More reflections from Wendell Berry
We live in a microwave economy. You know what I mean — we live in an economy where we can have pretty much whatever we want whenever we want. Most things are available to us at local stores; and if we can’t find it there, or just don’t want to leave the house, Amazon can have it to us in a matter of hours.
The invention of the microwave has taught us and conditioned us not to wait for things.
Historically, cultural changes tend to occur with the advent of new technologies. These new items are not usually introduced with the intention of radically changing human culture, but when certain things show up, not only do they offer a technological “advancement,” they also tend to radically change culture too.
Just think of how the car changed the American landscape and culture of the 20th century; or how the iphone represents not only a giant leap in communication, but also a decisive shift in human behavior.
Technology changes things. And it doesn't usually limit that change to its own sphere.
Horses are Better than Tractors
Wendell Berry is a lover of land and of farming. In an essay entitled, “Horse-drawn Tools, and the Doctrine of Labor Saving,” he writes about enlarging his family farm from 12 to 50 acres in the 1970’s. And with this additional land came additional work. More pasture to manage, and a larger garden to cultivate. This additional land meant to Mr. Berry needed some new tools.
He initially set out looking for a used 8n Ford tractor; a solid tool with which he could more efficiently work the land. But, instead of purchasing a tractor, Berry settled on a team of horses instead.
No tractor. Just real deal horsepower.
And in order to effectively use his horses on the land, Berry had to obtain the right tools: A wagon, manure spreader, mowing machine, disk, and a one-row cultivating plow.
This was all happening in 1973; right in the middle of the major shift away from animal labor to machine equipment in farming. So, it took him some time to find these tools, most of which were old and out of use by that time, and then get them back into working order. But, here’s what he noticed…
The old tools were well designed and well made.
They were incredibly effective at their work; they got the job done.
And when companies modified these tools for the tractor, no real improvement on the quality of work was added.
“The coming of the tractor,” Berry writes, “made it possible for a farmer to do more work, but not better.” And, in some ways, being able to do more work has its benefits; but it also comes with its own costs. The introduction of the tractor into farming has not only added 1 more tool, it radically changed the way people farmed, and the number of people farming.
In 1946, 30 million people in the USA farmed for a living. By 1976 that number was down to 9 million, and by 2020, only 2 million. 2 million in a country of 330 million.
The arrival of farming machinery has meant a reduction in need of human labor. But the quality of the work has not necessarily increased. In fact, some, like Mr. Berry, would argue that with the rise in the quantity of the work, the quality of the work has actually gone down.
The new tools made it possible for fewer people to do more of the work. That meant that fewer eyes and feet were on the land. More and more, the concern for the land became how much of a given crop it could yield, and not so much on stewarding the resource of the land itself.
Something else that has come along with the introduction of the tractor: Cities.
With the reduction of the need to farm, more and more families moved off their farms and into the cities. Instead of raising their own food, they could now get it from the grocery store. No labor involved. This is how I was raised. “Food doesn’t grow in the ground, it just magically appears in the store…” or so many children think.
But, is this the best way? Has humanity really taken giant leaps forward because more of us aren’t farming? Or, are we far more unhealthy now?
Can the rising numbers of heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory disorders, and weight gain be attributed to the fact that we eat pre-made foods pumped full of chemicals?
We aren’t physically working land in order to yield good, healthy food. We have become largely stationary with readily accessible processed food everywhere in our world.
Has the tractor really helped us? Were horses better…?
Let’s think, for a moment, about Christian discipleship. I think Wendell can help us here…
How did our Lord Jesus teach us to disciple one another? Well, He did not gather massive crowds in order to teach them on fancy stages. He did not have an impressive social media following. He did not market strategies and initiatives. He did not sell Bible studies.
No, Jesus taught us a different method. And like those horse-drawn tools of Mr. Berry, Jesus’ methods are well-designed, durable, effective, and require some elbow grease.
So, what were/are Jesus’ methods? He poured His life into a few other guys. He shared His time with just a few other men. He mainly focused His teaching on just a few men. And, at the end of His earthly life, His following was relatively small. Just 120 folks (Acts 1).
While Jesus occasionally taught large crowds (Mk. 4:1), He mainly spent His time with His disciples. He lived with them for 3 years. They ate together, traveled together, and ministered together.
