Why the Church Is In Decline…

Why the Church Is In Decline… July 22, 2015

shrink blog pic.001I love the church.

I believe in the church.

I believe in the church maybe more than I believe in any other thing in this world. The church is the surest sign I know of that God loves everything he’s created; that God is not done with the world. The church is the singular reality bearing faithful witness to the truth that God has not left us here to struggle all by ourselves. God has come for us, to heal our broken hearts and this precious creation no matter how long it takes.

But the church is facing a huge problem, and it is not a problem of resistance or secularity, nor is it a problem of the culture’s hostility to the gospel. It is a problem of our own making. We have become enamored with size. We have become infatuated with all things bigger, better, stronger, higher, and faster.

Famed American author, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry often writes about the rhythms and cycles of a well-run farm. The problems Berry sees facing the farm and the farming life mirror the problems facing the church in our time. When I read Wendell Berry’s work, I cannot help but think he is teaching me how to be a pastor.

When Berry writes the word land, I think parish. When he uses the word farm, I think church.

In his wonderful novel Jayber Crow, Berry tells the story of a father and his son-in-law who had different approaches to farming as well as to life. The father — Athey Keith — worked the land with a sense of pastoral reverence. Athey was an older man by the time the story was told. He’d been learning under the tutelage of the land for all his life. Athey recognized that there was an order to the land; there were patterns and cycles that had to be observed. Those patterns and cycles were determined by nature and should be respected. Athey believed that humans could not impose their own patterns and cycles on the land without damaging it.

On the other hand, the son-in-law, Troy Chatham, was determined to be the picture of a modern industrial farmer. Troy seemed to believe that the farm existed to serve his wishes, not the other way around. Patterns could be imposed on the land, and natural cycles could be altered or ignored. Every inch of land had to be plowed. Limits had to be pushed and expanded. Every dime of capital had to be leveraged or spent. Troy’s goal was always bigger, better, higher, faster, and stronger.

Athey and Troy couldn’t be more different. Their approaches to farming, and to life, stand in stark contrast. As Wendell Berry explains, “Athey said, ‘Wherever I look, I want to see more than I need.’ Troy said, in effect, ‘Whatever I see I want.’ What he [Troy] asked of the land was all it had … he was speaking as a young man of the modern age coming now into his hour, held back only by the outmoded ways of his elders.”

Sadly, in Berry’s story, time was on the side of youth, and Troy’s approach to farming began to overtake his father-in-law’s. Athey would make his anxious son-in-law walk the land. He’d show him the outlines of the plow furrows and teach him to appreciate the way the land sloped and how the water should run. He showed him the next year’s cropland, now fallow, and the land slated for the year after that, explaining to him the patterns of the farm he had dis- covered over decades. Athey tried to teach Troy the value of a good garden, of pasture for the milk cows, and grain for the hogs, and he showed him how to cut firewood from the fence rows without depleting them. Troy’s only response was, “We need to grow more corn.” Berry explains Athey’s reaction:

“This brought Athey to a stop. The law of the farm was in the balance between crops (including hay and pasture) and livestock. The farm would have no more livestock than it could carry without strain. No more land would be plowed for grain crops than could be fertilized with manure from the animals. No more grain would be grown than the animals could eat. Except in case of unexpected surpluses or deficiencies, the farm did not sell or buy livestock feed. “I mean my grain and hay to leave my place on foot,” Athey liked to say. This was a conserving principle; it strictly limited both the amount of land that would be plowed and the amount of supplies that would have to be bought.”

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There was between Athey and his son-in-law a fundamental difference in how they viewed the vocation of farming. Berry says, “Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a ‘landowner.’ He was the farm’s farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter.”

Troy did not share this view. Berry writes:

“Troy went into debt and bought his new equipment because he didn’t want to be held back by demanding circumstances. He was young and strong and ambitious. He wanted to be a star. The tractor greatly increased the power and speed of work. With it he could work more land. He could work longer. Because it had electric lights and did not get tired, he could work at night…. And so the farm came under the influence of a new pattern, and this was the pattern of a fundamental disagreement such as it had never seen before. It was a disagreement about time and money and the use of the world. The tractor seemed to have emanated directly from Troy’s own mind, his need to go headlong, day or night, and perform heroic feats.”

What Athey—the older and wiser of the two—seemed to understand, which his son-in-law did not, was that it is a sin to dis- respect the rhythms of nature and God’s created order. Troy’s deep disrespect of his elders was eclipsed only by his disrespect of the land, which had now become a means to his own ends. Once you make that trade, you place yourself on a collision course with reality as God has created it. And reality will always win, eventually. The earth will lie fallow one way or another until the rhythms of nature and life and humanity are once again respected. What Athey understood was that farming was never meant to be about production, but about stewardship.

What Berry writes about the farm is true of the church. What he writes about the land is true of the parish, because tending a farm and tending a church are similar enterprises. After all, they are both the necessary work of the people who have been asked to care for this world.

The church, like a healthy farm, has limits. The pastor/church leader has certain responsibilities to the health of the church and the community in which it lives. For it is not our creation, it is God’s. The church was here before we got here and will outlast every single one of us. Our job is stewardship: to leave the church better than we found it, and to cause the church to serve the world around us, not the productivity demands of the leadership.

A family farm is a holy thing—a small operation that still knows the value of the land, speaks the language of the land, and understands what the land needs. The church is meant to be a holy thing—which sees the value of the parish, speaks the language of the neighborhood, and understands what the community needs in order to flourish.

My tribe is the evangelicals. We’ve been the “industry leaders” in developing best practices for the realization of the relevant, the powerful, and the spectacular church. Like industrial farmers, we have been so successful that we have actually moved the dial for the mainstream church as well. We have filled the cities and suburbs with monuments to growth without limits. But we have pushed in the wrong direction, and we have pushed too far. We have confused the very nature of what it means to be a part of the people of God.

If we are going to be wise stewards of the church, we need to learn the lessons Athey Keith tried to teach his stubborn son-in-law, Troy Chatham. We will need to recognize what nearly all of our most celebrated contemporary church leaders have failed to teach us: that the church does not belong to us; it is we who belong to the church. We are not making the church; the church is making us. We cannot determine its success, its mission, or its outcomes.

The church will outlive all of us, that much is certain. If we are going to leave the church better than we found it, we are going to have to rediscover the necessity of margin and the reality of limits. We are going to have to sit in silence for long enough to comprehend finally the word enough. We will have to strain to see the tiny seeds of faith at work in the world and hold them in our sweaty palms, hoping against hope that they will germinate and grow and feed us. And we are going to have to stop our incessant need to make things grow the way we want them to grow, whatever the price. In many ways that will most certainly be uncomfortable and challenging for us, because we are going to have to learn how to shrink.

I am not alone in this belief. Many church leaders are now faced with a fundamental disagreement about time and money and the use of the world. All around me everyday in my church and my city, I work with people who have chosen the way of descent. They labor in beautiful obscurity and have the audacity to imagine a church that depends upon God for its future. These friends forego lucrative careers and the perks of the upwardly mobile in order to serve small congregations faithfully. They are straining to imagine a different future for the church.

I’m writing this book in honor of those friends, to try and give my thoughts on where we went wrong; to think creatively about how to get back on track; to encourage others—maybe even you—to embrace the vision of the kingdom that this church and this world requires of us.

Tim Suttle, Kansas City — Advent, 2013.

"Thanks for the thoughtful and indepth response. I'll be chewing on that for weeks."

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  • eleanor.awad