Originally written in September of 2013.
I love documentaries. I love having my bubble expanded. I love gaining insights into aspects of the human condition that I might not consider, framed in true stories that I would never otherwise know. I find that my mind and spirit are rarely stirred as they are with a good documentary, as if through them I gain a life experience in condensed form with enough distance to process its lessons. Often, my impulse is to apply these insights to the church. The following is just that.
In the last week I’ve watched two documentaries, both Ken Burns films: The Dust Bowl and The National Parks. There was no premeditated reason for watching the two so close together. But in doing so it became clear to me that these documentaries share a common theme: humankind’s struggle to act with foresight, wisdom, restraint and cooperation in the face of opportunity and the subsequent competition to capitalize on it.
In both docs, the opportunity is found in the natural environment. The National Parks takes a celebratory tone as it points to the preservation efforts that protected some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in America from becoming industrialized commodities. The Dust Bowl however, is a tragedy. It documents what is, according to the film, one of the top three manmade catastrophes ever. It is an environmental history lesson to be learned from and never repeated.
If you are not familiar with the subject of The Dust Bowl, it documents the events of the mid-1930′s where drought and destructive farming practices turned the southern great plains of the US into a sort of post-apocolyptic landscape. On the macro level the documentary is about an environmental and economic disaster; but of course these things have human causes and life and death consequences. So what really happens in the documentary is that a story about seeds, soil, wheat, fields and harvest illuminates the human condition. The biblical connection was, to me, obvious. The agricultural metaphors and parables of Jesus resonated in every frame. I could not help but feel that this story might serve as a cautionary parable for the church.
There is a specific parallel that has lingered in my mind. I see similarities between the frenzied climate and short-sighted approaches of the Dust Bowl era – rushing to claim and cultivate land for maximum yield – and a current climate of church planting and church expansion. That may come across as a bit foreboding and overly dramatic, linking a largely positive movement in the church to one of the worst man-made disasters in history. Perhaps it is. But severe stories make for the best parables.
In the church, we rest in knowing that it is God who grows the spiritual harvest and he will accomplish his purposes. But we are his agents in working the land, are we not? We have impact on the environment and nurturing of the crop, do we not? Perhaps we, as leaders of the church, ought to evaluate our “agricultural practices” in light of the lessons history provides us. If we are to learn from the mistakes of others it is important to attempt to understand what exactly happened and why. While there are of course many who could speak on The Dust Bowl with more expertise than myself, I’ve listed a few of its causes below as I understood them from the film.
1. An unbridled land grab that over-saturated the land with people trying to gain yield from it. For many years the government subsidized development of the plains through the Homestead Acts, eventually giving large tracts of land to people willing to work the fields. Settlers viewed this land as an unclaimed resource – which was false, of course – that offered a place for them to stake a claim, build a future and a name for themselves. Powerful developers with resources claimed huge, prime sections, often managing their fields from distant states or carving them up and selling the pieces for a profit. The new frontier was heavily marketed as a land of overflowing abundance, so much to that some were even convicted of egregious false advertising. Fueled by all of this, the masses rushed in to capitalize on the opportunity. The land couldn’t handle it.
2. Not paying attention to the landscape that was already there. In its natural state the great plains were covered with grasses and indigenous plants that held the soil together and withstood the wind. They were also a place where innumerable buffalo roamed and native people made their home. By the 1930′s all of these things had been cleared to prepare the land for cultivation by a particular people group. Those with an agenda to advance attempted to justify and validate these actions. The documentary quotes one “expert” who, in the fervor of development, claimed that removing all of the grasses would help get more rain into the soil and make it more receptive to crops. So farmers stripped the landscape of what naturally grew there, the plants and wildlife that played an important role in the ecosystem, and inserted a crop of their choosing. Long-term that proved to be a presumptuous, ignorant, and disastrous idea.
3. Unsustainable practices in the pursuit of fast growth and high yields. The rich soil that settlers found in the plains had taken countless cycles of growth and decomposition to develop – millions of years. Failing to recognize this, many viewed the land as a bottomless resource that could handle whatever was asked of it for as long as it was asked. One government official is quoted as saying, “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.” New plowing methods emerged that allowed farmers to turn over the soil at faster rates. Fields were not allowed to rest or experience seasons of natural growth and decay; they were maximized at all times. According to the film, in the 1920′s “there was a concerted effort to turn agriculture into an industrial model. To make every farm a factory.” For a few years the soil produced a high yield but the long term effect was a stripping of the top soil. Farmers’ attempts to more efficiently grow crops literally destroyed the earth’s capacity to grow any crops at all.
4. Assuming a period of increased rainfall and high yield would be the norm in the future. The witness of history suggested that the amount of rainfall seen by the great plains during the most frenzied years of development was an anomaly. Or, at the very least, it represented the peak of a cycle that included regular seasons of drought. “Rain follows the plow,” sang developers, meaning that if you work the land the rain you need will be there. They were wrong. Like every bubble story, told countless times in relation to nations and individuals alike, “we think that everything that goes up will not come down.” Drought hit the great plains – as they should have expected – and no one was prepared for it.
In a previous draft of this post I offered a healthy dose of commentary for each point above. But in addition to making this post WAY too long, I felt that it robbed the story of space for reflection that a parable requires. Perhaps I will write a practical follow-up or perhaps we will find room in the comments to discuss some of the real world applications. But I will give the story room to speak for now.
I will however make one quick point to give a sense of where I am coming from. I am not opposed to churches planting or expanding, even in close proximity to one another. I obviously feel that some of the common practices of our day are unhealthy. But the solution to pursuing positive ends in poor, even destructive, ways is not to reject the pursuit outright. It is to correct course and pursue positive ends in healthy ways. I do believe there are times when churches should not expand or plant in a given area, but I won’t itemize hypothetical reasons here. Rather, it’s more helpful to state what I think is worth pursuing: more, moderately-sized churches that are culturally embedded, cared for well by humble leaders, in genuine gospel partnership with one another, investing outside of their name, with big-picture and long-term perspective. I’ll obviously need more room – elsewhere – to explain what I mean by all of that.
Finally, settlers of The Dust Bowl did understand one thing well that can serve as a positive lesson for us: without water, they were doomed. A common refrain in the documentary is “If it rains…” Developers and farmers constantly looked to the sky and knew that their fortune was dependent upon something that was out of their control. Thankfully, as we apply the metaphor to the church, there is plenty of water to go around (John 4:11-15). We need to remember our dependance though and do our part to create a healthy, sustainable environment that readily receives the “spring welling up to eternal life” and produces good fruit.