Thursday, June 14, 2018

Developing a Biblical Perspective on Agriculture

By Sara Sytsma and Brett Harrison

The first half of this post was published in the June CFGB Conservation Agriculture online newsletter.  For those of you who got here through the link in the newsletter, you can scroll down to Part 2.  Otherwise, you can start reading from the beginning.

Developing a Biblical Perspective on Agriculture

Part 1:
Sara: Brett, how shall we begin this article about a Biblical perspective on agriculture?

Brett: Well, I begin most of my agriculture seminars by asking what the difference is between Christian and non-Christian farmers.

Sara: What kinds of answers do you get?

Brett: I’ve received lots of answers, some more true than others: Christian farmers don’t get drunk. Christian farmers don’t grow tobacco. Christian farmers pray over their seeds instead of having traditional healers bless them.

Sara: How about: Christian farmers don’t take public transportation unless the vehicle has a Bible verse painted on the window?

Brett: That’s a new one to me.
Most often I hear: There’s no difference between Christian farmers and non-Christian farmers. Farming is farming. This clearly reveals a failure to make Christianity applicable to everyday life.

Sara: True. I think many Christians try to serve God faithfully yet still separate the sacred – like church and evangelism – from the secular – our everyday lives and work. However, God cares about everything we do, no matter how small or unimportant it might seem. So, as followers of Christ, we should be motivated to do everything, including farm work, in a way that glorifies God.

Brett: It seems it should be easy, especially in rural areas, for the church to address how faith in Christ should mold and shape agriculture practices because everyone in the congregation is a farmer.
What should we do about this disconnect?

Sara: Actually, we already did something about it. We assembled a curriculum called “The Earth is the Lord’s: Bible Studies on Creation and Agriculture.” The name comes from Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it....” I always appreciate the reminder that everything I have belongs to God.
But I guess you were using “we” in a broader sense than just the two of us. Maybe you can tell our readers about the curriculum?

Brett: Sure thing. “The Earth is the Lord’s" curriculum is a collection of Biblical texts related to agriculture and focuses on obedience to God’s word. It uses a Bible study method in which a facilitator guides the group to discover truths from scripture instead of simply telling them what they should learn. With practice, this Bible study method will also be useful for studying other passages of scripture.
What are some of the main themes we want farmers to understand?

Sara: One of the key themes in “The Earth is the Lord’s” is the value of God’s creation. In wisdom, God created everything out of nothing and delights in all of it. And we already mentioned another important theme: farming to bring glory to God. We also want farmers to understand stewardship; that God has entrusted us with caring for his creation.
Can you give an example of how the curriculum addresses these themes?

Brett: I’ll share one of the passages I especially like. Genesis 2:15 reads, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." Many farmers believe agriculture is a punishment for sin, but this passage makes it clear God gave mankind the work of farming before sin ever entered the world. Agriculture isn’t a punishment, but a gift from God!

Sara: Just a few verses before that (v. 8) we study how God himself planted the garden. It’s really powerful for farmers to understand God was the first farmer. We shouldn’t look down on the work of agriculture when it is a continuation of the work of God.

Brett: Regarding stewardship, Genesis 2 teaches us to not only farm the land, but also to take care of it. This implies long-term sustainability in farming was God’s plan from the beginning.

Sara: It’s no surprise, then, that we promote conservation agriculture since it limits losses to erosion and maintains soil fertility, while continuing with crop production. This ensures food security for farmers in this and subsequent generations.

Brett: CA is definitely one way to work and take care of the land entrusted to us by God. It continues to amaze me how applicable Biblical principles are to agriculture.
How much are we charging people for this curriculum? And where can they find it?

Sara: We’ve made it available for free download here (English) under "Creation Care and Agriculture". And it’s also free to print, use, and share. We want people to have a Biblical basis for their agriculture practices, and to glorify God in their farm work.

If you have questions or would like help learning to use the Bible study process in the curriculum, please email Sara or Brett.

