Unglued Church

Sustainable church

Learning from the farm-to-table journey

By Ayana Teter

Several weeks ago, I was scanning the Netflix library in search of a thoughtful documentary and took a chance on one entitled SustainableIt was a video essay that detailed one group’s perspective on the farm-to-table journey by highlighting the rich and deep relationships between those who partner with God to bring edible things from the earth and those who craft those edible things into something delicious and delightful!

This view of the modern agricultural relationships blessed me as it reminded me of something that Wendell Barry once wrote:

“The subject of Christianity and ecology is endlessly fascinating …theologically and artistically because of our never-to-be-satisfied curiosity between a made thing and its Maker.”

Sustainable was able to capture this interdependence between farmer and chef and reveal their thoughtful partnership with their Maker.

One particular testimonial in the documentary has caused me to reflect.  It came from Nicolette Niman, an attorney, author, and long-time participant in this cultural conversation, who provided an eye-witness account of the harmful effects of industrialized food cultivation and went on to make the following bold declaration, “There was a lot of wisdom that was handed down throughout the ages that was tossed out around the 1950s.” She then named those pillars of wisdom that had been collected over the generations but only recently forgotten. They are the observable ways in which God has ordered nature:

  • Plants and animals work together
  • Diversity thrives
  • Nothing is wasted
  • Things must be continuously restored

Nieman made the claim that these pillars are all instrumental to a sustainable mindset.

Those comments caused me to pause the documentary and question aloud: Was there something about the 1950s that caused well-intentioned folks to disregard generations of ecclesial wisdom, too? As a co-laborer in a mainline denominational culture that often longs for the church of the 1950s I couldn’t resist the temptation to find parallels within the church!

Answers to my question came quickly to mind, but only in the form of trite platitudes. They were caricatures of the mainline church’s heyday in America—for I only have secondhand memories of “the good old days”.   And it is all too easy to critique a time that I have only experienced in the collective memory of others.

But, as the days passed, and as I put aside my preoccupation with questioning “what went wrong”, a new question began to emerge.  It was this – are we in danger of jettisoning godly wisdom in search of new ways to be church in the 21st century? Are there some things that we should never give up in our God-directed encounters with the lost and the least of these?  Are there beliefs that we should never surrender as we practice an ancient faith in increasingly divided communities?  In other words, how can we let go of some of our worn-out ideologies without forgetting God’s wisdom?

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”  James 3:17-18

The timelessness of James’ counsel is powerful! It points us back to the Lord Jesus’ sermon on the mount and reorients us to the characteristics of God’s kingdom. It reminds us that with every new fad, every growing threat, discouraging demographic, or changing fashion, there is a way for God’s people to evaluate each new season.  We wrestle with questions like:

  • Do we “step out in faith” to hire a ministry leader to work together across generation?
  • Do we sell the building to enable more faithful ministry that will thrive for a generation that expects diversity?
  •  Do we let go of programs that might be comforting but not fruitful so that we are not wasting energy on unimportant things?
  • Do we continually restore our ministry to respond the Spirit’s nudges and reach out with the good news to a people who differ from us?

The answers to these questions might be different in different contexts, but at all times God’s wisdom will lead us to mimic the character and attributes of God’s Son so that in every way we might grow to become more and more like Jesus, who is the Head of this whole operation anyway!  This is the wisdom that does not change with time.

So, let us abandon, release, and repent of all sorts of broken ways in church life.  But, may we never abandon the pillars of our God’s wisdom:

Purity first

Peaceable always

Gentleness abounds

An absence of playing favorites and insincerity

The harvest will come in righteousness and peace for those that are up for the task of planting peace in this world!  And whenever we recognize lack in this area it is so good to know that we can always ask our God for wisdom and God gives wisdom to all generously and ungrudgingly.


Reverend Ayana Teter is Associate Minister for Outreach for Pittsburgh Presbytery, and serves as contact for the South and West branch churches. Prior to her call to Pittsburgh, she served as a co-pastor and head-of-staff of a racially, theologically, and culturally diverse congregation in the urban Midwest. Together with colleagues in Pittsburgh Presbytery, she is a leader of the Unglued Church Project.