On Farming and Churching

In his book Remembering, Wendell Berry tells the story of two farmers. The first has acquired 2,000 acres through a patient buying out of his neighbors’ farms. He converted all 2,000 acres to corn fields, because corn produces the most cash. In order to farm all of those acres, he went into debt so as to have the necessary machinery and so as to buy all of the necessary chemicals, and “farms” from his plush office while the stress of his vocation slowly eats away at his body in the form of an ulcer.remembering

The other farmer is Amish, and farms his 80 acres with plough horses. This farm is diversified, and is an economy unto itself, for the fertilizer comes from the animals, and the work is no more or less than can be accomplished by the farmer, his wife, and their children and neighbors. This farmer does not have an easy life, but has an ease born of the freedom of a right-sized agricultural enterprise.

(Somewhere, I’m told, Eugene Peterson has written that when Wendell Berry speaks of farming we are to think of the church. No matter if Eugene ever really said this, as my friend Andy Nagel has encouraged the same correlation, and his advice is more important to me than that of North America’s favorite grumpy pastoral theologian. No matter, too, if Berry himself would approve of the correlation. My hunch is that he wouldn’t, and would rant and rave–and who can rant and rave like Berry?–that he was talking about farming, da_ _’t! We are impervious to this rant because of that handy tool of postmodernity, the intentional fallacy.)

And so, farming and churches. Two roads diverge in this blog entry. It would be easy–and also satisfying–to take the “suck it, mega churches!” road. They are so clearly the “they,” here, so conveniently aligned with the 2,000 acre farm. And although this critique might be necessary, I will here resist it, and instead focus on myself, my own leadership as a pastor, and on my own little corner of Farmville. This road leads me to consider the following:

1) Scale. The problem with the 2,000 acre farm is not that it is big but that it is too big. That is, a 2,000 acre farm is not wrong because it is 2,000 acres, but because this size is too big to have its own economy, to be farmed by people living on the land and not just working the land, too big to have a diversity of production that actually sustains its own existence within its local ecology. The call for the church here is clear: let’s not fashion ourselves simply to grow. This is where Berry’s first farmer got it wrong. His goal is acreage, and what acreage can bring. This is why all acres are converted to the production of corn, and why his farm loses its sustainability, because it no longer can afford to let ground lie fallow, to allow for grazing, to allow even a half acre for a vegetable garden. Jesus’ call to the church was not to “grow” but to “make disciples.” Are church leaders day dreaming about that production? Or do we simply want 2,000 acres, and then 3,000, and then, and then, and then?furrowed-field_-moray

2) Technology. Berry is king of technophobes (the man writes with a pencil and does not own a computer), and this reign and his rhetoric can be, in turn, amusing, convicting, and annoying. His point, though, is that new technology is not necessarily better than old, and that we do well to think about our relationship with technology. Yes, the farmer can farm more acres faster with a tractor, but this requires debt, and paying that debt requires cash, which forces the land to be overused. Churches, and church leaders, must think about their use of technology. Do our tools–this blog entry, that social media presence, that slick video, those interactions over email among leaders, that fog machine (oops, sorry, there’s the “suck it . . .” blog post creeping in), that social media presence–sustain the soil of discipleship growth? Or are we using these technologies simply because everyone else is now in an air conditioned tractor, and we feel silly behind the plough? Availability should not dictate use. Some tools have a cost that is not on the price tag.

3) Local. My favorite theme in Berry’s writing is what I would call a theology of place. His stories of Port William, Kentucky are beautiful because of the relationship between the people (“the membership,” Berry calls them) and the land. In this vein Berry is unabashed in espousing his biblical sensibilities, preaching a stewardship of the land that can only be accomplished by a people who love a particular place, a particular ecology.

I could start my own Berry-esque rant here, but I’ll limit myself to a few points. First, for those who are called to “plant” churches (notice the agricultural language), please think about this. I live in a place which sees 3-6 new church plants every year. Most of them fail. There’s no one reason for these failures, but a failure to think about place is certainly part of it. If you are going to come to my town and plant a church, please at least leave your Arkansas Razorbacks hat at home while you are walking on Pearl Street. And please, take the time to get to know other pastors in town first before you start saving all the heathens here; God was actually working here before you showed up. And, by the way, why are you coming here? Why are you leaving your place to come to this place? I know, it’s one of the most secular places in the country, but are you sure God is not calling you to a place where you are already rooted, where you already know the local ecology, where you already have relationships? Just some questions.

Too many churches are only tangentially related to the place they are in. They do not operate by that overarching ethic of Jesus, love your neighbor. So, to focus more on my own corner of Farmville again, there are a lot of “First” churches in downtown areas all around the country. Most of them have a problem with limited parking. This wouldn’t be a problem, though, if the church was primarily made up of people who lived within a 5-10 block radius of the church. They wouldn’t need to park; they would walk. And the identity of the place, its soil, would get tracked into the building in a way that would make the church a part of its place, so that it could share the gospel in that place. The theological word for this is incarnation; incarnation can never be general–it must be particular.

