Of Oaks and Aspens

A pastor friend of mine, Jonathan Cleveland, recently reminded me of a metaphor that is not necessarily new but is good to revisit, especially when talking about missional church planting and ecclesiology. The imaging of this metaphor revolves around the differences between an oak tree and aspen tree.

I live in Colorado, at a higher elevation, where Aspens are an everyday part of life. They are beautiful trees, white trunks, thinner in size, with small limbs that hold small green leaves that will “quake” in the wind.

In contrast, oaks were an everyday part of life when I was younger and growing up in Arkansas. Oak trees grow to have massive trunks with thick heavy bark and spread their limbs as far as they possibly can, while being dressed in larger leaves. Both trees are beautiful and have their own character and nuances.

I had always learned that when you look at a tree above ground, you can tell something about its root system. The root systems of a tree can extend two times it’s canopy size. If limbs are reaching out ten feet, then the root system is reaching out about ten feet or further. As a tree grows taller and its limbs reach out further, the root system is growing larger as well.

Beneath the Oak

This is especially true for oak trees. When you see these huge, massive, multi-decade old oaks trees in the south, their root systems are spreading out to support the huge weight of the tree and its need for moisture. To stay alive, those roots suck all the nourishment that they can from the ground they are invading and inhabiting.

Many times, you will find less grass or other plants growing around the base of big oak trees. There’s just not enough water and other needed nutrients to allow both the tree and the grass to grow. And so, the big oak, while mighty, huge, and awesome in size, it also is killing the things that try to grow around it.

I can remember being a boy and mowing our yard which had two huge oaks on it. Around these massive trees the grass rarely grew as lush as the places that extended past the canopy of the tree. I hated mowing around our oaks because the dirt was kicked up so much that I would invariably find myself inside a dusty cyclone to cut just a few patches of grass.

Below the Aspen

Aspens, in contrast, are an enigma to this rule of root system size. You see, Aspens grow in colonies that share one root system. When you see a grove of Aspens, you are not looking at many individual trees, but you are seeing one organism that is sharing a common root system.

In 1968 a researcher named Burton Barnes discovered an aspen colony in Utah that covers over 160 acres. It has been named Pando the Great and is thought to be the heaviest and the oldest living organism on Earth!

Pando is a huge Aspen forest that is actually one male Aspen. Pando is one organism expressing itself, if you will, in thousands of different sized and different looking trees. Above ground, you and I see a forest of trees, under the ground, what is revealed is that this massive forest is actually one large organism.

This contrast between oak trees and aspens provides us a great visual metaphor when thinking about ecclesiology and church-planting. As we think about, “what kind of church do I want to lead/plant?”, visualize these differences between oaks and aspens. Each comes with its own set of challenges, but I would argue is harder for one type. We can witness some of these challenges in church communities today.

Oak Tree Church

Obviously, we can equate the oak tree with mega-church methods and ecclesiology. The goal with this type of model is, bigger is better. We’ve seen the oak-tree-model of church entrenched in western ecclesiology for several decades now. There are whole conferences designed around helping you grow a bigger oak tree (a bigger church), spreading out the canopy and root system.

The problem with this type of system is that it takes tremendous resources to keep it alive. The bigger it gets, the more it takes to hold it up and to get “water” to the ends of all the limbs. Perhaps the limbs represent all the needed programs that are birthed as the tree grows.

We’re all familiar with the structures of mega church models around the country. The “limbs” of these structures offer something for everyone, for every season or need of life. What this creates is an ecclesiology where ministry happens at the church, on the tree if you will. In seeing big church systems, we in turn get drawn into thinking we are supposed to also plant an oak tree.

In the Grove

Let’s contrast our metaphor and think about ecclesiology for a moment in terms of an aspen grove. Here, perhaps each tree represents expressions of smaller church communities that are connected by a common root system, or perhaps they are all part one church community that expresses itself in multiple missional expressions in various contexts, neighborhoods, or styles.

A system built on this metaphor of a decentralized system could give more alternatives for contextual expression, allowing each “tree” to look a little different, though they all share a common connection to each other.

Aspen Grove Ecclesiology

Ecclesiology built like an aspen grove may not start with questions about a building (one place to gather and meet), a staff to run programs, etc….but instead may start asking questions about a larger geography and methodology that supports each expression of the grove of trees.

My contention, and one shared by many other ecclesial authors and thinkers, is that building oak trees is a system that is slowly declining, and as well, is getting harder to reproduce. The resources needed to support an oak type church are just not there anymore as fewer and fewer people are drawn to the programs of large churches, instead wanting a faith that is lived out “in the grove,” in the streets of their lives.

If we intend to expand the Kingdom of God, not just build places for Christians to gather and worship (yes, still a needed space), then we must start thinking like aspen groves, not like oak trees.

Consider the Roots

In your own journey, and your calling, to lead people toward the kingdom, I would encourage you that thinking about aspen grove systems will take the weight of large budgets, staff and buildings off of your to-do list.

When you spend your energy and gifting instead helping root systems grow, then you’ll see new expressions and communities pop up and expand the greater grove as a whole. The kingdom will expand.

I know, everything you’ve been taught drives you toward planting an oak, but I’d encourage you to give thought to an ecclesiology of aspens…plant your own Pando the Great and watch it expand into the neighborhoods, work places, schools, and places that your community lives, works, and plays everyday!

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About the Author

Rowland Smith

Rowland serves as National Director of Forge America Missional Training Network, is a staff pastor of missional culture at a church in Colorado Springs, and directs The Pando Collective, a micro-church and missional expression network that was launched from his local church. He also teaches as affiliate faculty at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church, and most recently, was lead editor and organizer for the multi-author book Red Skies: 10 Essential Conversations Exploring our Future as the Church. He is married and has four adult children.

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