Discipleship As Cultural Gardening


Dustin Messer

You might not think it to look at it, but an 1892 essay on gardening has surprising relevance for those of us interested in discipleship. F. W. Burbidge, the onetime curator of the Botanic Gardens at Trinity College, Dublin, argues in Culture Versus Nature that gardeners too often neglect the larger echo-system of their gardens and treat each plant as a discrete unit:

“One of the earliest and hardest lessons for a gardener to learn is to rid his mind of prejudice in plant culture. As a rule, we want plants to grow where we like rather than where the plant likes, and sometimes the man and the plant are not agreed on the point, for the question of position, of moisture, and of shelter is one the plant naturally knows and feels more of than the man, and though the plant cannot speak, its evidence to knowing eyes is unmistakable.”

So, if you’re having trouble with your tomatoes, perhaps you need to relocate the potatoes—which, like the tomatoes, attract the corn-earworm—and plant in their place some basil, which repels those harmful bugs. According to Burbidge, becoming an expert in this sort of ecological architecture is part and parcel of the gardener’s job. By paying attention to the agricultural context, we encourage our plants to flourish where they are.

When we look to the Bible, we find it filled with agricultural imagery when describing the Christian life and discipleship. Think of the Parable of the Sower where Jesus compares hearts to various kinds of soil, or, again, of Paul talking of “reaping the harvest” of good works. Now, it’d be easy to write this off as nothing more than the quirks of the Scriptures’ pre-Industrial literary context, but there are still some lessons to be learned about discipleship in this rich soil.

Disciple-makers, like gardeners, all too often ignore culture, wishing we were planting in a different climate than we actually are. We answer questions no one is asking while teaching virtues that, while true, are completely un-scandalous to the Modern ear.

For example, Scripture teaches that individual consciences should be respected. Scripture also teach that we’re subject to authority. Broadly speaking, Westerners will readily accept the former and blanch at the latter while Easterners will grant the latter but balk at the former. The cultural context shapes the way disciples hear the message of the gospel.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want to be a disciple-maker, you should study culture. If we’re not attuned to culture, it’s very possible to preach a perfectly biblical sermon but never challenge the assumptions of the hearer and therefore never perform the act of discipleship. In this way, ignorance of culture can just as easily lead to worldliness as an obsession with it.

While that’s a deep conviction for me, I’m very aware that others smarter than myself warn against an emphasis in another direction. Carl Trueman, for one, has long made the argument downplaying the priority for pastors and ministry leaders to study culture:

“…[B]elieve it or not, your people can get to heaven in blissful ignorance of the latest Great American Novel or the op-ed columns of The Village Voice. That is not to say that knowledge of these things is necessarily wrong; but these are not to be priorities for the time which the minister of the gospel has for study, nor are they priorities for the time that he spends in the pulpit. Watching our lives and doctrine is a vital part of our ministerial calling; watching movies and TV shows should be no more than a part of our leisure time, a bit of diversionary fun after a hard day in the study.”

His overall argument, which is worth reading in full, is laudable: pastors ought to be more worried about holiness than hipness. The temptation toward worldliness is real and the clergy aren’t immune, as the sad case of Joshua Harris has reminded us. Doesn’t it follow, then, that an interest in culture could be the gateway to accommodation? Trueman thinks so, and he’s not alone.

No less a luminary than C.S. Lewis made virtually the same argument a half-century earlier: “Our main temptation in the modern world will be that of yielding to the winds of (strange) doctrine, not that of ignoring them. We are not at all likely to be hidebound; we are very likely indeed to be slaves of fashion.”

To be clear, both of these men were and are quite aware of the cultural goings-on of their day, so we’re not talking about hermits hiding away in ivory towers. Further, we have to admit their concern isn’t without merit: it’s very possible that an obsession with culture can lead to an unhealthy identification with the world. Yet, I’d like to make the counter argument. Yes, an obsession with culture can lead to worldliness, but ignoring culture can have the same effect.

We can see this in other contexts, as well. Last year, University of Virginia professors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson edited a massive study on the ways in which character is formed in students by the schools they attend. The literature on the subject up to this point has assumed that character is inherently personal, something native to the individual. The job of society is simply to encourage the process of “self-actualization.” What Hunter and Olson’s study shows, quite decisively, is that character is formed within a particular sociological context. The upshot of their study is this:

“Inevitably, the moral life is every bit as institutional as it is individual; every bit as cultural as it is subjective; and every bit an inheritance of the past as it is bound by emotional, intellectual, and behavioral exigencies of the present… When social institutions—whether the family, peer relationships youth organizations, the internet, religious congregations, entertainment, or popular culture—cluster together, they form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influences. None of these is morally neutral. Indeed, all social institutions rest upon distinctive ideals, beliefs, obligations, prohibitions, and commitments—many implicit and some explicit—and these are rooted in, and reinforced by, well-established social practices. Taken together, these form a moral ecology.”

Desires, beliefs, habits—all the things which shape a person’s character—are nurtured in specific contexts, what Hunter and Olson call “moral ecologies.” To study culture is to study the echo system in which we live. To analyze the ways in which we’re being thrown about by the undercurrent of Modernity. The better we understand the context in which we live, the better we can foster those conditions conducive for mature, steady growth in godliness.

If you want to be a disciple-maker, you must study culture. More to it, if you want to be a disciple-maker, you should be a culturemaker, an ecologist of virtue. Just as a gardener needs to know to plant marigolds near the cucumbers to shoo away the insects, disciple-makers need to know to plant reverence where the bugs of casualness are wreaking havoc, or humility where the weeds of expressive-individualism threaten to choke out life.

Just as a gardener needs to understand the advantages and disadvantages of a given climate, so too should disciple-makers study a culture. And this well enough as to be able to challenge the idols of the day and affirm where the culture is true, good, and beautiful. In all of this, we plant and water with the sure hope that God will give the growth (1 Cor 3:6).


Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.


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