13 March 2009

Evangelism 409: Knowing WHAT to Farm

A few months ago I picked up the book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It's a fascinating look at where our food comes from, how it's made/processed, and what the real consequences of 99-cent hamburgers might be for cows, for nature, as well as for us.

I'll admit, I got halfway through it, and I put it down to move on to other stuff.  I'm not an "Aggie," and I have a thimble-sized knowledge of agriculture.  Not being much of a meat-eater either, I wanted to move on to reading other stuff.

Last week at church, though, it all came back to me.  On Wednesday I posted a link on Facebook to an article entitled "The Coming Evangelical Collapse."  It stayed with me the rest of the week--the writer, Michael Spencer, points out some glaring weaknesses in Moral-Majority-Era evangelicalism that are coming to a head, and he sees a huge collapse in the future, building on alarming drops in membership that are going on now.

But I shouldn't focus solely on collapse, should I?  Does that build anyone's faith?  Does it offer hope (my duty as a believer)?

That's when I came back to The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I was trying to explain it to my friend, David, last week at church.  The author, Michael Pollian, visits a sustainable, organic farm in Virginia, whose owner, Joel Salatin, focused on the wholesale development of food from the roots of the grass to the cow to the plate.

Salatin introduces Pollian to a method of sustainable farming that rotates his livestock through a series of pens.  A day or two after his cattle consume the grass in a pen (and defacate), he brings in chickens in a mobile chicken coop.  This procession of cows followed by chickens makes its way around his 200-acre farm every five to seven days.  Every week or so, the pen is ready for the cattle again.

Why does he do it this way?  I have always assumed that cows just grazed one or two fields all spring, summer and fall.  Why the chickens?

"I'm a grass farmer," Salatin explains.  All energy originates in the Sun.  Grass converts that energy to sugar; cows convert the grass to meat.  Logically, good grass builds good cattle--and good cattle manure and regulated grazing also develops great grass!

(For egg lovers out there, Salatin's hens follow two days later, eating the maggots crawling in the feces of the cattle and depositing fertile droppings of their own.  This actually cuts down on the pests around the farm as well as yielding delicious eggs.)

So what does this have to do with evangelism--or evangelicalism, for that matter?  I think it's a call to be better farmers...or fishermen...or whatever it is that God has called us to be.

I always thought the farmer was about the cow, not the grass.  The more cows, the richer the farmer.  It didn't matter what the cows ate--as long as they were fat (and cows get fatter on "unnatural" cow food like corn flakes).  I think that pastors and denominational administrators have fallen into the trap of seeing believers in this traditional way:  they see the cows in their pasture--or sheep in their fold--and they compare this with the other pens and take pride (or feel desperate as the case may be).

But it's the grass that needs to be watered and tended.  That's the foundation of the pasture, it's where the "meat" comes from.  When I look at a lot of churches--when I think of what it was like for me in the church in which I worshipped before I went to Bethpage--I see a lot of famished, parched cattle.  You can see their bones.  Sure, there are bells and whistles, but they lie around in their corner of the pasture or stumble around the pen.  

Why?  The same patch of grass has been grazed again and again until it is worn to the nub.  The fences of the pasture have been heightened and closed in so the cattle aren't tempted to leave--"the grass is always greener" and all that.  The filth and the manure just sticks around, and the flies are thick.

The church's leaders have Ph.D's in cow farming.  They have lost the ability to grow grass.

How might one grow grass?  The rain of the Holy Spirit is a great place to begin.  The fertile soil of scripture is needed.  Rotation--new pasture, new experiences, mission--helps the grass to grow for a latter day of grazing.  Faith isn't about me--the cow, the Christian.  It is about God growing in me:  the meat, the mission we produce to give to others.

The Grazing Chapter of the Bible is Ezekiel 34 (my Bible study theme for church):  "For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:  'I myself will search for my sheep.... I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land.... I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land'" (verses 11, 13-14).

It is interesting the agricultural methods God uses with these sheep.  He promises the basics:  fertility and security.  Honestly, is there anything more important for a church to provide its flock than fertility (growth in Faith) and security (acceptance and fellowship)?

"I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of wild beasts.... I will bless them and the places surrounding my hill.  I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing" (verses 25-26).  This sounds like a great development.  I can feel the safety--the grass growing under my feet.  

And it gets better.  Well-fed sheep become thankful sheep.  "I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land.... Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Sovereign Lord."

See, this prophecy is revealed to a prophet among the believers in Babylon--a much different "pasture" than the one God promised Abraham generations earlier.  The exile is coming to and end, and--God emphasizes--this time it will be different.

A different kind of farm will need a different kind of farmer:  a grass farmer, so to speak.  God is ready develop a sustainable faith in a renewed people.  It's the kind of renewed focus that would greatly benefit evangelicals in this time of soul-searching and self-examination.

"You, my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God" (verse 31).