Church as Ecology

In his Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre draws from W. Edwards Deming and Wendell Berry:

“Individuals who farm need to regard themselves as contributing to a larger project, that of making their particular farm productive while sustaining its land through generations of care. Farmers have to understand the particularities of each of their fields and of their farm animals, acting in the light of standards that they have made their own rather than responding to pressures to maximize productivity and short-run profitability. Those individuals at work on a particular farm serve the good of the farm and through so acting achieve their own goods.”

As one whose family has been off the farm for a few generations, I can’t speak authoritatively on this claim. I can make a few comments relating this kind of thinking to a field I do know – church.

Before I dive into what MacIntyre says, a comment about my use of the word “ecology” in the title. When I posted this quotation on Facebook earlier today, my brother – who as an agronomist knows farming – took this to be a comment about ecology. I think he’s right. We tend to talk more about the other eco- word – economics – these days. The Greek root is the same in both cases: oikos – or “household.” If etymology could be relied on to give us the meaning of a word (occasionally it can, though more often, at best, it vaguely points us in the right direction), “economics” is “the law of the household” and “ecology” is “the study of the household.” Obviously the notion of a “household” in each has expanded greatly.

We most commonly encounter “ecology” as a word associated with the “environment:” plants, trees, animals, bodies of water, etc. I take it as broadly referring to the study of systems conducive to life and flourishing. If I can get away with taking it this way, “ecology” is directly relevant to our life together in the church.

The first thing I notice in MacIntyre’s claim is a network of relationships. The farmer is related to the land, the things farmed (whether flora or fauna), and the practice of farming. Without this network of relationships, the farmer is not a farmer. (I think of a saying I first heard from John Maxwell: “He who thinks he is leading when no one is following is only taking a walk.”) Each of the elements that we associate with farming are defined in relationship to each other. None are independent of the others.

Likewise, church is also a network of relationships. While Jesus uses more examples drawn from agriculture, Paul, who speaks more about the church, uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ. Each member of the Body is a part of the Body. The Body is only healthy to the extent each part is contributing and doing its part. Each part is only what it is in relation to the other parts of the Body.

The second thing I notice is the place of productivity. For the farmer, productivity matters. Getting a crop in, raising animals for food, these are ways the farmer “makes a living,” or better, achieves the goods of farming. If there is no crop, if the animals neither grow nor reproduce, the farm fails.

In church life we are also concerned with productivity. We look for results as we pour in our time, labor, and resources.

In both farming and church life, however, productivity is not an end in itself. If we “maximize productivity” in either context, we run our enterprise into the ground. In church life, an unbalanced focus on productivity leads to burnout and alienation as people feel used. Seeking and achieving the good requires time and attention to the long haul. A metaphor I’ve heard is that the life of discipleship is more like a meal cooked in a Crockpot than one in a microwave.

I also notice that MacIntyre describes the need for detailed knowledge on the part of the farmer. The farmer must not just know about cattle in the abstract, but about the particular cattle on his/her farm. Likewise, in church life, we must pay attention to the particularities of each member of the Body. If we treat everyone the same, as some sort of generic Joe Blow ChurchMember, we fail to understand the uniqueness of each person and thus to partner with them in achieving their highest good and flourishing in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, MacIntyre sees that the good of the individual and the good of the group are inextricably connected. My good as a member of the Body is achieved in and through and with the other members achieving their own goods. Our individual goods find their measure in the good of the whole, with neither being entirely subsumed in the other.If this way of looking at things is at least close to accurate, then it is worth our while to pay more attention to what the good of the church as a whole is – what it means for the whole Body of Christ to flourish. If we do no more than ask of particular programs, “Will this program be productive?” we miss the point. First, by using the farming metaphor (or the Body metaphor, for that matter), we find ourselves in an organic process. Programs find their natural home in a mechanical or industrial process. Second, we will easily lapse into treating people as resources to use toward our ends. The ends we pursue might be good, positive, and agreed upon: but if they require us to treat people as things to be used, we are being led astray.

This entry was posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, church growth, Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Leadership, United Methodism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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