The Christian Church Seeks To Be Relevant: Have You Considered Reading Wendell Berry?

17904365_1002590836540595_7232964238205868447_nAn old joke tells of a farmer who took his wife and son to the big city. He had to do banking and his wife wanted to shop in one of “those new fangled department stores.” The farmer family drove to town in their beat-up farm car, barely street legal, and pulled into the store’s parking lot. The wife immediately departed to learn what “perfume” is all about, while the dad and the boy stood against on the corners of the store.

The old farmer then saw something downright miraculous: a hunched over, old woman waddled into a room where the doors magically opened and closed for her. A few seconds passed inside the magic room, bells rung, and the doors opened with a beautiful, slender woman marching out. Again, this happened: a fat, older woman entered and, after a few bells and rings, out came young, demure girl.

The farmer leaned over to his son and grumbled, “Boy, go git yer mom.”

This joke would have undoubtedly have described the seclusion of our tiny farm town 50 to 100 years ago, but is ungrounded in the present day reality of the small, Canadian farm town.

Today, Cree children can dream of someone “pimping their ride” and would say they’re “from the hood.” Farmer wives wear shirts from Hollister and can get hair styles seconds after they’re shown on the latest TV shows. Large amounts religious data past or present, can be downloaded upon our smart phones, to which one of my friends, a logger, practices Zen meditative practices while in the bush.

A hundred years ago the Christian church was a major shaping force in the lives of the community, beside the land and the community itself. Now, there are hundreds upon thousands of influences, forces, and messages seeking to shape the Canadian citizen. The land is now in the throes of post-modernity where a thousand different hands are writing on the chalkboard of the human heart.

Sam Keen, speaker and author from the 1990s “Men’s Movement,” has defined our present post-Christian age as one in the throes of postmodernity,

One of the problems in the modern world is that everything is discontinuous. It used to be that we believed in an essence, a soul, a story, a myth that we lived by; we came from small communities with shared guiding principles based on a shared point of view. Now we lived in what people increasingly call a postmodern environment. What postmodernism at its best or worst is that we don’t have links of continuity in our lives; instead, we are filled with information that comes to us from outside.[1]

These messages from the outside seek not to discredit the Gospel, but rather reduce the Gospel to information and put against one of many of thousands of options.

When one thing is put in a box of many things without some thing giving it meaning above everything, it soon can become anything.

So coupled with some regional discrediting, the globalizing influence that is now postmodernity has made the church lose its former status as dispenser of truth, its ministers as trusted spiritual directors and those who can shape people into Christ’s likeness. This has placed the church in our town in a post-foundational position. Simply put, all roads no longer lead to the church. The Christian Church has become one of many options and, potentially, has become one of the less desired option.

In their book Unchristian David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons revealed the common assumption held by those in North America regarding Christians is that:

“Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders, they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who does not believe what they believe.”[2]

In North America, according to their research, fewer and fewer people trust the Christian church and more see the religious activities of institutional Christianity actually producing unhealthy, angry, and hostile people. The Christian church is not what it used to be seen as and this is the setting the church finds itself in today. Worse yet, if those non-Christians residing in the same community as a local church ever came into its building, they’d have a hard time understanding the language, as indicative of a post-foundational position.

We are no longer speaking the same language. Sure, we may all speak English but terms like “Savior,” “Lord,” “Servant,” “Love,” and “Member” all mean different things to different people. We each have been written upon by various sources, from mass media to our life experiences, to a variety of previous cultures – all of which shape the understanding of words and phrases that most would assume are commonly grasped in the church. We can no longer assume that those outside of the Christian culture understand our metaphors and symbols in the sermons we speak. If a pastor states in his service, “Let us drink the blood from the Lamb of God,” this will comfort those who understand “Christianese,” but may frighten the rest of the world.

“That paradox,” Stephen Prothero has stated in his book Religious Literacy,

…is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates (based on the Worlds Value Survey 2000)[3].

The expectation that someone from our community would see a notice in the newspaper advertising our church, bring the family on Sunday morning, allow his or her kids to be watched by strangers in a classroom filled with religiously themed posters, sing worship songs, give money to an offering plate, eat bread, drink juice, hear a message that explains the entirety of the Gospel, and then walk forward to kneel before the altar in order become a Christian is presumptuous. It presumes that before anyone every attends a church, he or she already holds that the Christian world view is primary. Most don’t, and instead find what I’ve described as strange, confusing, potentially self-serving, and possibly coercive. An old bush pastor once complained about Christians, “They’re funny. They want their non-Christian friends to act, think, and live as Christians before they bring them to church. It’s like we want the fish baited, gutted, and cleaned before we bring them into our boat!”