Part 2:
Brett: I think we’ve assembled a group of passages that are extremely relevant to agriculture and livestock practices. Much of the soil where I live in Sukumaland is over 90 percent sand with far less than 1 percent organic matter, and has been farmed continuously for years with little to no inputs. Many farmers describe their land, which is no longer producing a crop, as tired -- and they feel hopeless. They’ve seen friends move their families and cattle elsewhere, and are afraid this is their only solution.
I have enjoyed seeing the joy and wonder on their faces when they learn there is a way to continue farming their land while also restoring it for use by future generations. AND that this is the very thing God instructed mankind to do when placing them in the garden. Beyond the joy on their faces, though, it’s been really exciting to see them put into practice what they’ve learned from scripture and from science. Farmers are investing in their soil each year, instead of only taking from it: including nitrogen-fixing legumes in crop rotations, using manure amendments wisely, and leaving a mulch cover (instead of burning their residues).

Sara: That really is encouraging -- for you, but especially for their families!

Brett: But I’m equally as excited about the Bible study format itself. Sara, what do you like about the method of study we’ve chosen to use?

Sara: I really like that it’s a group-centered Bible study. Unlike in a traditional classroom, the focus is on group participation and discovery. While there are appropriate contexts for a teacher to lecture to a class, it is also important for people to learn how to study the Bible themselves - and this method helps develop that skill.

Brett: And this is something we’ve already witnessed occur many times. Charles* is using his experience as a participant in one of these studies to facilitate a weekly Bible study with his family and neighboring families. Many participants are reproducing Bible studies in their own homes. And at least a few churches have also started using this process, dividing into smaller groups when necessary.
Some of this success is likely because, as you mentioned before, this method also focuses on the group working together to discover truths from scripture.

Sara: Yeah, I too have noticed the discovery process not only gives groups the skills to study scripture, but also individuals within those groups. Since the steps of this process are simple and easy to remember, people learn how to study the Bible well. Akello said the inductive Bible study method has taught her to read and understand the Bible on her own. And Njeri told me she used to read the Bible, close it, and just hope that God spoke to her. But now she looks for what God is teaching her in a more active way when studying scripture.

Brett: That’s terrific! The process we’ve employed is an inductive Bible study method, which means the group examines specific examples in scripture in order to extract more general principles. I have seen this process motivate groups toward further Bible study. I know for many participants this is because they feel scripture has come alive to them in a way it previously had not been. But it’s also necessary that groups continue studying from other passages to learn if the general principles they’ve extracted are indeed truths. Sometimes, conclusions have to be loosely formed and held until they are further confirmed and developed by other passages of scripture.

Sara: Yes, it is important to learn how to understand the Bible by studying scripture as a whole. A good example of this is the second study in the curriculum: Genesis 1:26-31. God says, “Let us make mankind in our image... .” A group might question why God is speaking in the plural form. So the general principle they arrive at on this day may be as simple as, “There seems to be some kind of relationship within God.” But we can’t understand that concept fully from this verse alone and need to continue reading the Bible to learn more. Hopefully this will catch the interest of the group and motivate them to study more in order to understand God’s word better. (In fact, they will learn more from a later study on Colossians 1:15-20.)

Brett: And it’s not just about motivation. We believe it’s good for students (and teachers) of scripture to sometimes be forced to say, “We can’t learn the answer from this scripture today” or even, “We don’t know.” This helps us learn to be careful how we use scripture -- to address it as honestly as we can, rather than forcing our preconceived ideas and biases into scripture as we read it.

Sara: As much as it shows good character to confess when we don’t know, this can be a hard admission for many people. However, learning to acknowledge our limitations is a way to grow in humility and integrity.

Brett: Another focus of the curriculum is obedience to God’s word. James wrote, “ Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” He later added that blessing extends from doing what we learn from God. The Bible study format we use is not only group-centered and inductive, but also obedience-based. Knowledge is not the end goal of Bible study, and so we expect participants to put scripture into practice. In fact, each module ends with the question:
How will you/we be obedient to God concerning what we learned from scripture today? Make a specific obedience statement for what you/we will do.

Sara: And we’ve seen some great results from this expectation of obedience. I was with a group of women studying Genesis 2, and they noticed that God not only planted food crops in the garden of Eden, but also “trees that were pleasing to the eye.” As a result, they all resolved to include some beautiful plants in their gardens, regardless of whether they produce an edible crop or not. It was great to be a part of a group putting scripture into practice.

