Two years ago three colleagues and I were awarded a grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders to study the spirituality of terrioir. Not terror, terroir. The term comes from a french wine-making concept that means "taste of place." Terroir helps explain how wine produced in one location tastes different than one that comes from a different place. Both wines can come from the exact same type of grape, but they have radical differences in flavor. The type of soil and other environmental factors play a significant role. The concept of terroir is expanding across the foodie movement. Many top chefs try to find local foods and their desire is to let the flavors emerge. Chefs, organic farmers and winemakers are all speaking the same language. They say humbly, "My job is to get out of the way and let food do it's thing."
The problem with most food that is produced today is similar to the problems ruining the church. Today most of our foods are over-processed. The goal is not to let local flavors burst forth from different regions. Rather the goal is to create a substance that can be standardized and easily transportable. One cannot say, "The 2009 Velveeta produced a earthy undertones that we haven't tasted since the 1999 Cheez Whiz." The result of all of this processing is that most of our diets are based on foods cannot nourish or delight us. For example, you've probably noticed that one cannot purchase a decent tomato from a grocery store. In order to ship the fruit, it needs to have a thick skin and the thicker the skin, the less flavorful. In effect, we are over-fed and under-nourished. We crave for more than our food is providing so we eat more and are less satisfied.
Is the analogy apt for what is happening in the church? Many churches are losing their local flavor and beginning to look like every other church. Drive around town and you will see churches using the same Vacation Bible School curriculum. The church has simply become a consumer of pre-packaged programs for evangelism, small groups, stewardship, contemporary worship formats, you name it. We are forever looking for a magic bullet. We don't want to spend time creating something ourselves if something already exists and was written by professionals who had more time to devote to the project. With so many pre-packaged programs, are congregations in danger of becoming like local franchises of larger chains? Increasingly, denominational affiliation has less to do with the flavor of a church than the publishing houses of the programs that churches purchase.
Most successful church programs are not successful because they were purchased from somewhere else. They were successful because they grew out of a need in a local setting and lay people in the church decided to act. The really satisfying stuff grows out of local people sensing what is needed in their neighborhoods, their communities, their members. The good stuff has a terroir that cannot be duplicated and mass produced. Wine producers know that each variety of grape grows best in specific kinds of soil and climate conditions. You can't grow a world-class Pinot Noir in Iowa because the climate is too warm and the soil is too rich. But in Oregon the conditions are perfect. On the other hand, there are some varieties you dare not try in Oregon. If an Iowa farmer looked at the Pinot Soil, he'd say it's no good. Corn would never grow in it. However, the poor soil in Oregon makes the vines sink its roots deeper into the bedrock. The result is that the stress on the vine makes it go deep enough to pull out the minerals that give the wine a complex and satisfying taste.
It seems to me that any congregation that wants to produce a high quality ministry should ask terroir kinds of questions. Who is in our neighborhood? What are the cultural conditions around us? What grows well here? What are the gifts of our congregation? When we are stressed by lack of participation, funds, originality or conflict, do we let our roots sink deeper or do we throw up our hands in despair? Most of the answers our churches are seeking come not from a publishing house, but from the neighborhood and congregation itself. Taste and see.
Rev. Tim Diebel and I will lead a workshop on this subject at the School for Congregational Learners at West Des Moines Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Saturday, August 27.