The "Three Sisters" Focus of Church

Allow me to recap the previous post:

  • When growing a church is a chief priority, then we are incentivized to work with favorable populations.
  • Working with favorable populations may grow a church, but it often leads to monoculture.
  • Monoculture in farming is efficient but it has serious unintended consequences.

Monoculture farming is efficient and therefore, attractive. The USA places efficiency as a great virtue - so much so there is an entire cottage industry of "lifehacks" designed to make your life more efficient. There is something elegant about getting things done in the most efficient way (bricklaying, minecrafting, holding a coffee mug).

Many of us love the idea of being efficient with our time and, again, there is nothing wrong with it. Many people around the world are fed because of corn or soybean farms. The point is not about church growth but about valuing a type of church growth over another. Church work is anything but efficient. This is because Church work is work of the heart and shaping people's hearts is a long, long, long process that sometimes does not "work."

One of the early ways people avoided monoculture gardens was with the "three sisters." This is the practice of growing corn, beans and squash together. The beans grew on the corn while the squash provides shade and cover from weeds. It is true that you could get more of each vegetable if you just planted that vegetable, but then you are right back at monoculture farming. 

What do the "three sisters" have to do with Church? I wonder if the widow, orphan, and sojourner are something we might consider as a sort of "three sisters." If a Church spends time working with the widow, orphan, and sojourner then that church may not grow as many disciples as they might if the church focused on families. However, a church that focuses on these "three sisters" of people may find a sustainability that otherwise may not come from catering to middle class families. As Jesus said, the poor will always be with us - there are always new widows, orphans and sojourners. If we focus on the "least of these" we may very well find a more sustainable church growth. 

I say all this knowing full and well that I have failed to focus on the widow, orphan and sojourner. We all are trying to find the way to "be the Church" in this new day. I admit that I too am struggling with how to do/be the Church in a time and place where institutions are not trusted, authority is met with suspicion, efficiency is the currency of our time and the difficult work of being in the Church today is evident every week. I offer the idea of a re-focus on the widow, orphan and sojourner as part of my own personal reflection and growth, understanding that while I may not be called to monoculture church others are called in other ways. 

Growing the Monoculture of the Church

Behind all the clamoring of the decline of the UMC and mainline Protestantism in general there are conversations happening about the future of the UMC. Some feel that if we could just get back to some earlier form of Christianity then the church will recover numbers. Some feel that if we got our theology straight then we will see the pews swell. These conversations about what the #NextMethodisim will look like are interesting and worth considering. 

Photo by  Jenny Hill  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

As interesting as these conversations are, I would like to offer up at least one way the UMC will grow if we continue doing what we are currently doing. The UMC will grow in our monoculture.

Monoculture is an agricultural term used to describe when one crop is grown in a field at a time. In Texas, many ranches are massive, but they are only raising cows. While there are clear benefits to the monoculture of raising cows, there are also so great drawbacks. Rampant disease in monoculture ranches forces cows to require a good amount of antibiotics in order to live and grow to a healthy weight. These ranches are efficient in some respects but also highly problematic in others. 

When we focus exclusively on growing our churches we will more than likely be interested in working with the populations that will give us good outcomes. A church has only so many resources that churches are incentivized to direct those resources to areas where there will be a "big bang for the buck" or a decent ROI (return on investment). We see this in the amount of time and resources churches direct toward children verses what is directed to prison ministries. One group is easier to work with than the other. It also happens that we can count children in worship and when they are baptized, but counting prisoners is much more difficult.

Efforts to grow a church are well and good, I am in favor of growing church! The point is not to turn a blind eye to growth but to say that eyeing growth as the paramount value leads to monoculture. And monocultures are not very sustainable.

So what does more sustainable growth look like? Maybe it looks like the "three sisters." Who are the three sisters? Answer coming soon....

Monoculture Church

Monoculture - the agricultural saying of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area. It is widely used in modern industrial agriculture and its implementation has allowed for large harvests from minimal labor. However, monocultures can lead to the quicker spread of bitd diseases, where a uniform crop is susceptible to a pathogen. 'Crop monoculture' is the practice of growing the same crop year after year. (Wikipedia)

For as long as I can remember, it has been shared to me that unity is see as the goal. Unity is the ideal. Unity is a characteristic of the Kingdom of God. We are the united body of Christ. We talk about the great divisions within the Church such as the East Church and the West Church, Protestant and Catholics, the Great Schism and the continuing fracturing of Protestantism. I have been told the dream of God is a unity of people who believe, act and live in harmony.

The problem is the concept of unity has been hijacked in many ways. Unity has come to mean ‘exactly the same’. So the Church is not united because we are not the same. We not only have different beliefs but also divergent teachings and practices. Because we are not the same we are not “united”, as it were.

This is crazy to me. Unity as ‘sameness’ is something that I think seems to be a value of Modernity. The clearest example of what I am talking about is the way the American food system produces food. Most of the food comes in these monoculture farms where there are only cows or pigs of sheep. It is great because these farms have animals that all behave the same way and are ‘processed’ the same way. It is efficient and productive. It is easy to manage and highly controllable. There are few variables which are not able to be dealt with accordingly. These farms are fantastic at producing fuel, but they are not that great at producing food.

As a result we are told that unity as sameness is a high value. It works. It is efficient and productive. It creates things that look life giving. The fact of the matter is, and we are learning more and more about this, monoculture farms are highly susceptible to disease. Monoculture farms create things that look life giving but in fact create things that slowly keep us unhealthy and contribute to unhealthy lifestyles.

This is my fear with a Church that places a premium on “unity”. If God through nature has taught us anything is that diversity is the only way to survive and live a long healthy life. Diversity is the key to longevity and diversity is the key to growth. There is not one type of frog or spider. There is not one type of human. There is diversity around us. Nature rejects monoculture. Could it be that God rejects unity as sameness?

If this is the case, then we should embrace diversity in the Church. We should rejoice there are so many different incarnations of Christianity. We should encourage new developments and explore with alternate ways of living the Christian life. When we do we create polyculture. This polyculture ‘vaccinates’ us from disease. Polyculture actually, paradoxically, is true Unity.

Source: Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash