A Seminarian Interviews Farm Church

A few weeks ago, we had a wonderful conversation with Jennifer Hardin, a MDiv student at Dubuque Theological Seminary.  Jennifer is taking a class this semester called "Imagining Church" (great name for a class!) and was assigned to interview leaders of a new worshiping community.  She'd heard about Farm Church on Rocky Supinger's YoRocko Podcast and was eager to hear more.

Here's Jennifer's report back to class.  Jennifer, we Farm Church pastors give you an "A+" for inspiring us with our own story!  Thank you for your new friendship and for your work!

- Allen and Ben, Farm Church Pastors
 

Last week I had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Ben Johnston-Krase and Allen Brimer, the co-planters of Farm Church in Durham, North Carolina.  The idea for Farm Church started with a dream Ben had and shared with Allen about accepting a call to a church that turned out to be a farm.  His dream planted a seed that has quickly grown over the past two years into Farm Church, and they will worship together for the first time on May 1.  Ben and Allen shared their “elevator speech” with me, which focuses on “why we exist” rather than on “what we do.”  Farm Church, they said, is a church that meets on a farm and faithfully leverages the resources of that farm to meet needed food security.  If you read the home page of their website, www.farmchurch.org, it states their mission as “to grow and provide healthy food for a hungry world,” and that “Farm Church is a church committed to following Jesus by growing and sharing healthy food.”

As we spoke, Ben and Allen shared with me about the community that has started to grow in relation to Farm Church.  Even though they haven’t held their first worship service yet (they only just secured a worship space in January), according to them the excitement about Farm Church is evident in Durham among folks they have already networked with, and word is getting out about this new, innovative way of doing and being church.  Ben and Allen have spent a LOT of time networking with people and local organizations and investing in the community of Durham.  They told me that they made a rule for themselves when they moved to Durham that they would “make every single call and follow every single thread.”  This means that if someone offered to put them in touch with someone else and said “you should talk to them,” there was no hesitation to make a connection.  Even though this has been a lot of work (and exhausting) on their part, I see where established churches could learn from their strategy.

When speaking about members of the larger community that they hope Farm Church will appeal to and serve, Ben and Allen identified two “branches” that folks are hanging on.  First, there are folks who are currently in traditional churches, who are in those churches largely because they would rather be in church than not, and they put up with the traditional “trappings,” but would jump at a new opportunity.  On the second branch are those who they identified as “spiritually hungry, institutionally suspicious.”  This branch is made up of people who are suspicious or distrustful of churches, pastors, institutions; who have had bad experiences, who have scar tissue from being in church/being involved with institutional religion.  Ben and Allen’s hope is that Farm Church will be church in a way that doesn’t look like traditional/historic church, and will be attractive to those hanging on this second branch.  Additionally, they are clear that Farm Church is about far more than the people who are in Durham.  They have people from across the country praying for them and helping them financially.  Locally, they have a core team of people from various backgrounds who are helping them grow their dream and vision into a reality, as well as local non-profit organizations and individuals who have connections that have been or will be helpful to Farm Church.

Affirming that “Can you imagine it?” is important language for their community, Ben and Allen hastily described what their hope for worshiping as a community will be like.  They described a community gathering and being welcomed and picking kale together as they gather.  Then being called to worship with a cow bell, bringing their kale with them to the table, and later partaking of the kale they harvested together as part of communion together.  “Can you imagine it?” they asked me.  “I can!” I told them.  I can imagine it; in part because they are so excited about this agrarian ecclesiology and liturgy, and their passion when sharing it is clear.  They hope for fluidity in moving from moment to moment in worship and describe every part of Farm Church worship as being liturgical (arrival, greeting, invitation to options to engage in farm – to be liturgically engaged, liturgically invitational, harvest, sharing of a meal, etc.).

My first question to Ben and Allen about imagining their community as a family tree was an opportunity for them to use their imaginations about what their community as a family tree would look like.  This is when they took some time to imagine out loud who would be living on the branches (see my third paragraph, above).  They also talked about their hopes and goals for the Farm Church community.  One goal is to not have a building.  A fear is that a structure will, as it has in many mainline churches, become a false idol, and that their community will “get trapped into the loop of having to maintain a structure.”  Another hope is of having church in a way that doesn’t look like traditional/historic church that will be attractive to those who are hanging on the second branch (that is, spiritually hungry, institutionally suspicious folks).  Ben and Allen are clear about church not meaning a church building or worship on Sunday mornings.  Church, for Farm Church, is first and foremost community.  And not only is church community, it is community that loves and supports one another and the world through work and worship.  Farm Church is a community that isn’t afraid to get a little dirt on their hands or clothes. 

When I asked how they see their role in the faith community, Allen’s almost immediate response was that Ben will attend more to the people and he will tend more to the farm.  While these roles are not mutually exclusive for them, these are where their gifts and talents most strongly align with their ministry through Farm Church.  Allen will still take a turn at preaching and leading worship, and Ben will still help out on the farm.  Ben followed this up with a discussion about three roles that they were in no way prepared for: Fundraiser, Entrepreneur, and Community Organizer.  While their years ministering in traditional church settings since seminary has given them a lot of experience that has been helpful thus far, nothing has prepared them for fundraising or starting a new organization/church.  The learning curve has been incredibly steep in these areas, I followed up my question about their roles with a question about what some other roles are that people in this faith community play.  They do have two fundraising coaches, a coach through 1001 New Worshiping Communities (a church planting coach), and the members of their core team have some skills and experiences that they don’t have.  They also shared that they are working to establish an oversight team in the presbytery, which will include an accountant, a lawyer, and an entrepreneurial assistance person; people who will be there to help them think through issues.

When we moved on to talk about ways in which they will measure success of their new community, I could hardly keep up!  They listed many different ways in which they plan to measure success, and I’m sure I’m missing some of them, but ones that I took note of include the following.  First, when they use “we are trying to start a new church called Farm Church” as a conversation starter and folks want to hear more about it, that is a success in itself.  As a second to that form of success, when participants are saying, “I tell everyone I meet about this,” that, too, is a success.  Some other forms of success will be demonstrated when active participants of Farm Church offer mutual care, when there is consistency in participation, when they can measurably demonstrate that food insecurity is being transformed, and when operational expenses are being met.

My next question was about “joining” their community and what that would look like.  They are very clear in their vision for a community that isn’t based on meeting a “membership” goal.  Rather, their goal is to think in terms of “active participants” rather than “members.”  It’s not about having a name on a list, but about having and experiencing authentic community.  It’s not a question about procedure, but a ritual of welcome.  Being part of this community will be a weekly practice, not a one time “change.”  Ben and Allen talked in response to this question about tying in the sense of belonging to one another and what it means to be part of Farm Church into worship every week and also into the church’s season of stewardship.  For the community of Farm Church, statement of belonging is a weekly practice, not a one-time membership form that is filled out and filed away.  Ben and Allen also discussed Stewardship season being centered on the question “Are you still all in with us?” 

As they have worked to introduce their vision to others, two of the questions Ben and Allen say they get asked regularly are “Why Durham?” and “How are you supporting your families?”  They shared with me that they’re settling in Durham because it is diverse, there is a foodie culture there, and there are also food deserts.  Part of the vision and mission of Farm Church is to help alleviate food insecurity, and Durham happens to be a place in need of that.  Regarding supporting their families, they have applied for grants through 1001 New Worshiping Communities, and it seems as though things just seem to keep falling into place for them.  They spend a lot of time inviting people to church, talking about what it’s about, about why it exists versus the “set pieces” of church.  They are also clear that “Can you imagine it?” is important language for them as they talk with people about the new church they are trying to start.  They want people to imagine the transcendent presence of God as they are participating in it on a farm.  So, part of introducing their vision of community to others includes this language of imagination.  It also includes their dream narrative about how this idea came to them and how they have worked to get it going.

I asked what the most recent memorable week in their community’s life has been, and Ben and Allen both had something different to say.  First, Allen said he thought of a time, mid-January just after they had finished a successful fundraising campaign in the months of November and December.  They had spent four months constantly networking, and they had connected with a local non-profit that does urban agriculture and offered them space to worship, free of charge, for one year.  That same week, he said, they met a woman of another non-profit that had just received a gift of a 40+ acre farm, and no idea what to do with it.  (Allen followed this up by saying that’s a little big for them right now and they are looking more for space in the city.  They’ve already secured some space to start planting in the city and will eventually go bigger.)   He exclaimed to me at the end of this story that “that week it just seemed to be raining. . .it always rains manna. . .that particular week, the manna was like French baguettes!  It was great!”  Ben spoke up then and said that week was memorable for him as well, but he thinks more of conversations and moments than of a particular week.  He says, “We have reduced religion to an informational exchange.  There is an experience of the holy, even in the idea of a church that operates this way.”  The idea of this kind of church stirs the imagination enough that people talk about and they tell their friends, their hairdresser, the mailman, and their parents.

Finally Ben and Allen shared briefly with me about what I would recognize or find unfamiliar when visiting them for worship.  I shared with them that I grew up attending and holding membership in PC (U.S.A.) churches and asked what it would be like.  They said to think about times in your life when you’ve sensed the presence of something much bigger and holy – the familiar will be like that, they hope.  Also, the “nuts and bolts” of worship will be the same; singing, prayer, and talk about Jesus.  Something that might feel unfamiliar is the fluidity, the movement from moment to moment.  While all movement will be liturgical, it won’t feel the same as a traditional worship service, and (in my opinion) it shouldn’t. 

As we concluded our conversation, they asked for prayer.  There are obvious things they would like prayer for – financial stability, their first upcoming worship service, etc.  However, one of the ways they said we can pray for them is this:  pray that Farm Church doesn’t succeed just because it’s a good idea. 

            My prayer for Farm Church:

God,

I thank you for the rich conversation I got the opportunity to have with Ben and Allen.  From what I have heard and read, I can see you are doing great things through them, your servants.  Bless them and the work they are doing for you and for others.  Bring them peace when they get frustrated, bring them patience when they just can’t wait, bring them comfort when things don’t go the way they planned.  Most of all, Lord, I pray for the community that Ben and Allen are fostering in Durham and the people they are bringing together from the many branches of the tree.  May the seeds they are planting flourish.

Amen.