Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

From the Farm to the Church

3 Ways to Practice Organic Disciplemaking

I love a thick, green lawn. For several years, I used off-the-shelf fertilizers and weed inhibiters to create the golf course look. Unfortunately, they didn’t give the results I wanted. So I hired a lawn care service . . . and then the pollinators happened.

My wife Peggy is a Certified Master Gardener. This means she loves all plants and has received a certification to care, nourish, and grow about anything under the sun. I was pleased with my lawn until she raised the pollinator question.

“Did you know that the use of fertilizer is harmful to pollinators?” she asked. I sensed a lecture was coming so I quickly asked some questions to steer the conversation. “When you say pollinators, do you mean bees?” 

“Yes,” she replied, “But it’s more than bees. Pollinators can be honey bees, bumble bees, or humming birds — any animal that carries pollen from one plant to another. An abundance of yard fertilizer harms the life of pollinators and pollinators are critical to the food we eat.”

“You’ve convinced me,” I said. “I want to save the pollinators (who doesn’t like honey!). I’ll go organic for my lawn care.”

An entire lifestyle and philosophy has developed around organic food, gardening, and farming. I’m not going to attempt to paint a complete description of what’s meant by organic. From my limited understanding, organic gardening or farming takes advantage of natural growth processes rather than manipulating the growth process with artificial stimulants (fertilizer, GMOs) to guarantee the outcome. 

How is “going organic” relevant to disciplemaking? The Bible is full of agricultural metaphors and we can learn from them; organic farming and gardening is a contemporary starting point. Let’s bring the farm to the church.

I think organic farmers or gardeners are stewards of reality. They wisely use what is already present in the environment — the reality of the situation — to encourage growth and fruitfulness. Three simple organic principles can bring the farm to the church:

  • soil
  • context
  • capacity

Soil is a critical factor for successful farming or gardening. My organic lawn service recently sent me this notice about their treatment: “This treatment will feed your grass and the soil and encourage healthy soil biological life. Good soil biology combats damaging fungus & insect problems.” Feed the soil and you grow the grass!

Jesus illustrated this principle in the parable of the soil (Matthew 13:1-23). The soil of our lives can hinder, halt, or enhance growth. We move the farm to the church when we give attention to the soil of people’s lives. Soil must be enriched, protected, and nurtured. For example, each year 24 billion tons of soil are lost to erosion. Without care and protection, not only is physical soil lost but spiritual soil is also lost.

Disciplemaking enriches the soil of people’s lives, providing the personal and intentional care to grow the soil of spirituality. We enrich this soil by teaching people to walk with God, love others, and live holy lives. Soil cultivation is more than growing nice-looking plants (or people) but plants that bear fruit — disciples who live on mission. We bring the farm to the church when we richly build into the lives of people.

Context is essential to farmers and gardeners. As author Wendell Berry has wisely observed, “We farm the farm given to us.” We don’t plant pineapples in Alaska or grow rice in Arizona. Wise farmers take into consideration their context — is it wet or dry, hot or cold? Knowing one’s growing zone (context) is critical for the wise gardener; a growing zone is the range of temperatures that affect what types of plants will succeed. Wise farmers farm the farm given to them.

Disciplemakers understand context. Context wisely crafts the appropriate and relevant ministry forms to accomplish the desired function. For example, studies have shown that most conversions in the U.S. occur by the time one is sixteen. The older one becomes the less likely that conversion will happen; this is why we invest in youth ministries. We understand the youth context and plan our ministries accordingly. We create ministry forms — activities, resources, etc. — to accomplish the function of evangelizing teens and children.

However, do we carry teen ministry forms over to the adult world expecting similar results? Do we take time to understand the adult context and how it’s different from the teen context? When we bring the farm to the church, we bring an understanding of context to our ministry settings.

Finally, organic farmers and gardeners take into account capacity. Capacity is the ability to increase a ground’s crop yield or harvest. Jesus spoke of a plentiful harvest but the labor supply limited the ability to reap (Matthew 9:36-38). Bringing the farm to the church means enlarging our spiritual harvest capacity by training more disciplemakers.

Disciplemakers are skilled people who can enlarge the capacity of a church or ministry. While we organize to increase the number of disciples, what are we doing to increase the number of disciplemakers? How are we passing-on the skills for everyday Christians to disciple another? When we do this, we enlarge our capacity — and by faith — enlarge our harvest of new converts and disciples.

Bringing the farm to the church takes into account soil, context, and capacity; we wisely steward the reality of our settings to encourage growth. We take time to nourish the soil of people’s lives. We wisely understand our context so that form follows function. We enlarge our harvest capacity by expanding the number of disciplemakers.

What about my lawn? Does it look better with an organic treatment rather than the standard fertilizer? To be honest, it’s not as green or as lush in comparison to a fertilizer approach. However, I’m sleeping better at night knowing that I’m enhancing the life of the pollinators. Enhancing pollinators may be more important than my vanity for a green lawn. 

One Comment

  1. I am also a certified Master Gardener, emeritus. There are many constant parallels between horticulture and disciplemaking. Thanks for your work.

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