In our town, we have a multitude of sources writing on our small town, agrarian culture. Our immigrant population is growing, bringing with them Catholicism, Islam, and atheism. We have Canadian born spirituality, distrustful of organized religion but shaped by media from all over the world. And we have God, mysteriously using the history, land, and setting to do His own work. The last – the mission of God in our community – can be an absolute mystery to the church. It appears in the age of post-Christendom and it assumes that God is at work beyond our building. The river of culture we swim has become one of incongruity.

Alan J.Roxburgh, in his book The Sky is Falling, asks, “How do you stay attentive to the Spirit when you are immersed in radical, discontinuous change all your life?”[4] How does one listen to God when the river is filled various, competing voices? And more importantly, what is He up to?   What is God doing? These are the key questions followers of Jesus must ask, and yet it’s become a complex question that few feel they can answer. Shouldn’t the church be the place where one can learn how to hear the voice of God? If so, then why isn’t it a place where people hear from God? Why aren’t we experiencing Him at church? Why don’t community members feel they can experience Him and find out what He’s doing in their lives at church?

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have described the present scenario,

People in this post-Christendom world no longer think about going to church when they wake up on Sunday mornings. When they find themselves in crisis, they don’t turn to a church. In fact, the church often finds itself under suspicion as an institution. ‘The church only wants my money!’ is a common sentiment. Today we find that churches have to justify our existence. It is not true everywhere, but if you find these dynamics in your neighborhood, you know you’re living in a post-attractional, post-Christendom place.”[5]

Could it be the church has become a place that no longer prepares people to hear from God? Suddenly, questions abound, revealing that the church, in order to prepare against postmodernity, has laid its gaze within itself instead of looking out to what God is doing in the neighborhood. Does the church want to build up its programs in order fund more programming within the four walls of the church? And if so, is that what God is doing in our post-Christian land? If God loves our Sunday morning attendance so much, why isn’t He doing more to rescue the church from post-Christianity? Or is His mission doing something entirely new in North America?

What is God up to, right here and now?

In order to understand the church’s role in God’s story, we must realize that postmodernism, post-foundationalism, and post-Christianity have created a “post-attractional” setting for the church. What does that mean? Simply this: there is not a program or event or service that will attract the community to the church’s building. This sounds like a no-brainer in all that has been demonstrated, but it is radical when one tries to discover what is a “successful” church. The scorecard of numbers, building, budget, and crowds are thrown out the window simply because the church cannot attract the surrounding community to its services.

So how can the church witness the reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

 

Three Books from Wendell Berry and One from Matt Garvin and Some More from other guys  

wendall-berry

What is God doing right here and now?- That question is the mystery of all believers who seek Him in this day in age. Certainly, how can we know the mind of God? How can one drink from an infinite well? How can one know the unknowable mind of God?

Wendell Berry understood mystery. In his book The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays, he writes, “We cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”[6]   We cannot understand the entire story of our setting, but we can work in harmony with the land, the setting of our story.

 

For Berry, everything is tied to the land. Church is tied to the land. Farms, especially, can be in harmony with the land and faith and story:

“People are joined to the land by work. Land, work, people, and community are all comprehended in the idea of culture. These connections cannot be understood or described by information- so many resources to be transformed by so many workers into so many products for so many consumers-because they are not quantitative. We can understand them only after we acknowledge that they should be harmonious-that a culture must be either shapely and saving or shapeless and destructive. To presume to describe land, work, people, and community by information, by quantities, seems invariably to throw them into competition with one another. Work is then understood to exploit its people. And then instead of land, work, and community, we have the industrial categories of resources, labor, management, consumers, and government. We have exchanged harmony for an interminable fuss, and the work of culture for the timed and harried labor of an industrial economy.”[7]

Wendell Berry’s writings reflect the postmodern tension between exploitation and cooperation.

“In farming, one can oversaturate the soil with chemicals to make a crop grow quickly, get the most out of the harvest as quickly as possible, push hard, treat the area as just something to be reduced to profit, destroy the environment, and then move on to make a profit somewhere else. Laborers are numbers, the land is just capital, the yield is just product, the resources are a means to an end, and the farmer is lost as a working unit. This kind of is farming is environmental exploitation and exploitation reduce healthy lands.”

For Berry, the American farm is a metaphor for life. In Postmodernity, there is a movement to reduce our neighborhoods into mere real estate, the human mind into a consumer, people into numbers, ideas into information, and vocation into employment. Yes, exploitation happens on the farm in northern Canada, but it also occurs in the suburbs of California, if we follow the farm metaphor to our present “post-everything” age.

In The Unsettling of America Berry explains exploitation as something more of a belief, of an attitude than just an ecological practice:

“The first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are- both against each other and within ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is under way, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship (The craft of persuading people to buy what they do not need, and do not want, for more than it is worth.) Its stock in trade in politics is to sell despotism and avarice as freedom and democracy. In business it sells sham and frustration as luxury and satisfaction.”[8]

Berry further argues that when we seek to exploit the land (whether in agriculture, business, or in ministry), we divide the soul from the body and praise just what our body, our physical selves can enjoy. This idea of exploitation, if sold properly, robs individuals of work: the very thing that ties one to the land, to the setting. The rewards are labor-saving measures devoid of humanity.