Brett: One of the encouraging things about obedience to God, too, is that incremental steps really add up. A posture of obedience is more important than any single obedience statement. Each time we put a lesson from scripture into practice, it becomes easier to obey the next time. We form habits of doing what we learn from God, and as we already pointed out from James, there is great blessing in that.
One of my favorite Bible studies ever was in Genesis 1. The group read that man and woman were both created in the image of God, and that they were to rule over God’s earth together. Several of the men were convicted that they did not value their wives as they should, or share together in work with them. That week, each of those three men did what is traditionally “woman’s work” so their wives would not have to: one fetched all the firewood for the week, another fetched all the water for the week, and the third did all the vegetable shopping and took the sewing scissors to be sharpened. Those might seem like small things, but all three of these men were laughed at and made fun of by their peers for not ruling over their wives properly. But I know all three of their wives felt valued in a rare and unique way. That is the power of scripture put into practice, deepening relationships and healing families.

Sara: Those are some awesome stories of transformation. It’s always exciting to hear about the ways that God is working in people’s lives.
We’ve talked a lot about the strengths of “The Earth is the Lord’s” curriculum. It’s probably only fair we speak to some of the challenges. I think one of the biggest struggles is facilitation. Since most people are used to a classroom context, it can be hard to learn good facilitation skills. For example, many people struggle to learn how to ask open-ended questions that spur discussion. Others might need to gain confidence in order to prevent someone from dominating the group’s discussion. We have included a section in “The Earth is the Lord’s” with helpful facilitation techniques, but facilitators will still need to practice in order to hone those skills.

Brett: Another important facilitation skill we have noticed is learning how to deal with silence. A good facilitator won’t immediately jump in with answers when a group is quiet, but will repeat the question, go back and re-read the passage, or give the group more time to think.

Sara: Another potential challenge is how to respond if a group member offers an idea which is blatantly false or who goes off on a tangent about something which is not in the text. A facilitator should never mock such a person, but can use the group dynamic to reach a solution. First, they can ask what others think about that idea. Or they can ask where it can be found in the text. Usually, a group will be able to self-correct because other members can help point out where their peer has strayed from what the text actually says or if they are saying something which disagrees with scripture in general. Brett, how could a facilitator help the group learn how to become naturally self-correcting?

Brett: That’s a good question. I’ve found simply modeling gentle correction throughout the first several studies is an excellent tool for this. It doesn’t take long for the larger group to recognize which conclusions have come from the scripture being studied and which have come from outside. And soon participants will begin to themselves politely hold one another accountable in this regard.

Sara: Got it. Are there any other challenges we should share about?

Brett: Sure, one last challenge I’d like to mention is that I’ve noticed in the beginning many groups (and individuals) really struggle to create concrete and measurable goals for obedience. Most of us are accustomed to reading the Bible to learn what it says, but putting specific principles into practice is a different story.

Sara: Very true.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job of explaining how “The Earth is the Lord’s” isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems. Maybe we can talk about some of the different ways it can be used. What are some of the ways you have been using these studies, Brett?

Brett: I really like to use these Bible studies together with agriculture lessons. We’ve even included an appendix in the “The Earth is the Lord’s” curriculum which gives suggestions for how to do that.

Sara: There are so many options for how to use the studies. They can be used in adult Sunday school in a church or in a small group Bible study. Another variation is in the amount of time between each study: one week, two weeks, a month. Since we encourage groups to look for ways to be obedient to what they are studying, it helps to have some time in between each study for participants to put that learning into practice and then be able to encourage each other when they come back together for the next one.

Brett: I’ve also thought about ways the curriculum could be used in church planting or in evangelism since the studies are a good introduction to the Christian faith.

Sara: Once people have gained some experience with this method of Bible study, they can also use it for family Bible study at home. It can be a helpful way for parents to model good Bible study and putting their faith into practice.
Is there anything else you think we should share about “The Earth is the Lord’s?

Brett: Well, Sara, you know I could talk about agriculture and Bible study forever, but I suppose we should bring this conversation to a close.

Happy studies everyone! And if you have a good (or bad) experience using “The Earth is the Lord’s” curriculum, please let us know!

*All names changed.

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