At some point in my undergraduate years I stumbled onto the idea of Permaculture, which is “a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around… utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.” I was fascinated and intrigued by this way of organizing society – and of gardening.

In the basement stacks of the University Science Library, I found a copy of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture book; and was drawn into those ideas (as well as the funky, earthy-feeling drawings).  

In a curious way, the principles reflected my then-evolving understandings of the smallness, the gentleness, the diversity and the slowness of God’s in-breaking reign. 

The more I read, the more I realized that the practical applications around social and agricultural principles articulated in that book provide a much-needed counter-narrative to the

large scale
ways of living life that are so prevalent in our society – and are often reflected in our ways of being Church.  

The more I reflected theologically, those permacultural systems, though not explicitly faith-based, feel profoundly akin to the interrelated biblical notions of Sabbath-keeping, of jubilee and of radical hospitality. They reflect the small

mustard seed-ness,
yeast-ness, and
precious pearl-ness of God’s Kingdom.

I’d also suggest that they speak into the traditional, localist notion of the Church as being primarily rooted in the geographic parish, rather than our more modern notion of the niche church as one attractive consumer option over another one.

As a Christian, I began to ask myself:

What if our social and agricultural designs reflected the mysterious designs of the Triune Creator of all things?
What if small (and local) is actually beautiful?
What if folks like St. Francis, Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day and others were right about how they approached art, culture, agriculture, community – and even Church?
What if we, as Church, followed Jesus’ call to consider the lilies and the birds – instead of the stock market, the latest trends, and the social media feed?

Somehow, twenty years after my undergrad, I find myself living as a church planter. With permaculture principles still tucked somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m encouraged that one key metaphor for those of us seeking to re-imagine and re-seed Church in secular soil is that of a planter.  

However, if I’m really honest, I have to admit that all too many of our ways of being church planters seek to reflect the scale and postures of our consumer culture rather than of the Creator and God’s created order; and this extends to our postures both as producers and consumers of church. As planters, I wonder if we too often operate as factory farmers or large-scale agribusiness, rather than as small-scale gardeners.  

Stefan Paas, in his book Church Planting in the Secular West reflects on this very question.  It’s worth quoting him at length here:  

…[Church Planting] can be done in two ways. The first option is to keep adding tons of water and fertilizer … The result, of course, is highly artificial, even if it looks spectacular.  As soon as you quit your beautiful garden would wither up and die … There is another way however. If is far more difficult, and far less spectacular. Planting a garden where the climate is bad or where the soil has been exhausted takes a lot of skill and effort.  Above all you must know the situation; you must have knowledge about the climate, and the history of cultivation; you must have expertise and persistence. You might want to do research, to find out whether there are ancient natural irrigation systems. And of course you must know everything about the local vegetation, because you want to grow something that belongs here, not something that may look wonderful but can only flourish because you keep it under intensive care. Eventually, you may have a garden that is sustainable … the garden may look unimpressive, but it gives food, shade and joy to the people that live there. (Paas 1)

That second way that Paas talks about sounds a lot like permaculture.

There’s a lot of slow listening.
A lot of grassroots care.
Building with a scale that is sustainable.
Knowing rhythms of rest and action.
It is an art. A too often lost craft.
An act of radical trust and patience.

I know of church plants that receive thousands and thousands of dollars a month from external funders to fund multiple, full-time planters. Accordingly, some have grown quite rapidly into a multi-site experience; and have produced resonant worship and strong internship programs, forming amazing leaders and having strong home groups. By all appearances, they are a ‘success’ – and I too admire much of what they have produced.

However, I see a shadow side. In one of these communities, one of their lead planters told me several years into their life, that if that funding dried up, “we’d be done tomorrow… that if we so much as breathe the wrong way theologically, we’re done – our funder would disown us… Sustainability is not a goal – it is impossible for us – and simply cannot be a goal when we cost this much.”

I don’t want to be critical of any ministry. However, as I’ve reflected on that conversation I’ve had to ask myself as a planter: Is the long-term cost of putting huge amounts of metaphorical piped-in water and fertilizer into starting a faith community worth it in the long term? Or is there another way which is more sustainable?

I’m not sure we can begin to answer that question without prayerfully reflecting on our ecclesiology; without restoring a focus on the Reign of God rather than the growth of the church as our own mini-colonies.

With that, I’m well aware that there may be a point of equilibrium.  I know that those of us who operate in the mainline church have left our planters out to dry, so to speak. If they can’t even feed themselves, can they even take the time to work slowly, listen, cultivate? However, I don’t think that the answer is to seek large-scale forms of support that we as planters are unable to ever reasonably ramp up to – even if what they create is compelling in the short-term.

I’d suggest then, that we need to be careful to build slowly and organically. What if we created some kind of formula where (say) no more than 1/3 of our budgets could come from outside funding sources and then we grew up slowly from that?  

What if we moved away from the paid solo planter or team planters – into a more circular notion of sharing planting; where visioning, preaching, sacraments, teaching, music and other forms of the art are increasingly shared between those gifted in these things? What if we who are paid served as bi-vocational tent-makers instead of full-time funded planters?

I’ll admit – in those scenarios – in these ways of being there’s a risk there of starving the ministry and of idealizing the small, organic, communal and sustainable to the point of tenuousness. Things die in nature. It’s not always a lovely place. But if permaculture is correct, then I’d suggest the risk is worth it.  

Church planting with permacultural (and I’d argue scriptural) principles is hard. It takes time, it can be painstakingly slow work (which can also be hard on the ego – ask any small-scale farmer).

It takes the fertilizer of prayer and the rain of trust.
It takes lily-considering Sabbaths.
It takes reliance on the Holy Spirit over a reliance on technique and funding.
It takes looking at the long picture; beyond what we can imagine; and moving in ever-smaller ways of being God’s Kingdom; reflecting the innate wisdom of the Creator – Who eternally calls us to be the Church – and in doing so calls us to seek first God’s eternal (that is, permanent) reign.

photo credit: Claire Gregory, her own permaculture garden in Sheffield, UK