An example of this would be a simple question: how much more time we spend on labor-saving technology than our ancestors? We buy cell phones with the promise that we will be able to be instantly be in touch with our loved ones, yet spend most of our time downloading hockey scores at the dinner table. We replace these cell phones every year for a newer, better model, yet go into debt maintaining the yearly fees and applications. This goes back to farming. Farmers purchase combines to harvest more land and then buy more land, working twice as much as they used to when they had last decades model and half as much land.   Twenty-first century farming can be governed by exploitation.

In A Continuous Harmony Berry writes, “The health and even the continuous of life in America, in all regions, require that we enact in the most particular terms a responsibility to the land.”[9] He contrasts this between exploitation. “To take and keep, to consume the power of another creature is an act of profoundly disordering, contrary to the very nature of creation.”[10] But harmony fits; it matches how God has created the world. “When one lives as a creature within the creation, aligned with it, then one’s life passes through the world as a creative force or agent.”[11]

When a farmer takes care of the soil, replants what has been taken care of, cultivates the land, and adheres to the change of weather, then he or she harmonizes with the production of food; if one takes from the land, places foreign and unnatural chemicals into the land, insures that it will never yield pure food, and genetically modifies the animals all to sell as much food produced as quickly as possibly to last as long as possible – this is exploitation. An example of this is to ask which is better for your body: cheese made fresh from milk of a free-range, grass-fed cow of Alberta OR “cheese product” out of a two-year old can picked up at a wholesale warehouse? Exploitation or harmony?

But what if this metaphor could be applied to the church? Do we in the Evangelical world reduce the Gospel to mere data, people into numbers, God’s Incarnate Word into content, personal discipleship into marketable outcomes, personal testimonies into commercials, worship into propaganda, and God’s mission into a business model?

The cure for exploitation is harmony. The farmer, in Berry’s vision, works with the land, invests back into the soil so further generations can grow, harvests only what could be sold or consumed, remains faithful to only one manageable setting, works hard but is not over-worked, and enjoys the harmony the environment yields. The farmer listens, watches, learns, and cultivates practices so the land can thrive. What is added to the soil is to help the health, not for the exclusive purpose to get those most out of the next crop. Cooperation, not exploitation, yields harmony with the farmer and the farm. Exploitation sows reduction; cooperation sows harmony.

Let’s then apply this to a church in harmony with its neighborhood. The church serves the neighborhood not because the people will come to their individual services, but because the church must bear the image of God and God serves without demanding to be paid back. The church seeks members not because it will make the institution stronger, but because of the way the system works; the membership helps invest in the lives of those who call the church their home. The celebration aspect of the worship is not how many come into the church, but how they can bless their community in the name of Jesus. When the community is in crisis or need, the church is central to solving the problems. When something amazing happens in the community, the church is alongside, assisting.

This is the gift of Wendell Berry to the shaping of the future effectiveness of the church: he asks the question, how we can strive for harmony instead of reduction in our practices? A life in harmony with God’s work is the well-spring for the church’s witness in our post-everything setting.

Harmony or exploitation? To drive this image home with one last example, imagine a church that dreams up giving Christmas hampers filled with toys, food, and clothing to a needy family in their town. So the church finds 10 needy families. The needy families are invited to the church, they are marched down the aisle, given the hampers, and then everyone applauds. Someone contacts the local newspaper and it runs a story with how great this church was for giving to the needy. The church members feel great, their hearts warmer as they dive head first into unfettered and unrestrained holiday shopping because they did a good deed. This joy overshadows the fact that the 10 needy families were humiliated and will never come to church again, believing all Christians are fame-mugging jerks.

Or…A church wants to give to a needy family and learns of a local charity in their neighborhood that is doing such a thing already. The church makes up ten hampers, prays over them, and drops them off at night without a return address. The charity is excited for it now has ten new hampers. The church member are pleased too because they were surprised in how much God had given them to pull off such a feat.

The next week, the church meets to discuss next year’s budget. Tithing has been considerably low. There is a desire to go lean, to cut certain expenses and ministries. But which? A youth from the church asks a question to the pastor, “Couldn’t Christmas hampers be the type of thing God gives us money for?”

Exploitation or harmony? Working with God and with the neighborhood around the church in harmony is an idea expressed through the organization Fusion International, a para-church ministry seeking to provide open crowd street festivals around the world in order to bring the churched and the secular together.

Matt Garvin, in his book 6 Radical Decisions, writes:

“It may be that God is calling you to make a significant life altering decision because you know that the mission he has for you requires it, in the same way that my father (Mal Garvin, founder of Fusion Ministries) did. More often than not, though, it will simply be a matter of seeing that God already has you in the place where he has called you to be an agent of His Kingdom. The circumstances of your life have brought you to this place and to this moment and your job is to accept the ‘Calcutta’ that is right in front of you. This does not mean you are called to a smaller, easier task than someone who senses their mission means major change, far from it. Your task is not business as usual, it is to see what the glory of God requires of you in that setting, name and accept the mission and begin.”[12]

Garvin asserts, “In focusing primarily on the congregation, and losing sight of the other forms of life, we have reduced our understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ….More and more people are finding their ministry outside the context of the Sunday service or mid-week small groups.”[13] This brings up a crucial weakness: most Christians, because of the absolute separation between the sacred and the common, have little imagination for church outside of foreordained religious structures.

Again, exploitation or harmony? Is the church existing to absorb the community for the purpose of its institutional blessing (i.e., big numbers, big buildings, lots of tithing, etc.) or does it seek to invest in the land around it so that those may be blessed by God? The solution proposed is that the church works in harmony with the mission of God already at work in the immediate community surrounding the church.

Reggie MacNeal argues that one cannot answer the above-mentioned question (or, in his words, the discovery of God’s mission and thus being missional) and use the scorecard of attendance, buildings, programs indicative of the attraction based church.

Reggie MacNeal argues in his book Missional Renaissance:

“The missional church in North America needs to be measured in a completely different way from the metrics the traditional church has been using. Typically, results have been measured in church-centric and one-dimensional ways: how many…and how often…and how much…This approach fails to capture the externally focused dimension of a missional expression of ministry. It assumes the church efforts and kingdom agenda are synonymous. Current scorekeeping actually keeps the church from going missional!”[14]

Essential to the missional dialogue is the recognition that God’s plan (or mission) can exist with or without the church; spiritual transformation can happen in the neighborhood and in a Bible study; and that God may be doing a work in the world that is waiting to be discovered by Christians.

To define the term “mission” in regard to God, Christopher J.H. Wright states that the very nature of God is to redeem and sanctify and when we resemble God, we resemble his mission. He writes:

“Mission is not ours; mission is God’s. Certainly, the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in. Or, as has been nicely put, it is not so much the care that God has a mission for the church in the world but that God has a church for His mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission-God’s mission.”[15]

In a post-Christian age there is hope for the church because God’s mission still involves the church. However, it looks different than previous scorecards of the traditional, attractional church. “How do we get people into our building?” is a question that can no longer be asked.

Why do we want people who do not know God, are not immersed in the Christian culture, have not experience their need for God, and are surrounded by conflicting and competing voices over the Gospel to come to our worship services? Instead, the question in our “post-everything age” is to ask, “How can our church bless the surrounding community?” Is this notion even Biblical?

Yes. If you ask any Christian college graduate why Israel was sent to foreign captivity, the answer given is that they were disobedient. This is true and we have an example of the Prophets telling us so. But what if there was a second, more secret reason:

“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there (the land of captivity); do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the (foreign) city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper,” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, NIV)

In order for the church to bless the setting of her ministry, it must first know the land. Seek out what God is doing around the church. Listen. Abide within. Find God. And once His mission is manifested before those who lead the church, then its job to cooperate with Him in the neighborhood.

But how does a church experience and lead in experiencing God? Is it merely enough just to teach about the Kingdom of God, as we have done in the past, as the only means of people experiencing Jesus? Could the “missing piece” of 21st century Christianity be the fact that there is more to the Kingdom of God than just the information about the King?

[1] Simpkinson, Charles & Anne, ed. Sacred Stories. (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 28.

[2] Kinnamen, David and Lyons, Gabe. Unchristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 26.

[3] Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy. (New York: Harper One, 2008), 1-2.

[4] Roxburgh, Alan J. The Sky is Falling. (Seattle: ACI Publishing, 2012), 25.

[5] Fitch, David & Holsclaw, David. Prodigal Chistianity. (San Francisco: Josey Bass Publication, 2013), 7.

[6] Berry, Wendell. The Way of Ignorance. (Grand Rapids: Counterpoint, 2006), 33.

[7] Berry, Wendell. Imagination of Place. (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 185.

[8] Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America. (San Francisco: Sierra Clubs Books, 1977) 11.

[9] Berry, Wendell. A Continuous Harmony. (San Francisco: Counterpoint, 1970), 63.

[10] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 107.

[11] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 36.

[12] Garvin, Matt. 6 Radical Decisions. (London: Fusion Trading UK Limited, 2012), 19, 53.

[13] Garvin, 6 Radical Decisions, 22.

[14] McNeal, Reggie. Missional Renaissance. (San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publication, 2009), 67-68.

[15] Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God. (Wheaton: IVP Press, 1999) 62.

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