Wendell Berry has made his home in Henry County, Kentucky, for more than a half-century. From this place and his affection for it, he has written approximately 50 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Berry offers an alternative voice we can learn from, especially where his writings mirror biblical teachings better than religious books featuring baptized secular industrial models.
Pastors seeking to revitalize churches will do well to revitalize their minds along lines Berry suggests.
He asks us to choose nurturing over exploiting as a way of life. Exploiters look at people, land, and communities as raw materials to be mined for one’s own career and retirement portfolio. Exploiters inevitably look at churches the same way. Nurturers, by contrast, seek to conserve, preserve, enhance, and heal while living with people in community in particular places. The nurturer seeks wise practices that build for the long term. As Berry writes in The Unsettling of America (1977), perhaps his best-known volume:
The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. . . . The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community. . . . Once the revolution of exploitation is underway, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship.
Spiritually revitalized pastors will choose the path of nurturing. How many biblical images are necessary to make this point? Surely our Lord’s emphasis on shepherding, friendship, teaching, humility, death, and resurrection bespeak nurturing. Surely Paul’s writing of the church as body, family, and co-heirs of the crucified and risen Jesus do as well. Using churches as stepping stones to other churches, people as tools for career advancement, seminaries as credential factories, and ministries as personal brands are marks of an exploiter. And they are marks of ungodliness. The unsuspecting should learn to flee them; the complicit should repent and seek a renewed mind. Ministers cannot mix these mindsets. A line exists that cannot be crossed.
Nurturing Way of Life
Berry recommends four practices that sustain the nurturing way of life: memory, discipline, hope, and affection.
He presents memory as a bridge between people living now and people long dead. Memory passes on wise character and proven practices. Memory keeps people honest by holding them accountable to all generations, not just the current one. Some of Berry’s readers mistake his emphasis on memory for nostalgia. But Berry does not indulge in nostalgia. He walks in memory to live with deeper understanding in the present—just as Psalms 78, 89, and 104–106 do. Berry novels like The Memory of Old Jack (1974) and Remembering (1988) illustrate these points, as do stories like “The Boundary.”
Spiritually revitalized pastors grasp the value of memory. Indeed, they practice memory by reciting the Apostles’ Creed, by baptizing, by preaching the ancient-new Scriptures, and, of course, by observing the Lord’s Supper, where memory means everything. They expect a church family to have a particular history in a particular place, and they respect that history. They realize they have entered a long historical-spiritual succession.
Discipline and Hope
Berry treats discipline and hope as partners. Writing in 1971 with words that ring true today, Berry noted that political discussion had become coarse: “It has given up almost altogether the disciplines of political discourse (considerations of fact and principle and of human and historical limits and possibilities), and has taken up the cynical showmanship of those who have cheap goods for sale” (“Discipline and Hope,” in Recollected Essays). This devaluing of language arises out of a desire for “efficiency” defined by quick results, a desire that “displaces and destroys the standards of quality because by definition, it cannot consider them.” Such “efficiency” destroys people and cultures. Berry observes:
Real efficiency is long-term efficiency. It is to be found in means that are in keeping with and preserving of their ends, in methods of production that preserve the sources of production, in workmanship that is durable and of high quality.
Where quick results become the goal, wrongheaded specialization, abstraction, organization, and consumption reign. And the results are dire for soul and body: “If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week. We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth.” In order to achieve quick results, Berry contends, we have “come to attribute to ends a moral importance that far outweighs that which we attribute to means.” Lust for quick results bypasses necessary discipline.
Yet disciplined means are essential to durable work. Undisciplined means eventually erode the people, places, practices, and potentials that make good ends possible. Disciplined language, vocational commitment, education practices, and faith all seek to do good—that is, durable—work. Focusing on proper means, then, allows freedom from fixating on the future. “I believe that the closer we come to correct discipline,” Berry writes, “the less concerned we are with ends, and with questions of futurity in general.” Why is this so? Because doing solid, durable work today achieves all one can do for the future. Discipline begets hope. Thus we are able to “take no thought for the morrow” (Matt. 6:34), for we have “discharged today’s only obligation to the morrow.”
Spiritually revitalized pastors recognize that the culture of quick results entered church life long ago. Yet they embrace the good work of devotion, teaching, prayer, hospitality, visiting the sick, and sharing life with those they shepherd. Long-term congregational health grips their imagination. Worries about getting the next big church or conference slot or viral post don’t steal their sleep. God may well give them more sheep to tend as they nurture their flock with strength, dignity, perseverance, and trust. They want all people to serve Jesus, and they labor to that end. But they know the difference between using people and places for fast results and authentic kingdom growth.
According to Berry, affection sustains and enriches memory, discipline, and hope. While many of his writings make this point, especially his poems, his book It All Turns on Affection (2012) explores it most fully. Affection is loving what one ought to love—“things that are true, just, and beautiful.” Affection begins with imagination that “thrives on contact, on tangible emotions.” This means imagining a people and place in the world one can join and enrich, which in turn leads to “a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And in affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” In short, imagination that leads to true commitment will beget sympathy that leads to true affection, which is love. As 1 Corinthians 13 indicates, love is the wellspring of serving Christ in the community of his church.
So revitalized pastors commit to affection for God’s people. Love for people and place transcends love for a pastoral career, and it even transcends the glory of preaching. Indeed, love for God makes love for people and places possible and necessary. Affection can grow over time, so it’s never too late to start.
Pastors Need Wendell Berry
Berry reads to learn, and so should we. In his latest book, A Small Porch (2016), he confesses his “need of teachers, friends, and allies among the living and the dead” and expresses his gratitude that he has found them—often when he needed them most. Berry is a teacher, friend, and ally whose alternative voice can awaken pastors to the narrow way of doing their work.
Revitalized churches will not arise from pastors using modified consumer-driven marketing techniques. Mature Christians will not be sustained by sermons selling a program that seeks to expand the pastor’s “influence,” “brand,” or “career.”
I am glad we have writers who can help us know when we unwittingly mimic unbiblical patterns. If revitalized pastors and people emerge, then “church revitalization” efforts have a chance.