Well. This has felt like a rant, which is Berry getting into me, or maybe the Berry that was already in me coming out. And it’s also felt like I have not yet been brave enough to really turn these convictions towards myself, towards my own farming, my own ministry, my own leadership. That’s a hard move to make, because it’s so comfortable in this air conditioned tractor, listening to NPR while I plough through unfallowed ground.

So. Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

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  1. Nicole Parsons says

    Hey Jeff,

    Peterson really did say that thing about reading Wendell Berry. It was in an interview with Christianity Today’s Rodney Clapp in 1989: “I enjoy reading the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He takes a small piece of land in Kentucky, respects it, cares for it, submits himself to it just as an artist submits himself to his materials. I read Berry, and every time he speaks of ‘farm’ or ‘land,’ I insert ‘parish.’ As he talks about his farm, he talks about what I’ve tried to practice in my congregation, because one of the genius aspects of pastoral work is locality. The pastor’s question is, ‘who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?'”

    And, personally, I seriously doubt that Berry would rant about Peterson making such an application of the Kentuckian’s agricultural writing — based on these comments Berry himself has made (in a speech made in Louisville, KY in October of 1994, titled “Health and Membership”):

    Berry says: “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.

    I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sir Albert Hovvard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that ‘the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.’

    I am moreover a Luddite, in what I take to be the true and appropriate sense. I am not ‘against technology’ so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community. I would unhesitatingly destroy a machine before I would allow the machine to destroy my community.”

    All of this to say — I think both Peterson and Berry — ranting or otherwise — have made statements that squarely affirm your thoughts in this blog post!

    And to them, I’d only add one more voice (of a TRUE ranter, by the way — the crankiness of whom stands as my personal definition of cranky ranting): Edward Abbey. I often think of his words whenever I think of the headlong rush into “church growth” and “mega-church” movements:

    “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

    Keep up the good work, Jeff!

    We did, indeed, walk to church this morning in Westcliffe. It’s one of our favorite things about being retired.

    • Anonymous says

      Hi Nicole! Thanks so much for your response. I rest in your assurance of Berry’s approval, and appreciate the references you have provided. And I smile at the thought of two disciples walking through a Colorado mountain town to worship, and then, I further imagine, walking home to tend their garden and enjoyed a well-brewed cup of coffee. There is growth in such a life, growth that is antithetical to that described by Edward Abbey’s pithy comment. Blessings to you in your particular place!

    • Jeff Hoffmeyer says

      Hi Nicole! Thanks so much for your response. I rest in your assurance of Berry’s approval, and appreciate the references you have provided. And I smile at the thought of two disciples walking through a Colorado mountain town to worship, and then, I further imagine, walking home to tend their garden and enjoyed a well-brewed cup of coffee. There is growth in such a life, growth that is antithetical to that described by Edward Abbey’s pithy comment. Blessings to you in your particular place!

  2. Hi Jeff, I found this by accident. Since I love reading both Wendell Berry and Eugene Petersen and agree with a great deal of what they write I truly enjoyed your posting. I wonder if you know that Petersen in his book Take & Read writes about how Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a picture of the Church’s presence in the world.

    “The most evident thing about him, his body, provides an analogue to the Church. His vast bulk is evidence of his ‘weight’ recalling the etymology of the biblical ‘glory.’ More than anything else he is there, visibly. He must be reckoned with. He is corpulent or nothing. And the Church is the body of Christ. Along with an insistence on bodily presence there is a corresponding observation that there is nothing attractive about that body. His body is subject to calumny and jokes. His genius is in his mind and style. He does not fawn before customers, nor seek ‘contacts’ (a word, incidentally, that he would never use. He once was found ripping apart a dictionary page by page, and burning it because it legitimized “contact” as a transitive verb.) Wolfe will not leave his home on business, that is, accommodate himself to the world’s needs. He is a center around which action revolves, a center of will and meditation, not a center of power or activity. …”

    Also I love the farming metaphor–I have a granddaughter and grand son-in-law who have a dairy outside of Placerville. They are good copies of Berry. You would love the pictures and words on their Facebook site and web site.

  3. I also meant to say the church Brad and I attend is now a church plant although they have been a church in Folsom for many years. After voting 168 to thirty-two we lost the church to the thirty-two. And our name. We are now an EPC church plant. I am sorry to say Brad and I drive all the way to Folsom. It would be wonderful to just walk to church, but alas it isn’t God’s will at the moment. Someday perhaps, but I believe we are needed at Hope Presbyterian Church. And actually at the moment we need them and love them all.

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