Spiritual Mono-Cropping – reprise

– Andy Wade –

Spiritual monocropping? What in the world is that?

Spraying FieldsMonocropping is the industrial agricultural method of growing one crop on a large patch of land, the same crop, year after year. This method began to take hold in the USA during the 40s and 50s, along with increased use of chemical fertilizers and widespread use of pesticides.

As an avid gardener and pastor, I began wondering what the spiritual equivalent might be. What are the positive aspects of spiritual monocropping? What are the negative aspects? Is it, like agricultural monocropping, unsustainable over the longterm?

The Effects of Industrial Agriculture

I’ve written before about companion planting in the garden – a wonderful approach for home and small commercial gardens. But that approach doesn’t work well for larger-scale production. As small, family farms began to be gobbled up by industrial farms, and as our food system transformed from substance to commodity-based, farming practices changed dramatically. At first, the results were impressive. Massive quantities of a single food could be farmed in one space. Yields were dramatically increased by the use of chemical, inorganic fertilizers derived primarily from natural gas and nitrogen gas.

But over time, increased amounts of these new wonder plant food was required to maintain the same level of growth. This also required an ever-increasing use of water so the plants could absorb these artificial nutrients, and led to massive pollution in the form of run-off into streams, lakes, rivers, and aquifers.

Another issue, discovered only later, was that all these chemical fertilizers, increased pesticides and herbicides, and constant tilling of the land was actually destroying the soil by assaulting the microcosm of life that made the soil viable in the first place. We also began to discover that this intensive, unnatural method of food production was greatly depleting the rich topsoil in the heart of our country.

With all this in mind I began exploring how the church in North America seems to have adopted a similar approach to growth in numbers in a manner that is unsustainable and actually destructive to the “soil” of the body of Christ. Have we also embraced a system that transforms discipleship from substance to commodity?

Monocropping and Diversity

With monocropping has also come a major decrease in the type and variety of foods in our diet. A cornucopia of crops rich in nutrients have been replaced by single crops which are easy to grow in abundance – a focus on quantity over quality, on profitability over food diversity. Some ancient crops that once sustained whole populations have been replaced by an industrial approach to farming, resulting in increased hunger around the globe and farmer indebtedness and dependence on a shrinking number of suppliers.

Here, too, I saw parallels with the church today. The “church growth” movement of the 90s and early 2000s, during which I became a pastor, put much emphasis on limited models for growing churches quickly. Some even championed the value of mono-culture churches since multi-culture churches took more work and made folks uncomfortable. Churches simply grew faster if you focused on your ethnic and socio-economic group.

During this era there also seemed to be an increased focus on “getting conversions” and not so much on the real journey of discipleship. Church growth became, in many ways, a way of commodifying Christianity through various, limited/targeted practices of spiritual monocropping. Interestingly, as with the great leap into industrial agriculture, evangelistic “tools”, like “The Four Spiritual Laws”, began to appear in the early 50s. While people came to know Jesus through these approaches, they also tended to oversimplify the process of discipleship. Our focus on “getting results”, as with industrial ag, had underlying implications which affected the health of the soil beneath our feet.

Currently there is an increased interest in ancient Christian practices lost to many over the years of intense focus on church growth. Breath prayers, the Examen, Lectio Divina, prayer-walking the labyrinth, and other ancient practices are experiencing a resurgence. Along with these are neo-ancient practices incorporating the visual arts, dance, music, and liturgy that are bringing a vibrant diversity back into the Body of Christ.

Correctives to this swing toward commodified Christianity include the Slow Church movement, Parish Collective, ReImagine, and an increase in intentional communities like The Mennonite Worker, Little Flowers Community, The Simple Way, our own Mustard Seed House and the emerging Mustard Seed Village, and others.

There seems to be a deeper parallel between our approach to growing food and our approach to growing churches. Just as we become more aware of the dangers and pitfalls of industrial agricultural, we are also discovering the dangers and pitfalls of commodified Christianity. It is refreshing to see the growth in small and organic farms, the recovering of ancient crops, and the re-personalization of our relationship with food. And I’m greatly encouraged by the reflection of these changes in the followers of Christ.

These are just a few, “scratching the surface”, reflections on the similarities between agricultural and spiritual monocropping. Perhaps in the future I will dig deeper into the soil and see what underlying spiritual changes have resulted from our approach to church in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Even with the exciting reshaping of “church” happening today, we need to heed the lessons of the past and examine the underlying assumptions and potential negative outcomes of “new things” emerging today.

What are your thoughts?