of fossilizing. If I journey on without remaining still in my innermost being I am in danger of becoming a wanderer, someone who is endlessly searching.

(Living with Contradiction, pages 62-3.)

Roots and Shoots in the Gospels

In the Gospels, roots and shoots are expressed primarily by two words: abide and follow. In John’s Gospel and letters, the word abide is commonly used to express the rootedness which comes from belonging to Christ. In John 15, the writer uses the image of a plant, the vine, to express the vital importance of being rooted in Christ. And he links this with the shoots. It is only as we are rooted and abide in Christ that the branches will bear fruit (verses 4–5).

In the Synoptic Gospels there is more emphasis on movement and growth. This is often expressed by the words of Jesus: Follow me. The call of the first disciples, Andrew, Peter, James and John, was a challenge to a radical change of life, an invitation to adventure, an opportunity for the shoots to spread, blossom and grow. The early disciples set out on a journey to an unknown destination, a roller-coaster ride of great highs, with miracles and amazing teaching, and lows of rejection by the religious authorities. The shoots of their discipleship were given an opportunity to grow when Jesus sent them out to act as they had seen him acting – preaching, teaching, and casting out demons. These shoots flourished with greater scope and confidence after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts.

Roots and Shoots in the Church

This same model of roots and shoots can be applied more widely. Churches need to embrace it.

We need our churches to be firmly rooted – secure and confident in biblical doctrine and practice, valuing prayer, eucharistic worship, and the wisdom of past generations.

But these same churches need also to develop shoots, growing, developing and experimenting, open to new forms of group life, following Christ’s lead into new areas of ministry and mission.

The Fresh Expressions movement has tapped into this vision. But my contention is that every church, while maintaining its rootedness and stability should be seeking its own expression of ministry and mission, in order to be faithful to a Christ who constantly says Follow me.

Esther de Waal’s warning about the individual could apply equally to churches. A church whose sole emphasis is on stability, the importance of orthodoxy and of doing things the way they have always been done, is in danger of fossilizing. The church which spends its whole time striving to be up-to-date, and where no one has a clue what is coming next, can feel confusing and lacking in direction and purpose.

Roots and Shoots in Church Liturgy

A church’s liturgy needs the same double dynamic.

As Anglicans we have a rich heritage in the Book of Common Prayer. Its sense of the sovereignty and majesty of God is expressed in language which points clearly to the rootedness of our life in Christ.

Modern liturgies, with their greater variety of both thought and expression enable the Church to also express the shoots – new and varied approaches to the Eucharist, a Service of the Word, and the Occasional Offices.

It is not a case of either/or, but both/and. While most churches, rightly in my view, major on the modern, it is good to have on occasion the rootedness, the solemnity and tradition, which the Book of Common Prayer provides.

Roots and Shoots in Church Music

Church music, too, needs both roots and shoots.

Time was when the English Hymnal or Hymns Ancient and Modern (‘Ancient and Moribund’ as it was sometimes disrespectfully called) were the only hymn books open to the adult Anglican worshipper. Of course, these collections contained a great variety, translations of ancient texts, the great George Herbert, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, to name but a few composers. But they all took a traditional metric form.

Then in the 1960s came Sydney Carter. He was followed by an outpouring of new worship songs, many associated with charismatic renewal. The shoots have continued to flourish with a vast amount of choice on offer. The chants of Taize, the new words set to Scottish folk tunes by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community and the World Praise Collections assembled from the Worldwide Church, have all enriched the worship of God’s people.

However, we should never think that any of this new music can replace the traditional hymn, or indeed Cathedral chant, psalm and hymnody, which increasing numbers of people are coming to appreciate.

Roots and Shoots in Church Buildings

Finally, there is the church building.

Most Anglican churches except the very modern, proclaim their very rootedness by their construction. They are built of solid stone or brick. Many have towers, which seem to say We serve a God who is dependable and stands the test of time. The truths we proclaim are permanent. Though society may change, our God is unchanging. Once inside, the visitor finds solid pillars and fixed pews. The font is fixed at the back of church and the pulpit and the altar at the front. Rootedness is well served by such a building.

But if it is to be faithful to the Christ who commands to his disciples both to abide and to follow, the building should reflect our double dynamic. In general, there is not a lot that can be done about the structure – unless it succumbs to fire, as happened to Eastwood Church where I served my curacy. But maybe it is time to join some churches in a radical rethink of the interior.

If the structure is stressing roots, maybe the interior should major on shoots. So perhaps most if not all of the fixed pews could be removed. Different parts of the church could be opened up to the community – for play groups, youth, mid-week cafe, etc. A few rural churches double as the local Post Office! The worship area, in addition to lectern, pulpit and altar, could embrace colour (banners), movement (liturgical dance and drama), and a mixture of music. Whatever is done should be an attempt to express a dynamic, adventurous, outward-looking God, served by a dynamic, adventurous and outward-looking people.

Roots and Shoots: Conclusion

To sum up: I believe the image of a tree’s roots and shoots provides a helpful model of flourishing. Individuals, churches, liturgy, music and church buildings all need this double dynamic which is presented to us in the biblical challenge to abide in and to follow Christ.

The Summons is the title of an Iona hymns by John Bell and Graham Maule. Throughout there is a fusion of abiding and following. Here is the last verse:

Lord your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you, and you in me.

The Summons, John Bell and Graham Maule