Jesus did not leave the Church a program of discipleship to follow. Rather, He left us a model with some tried and true tools: Time, life, relationships. His methods are slow, sometimes painful, they involve the hard work of loving, confronting, and teaching. Jesus taught us a “horse-drawn” method of discipleship.
But, what about now? How is the modern Church measuring up? somewhere along the way, the Church stopped leaning on the Bible as its primary resource for discipleship, and started using “new technologies.” Pre-made studies, and such…
Just a quick peek inside many churches, or church resource websites, would show you that the modern church has largely abandoned the horse-drawn methods of discipleship for the “more efficient” tractor style methods of quick discipleship.
Fewer people, less labor, more output.
Books, resources, video studies, conferences, podcasts, blogs, etc.
You don’t need the normal Christian people in your Church, you need the experts! — The book writers, the conference speakers, the big names.
Having anger issues? You don’t need a seasoned Christian saint to help you live out the gospel in your anger; you don’t need to confess your sin to your Christian brothers or sisters; you don’t need a regular diet of faithful preaching — You just need a 6-8 week Bible study on anger that is generic and broad, never getting to the nitty gritty details of your own struggles.
Struggling in your marriage? You don’t need a solid Church community where you can watch other Christians fight for healthy marriages; you don’t need to be around stable marriages where husbands and wives are loving Jesus and applying Him to their lives regularly; you don’t need to confess your struggles openly and honestly in the presence of faithful Christians; and you don’t need faithful shepherds who know you and are watching over your souls. — All you need is a 6-8 week non-specific Bible study on marriage…and you can even do it in the privacy of your own home! No one has to know!
Need to learn how to evangelize better? You don’t need to actually evangelize! You don’t need seasoned Christians to demonstrate and teach you. You just need a 6-8 week Bible study on evangelism!
I apologize for the sarcasm, — and I’m certainly condemning Bible studies — but I trust it makes the point. In our modern day, we have reduced discipleship to microwaves methods thinking that short, brief studies get the job done.
We treat discipleship like tv-dinners.
We’re feeding each other fake spiritual food and then wondering why everyone is so spiritually unhealthy. Fast discipleship is not necessarily good discipleship. In fact, the Bible actually has no category for "fast discipleship."
Rather, like the old hose-drawn methods of farming, the Bible’s methods for discipleship are slow, labor intensive, and involve lots of time, honesty, and work. But, they yield a far better result.
We Need to Slow Down.
We need to slow down and feel the spiritual soil under our feet. We need to ask if the spiritual land is healthy.
So many Churches are pumping all their time, effort, and resources into “discipleship programs,” all the while neglecting the actual life-on-life method that Jesus Himself demonstrates. Churches busy their people so much with programs that there is little to no time left for genuine relationships.
Berry highlights this struggle, talking about the difference between new farmers and old timers. He laments that, upon receiving new farmland, new farmers tend to jump right into planting. “But if one of the old farmers took a new farm, and you walked round the land with him and asked him: What are you going to plant here? He’d look at you [strange]; because he wouldn’t plant nothing much at first. He’d wait a bit and see what the land was like…He’d walk on it and feel it through his boots and see if it was good in heart before he planted anything; he’d sow only what he knew the land was good for.”
How many of our Churches are just buying the next best discipleship resource, and how many of our churches are asking, “What do our people need?”
Some Self-Examination is In Order
When was the last time you asked your fellow Christian, “Do you know how to read the Bible?”
When was the last time you prayed earnestly over an issue of sin and struggle with someone?
When was the last time you confessed a hard sin-struggle in your own life to someone else in person?
When was the last time you took the time to teach a new/young believer how to read, understand, and apply the Bible in a personal way?
When was the last time you spent several years of your life in a genuine relationship with a few people, teaching them, loving them, cultivating them into Christian maturity?
Now, ask yourself…when was your last Bible study?
Are we really surprised that so many churches today are full of discord, shallow relationships, and immature Christians when we have largely abandoned the slow, but sure methods of Jesus Himself?
Are we really surprised that more and more Christians aren’t reading their Bibles, aren’t praying, and just plain do not know how to follow Jesus?
Discipleship, like farming, cannot be hurried…And when it is, bad things tend to follow.