You are NOT a Machine: Post-Industrial Discipleship



In Willy Nelson’s brilliant rendition of Coldplay’s “Back To The Start” (graphically narrated by Johnny Kelly and brilliantly employed by Chipotle) we are introduced to the concept that has become part of society’s collective consciousness as we move away from the apex of industrial society, increasingly wary of its negative effects.

“The film, by film-maker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.” (From the YouTube description)

Specifically related to food production, North Americans are increasingly aware and alarmed by how industrialization has coopted agriculture to the point where food is genetically engineered, chemically induced and artificially flavored.

This pervasive phenomenon has extended itself to the church and has extensively infected our thinking.  Specifically, it has created an industrial view of discipleship.  In fact, I have come to believe that this is one of the biggest problems facing the church and why our (industrialized) discipleship models are failing.  Even when we seek to solve our discipleship problems, we end up using re-engineered models based on previously held and universally accepted industrial paradigms because they have so infected our consciousness.  We can simplify things, we can created better programs at different times with creative graphics and materials, but if these are all created under the same industrial metaphors and paradigms of an industrial model of thinking, they will continue to lead us in unhealthy directions.  As Albert Einstein famously said:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Before the church begins to rethink its discipleship models, it must recognize the fundamental and effectual nature of our pervasive industrial metaphors, language and methodologies that frame many of our concepts.  In a beginning attempt to critically reflect on our industrial paradigms, I want to suggest four (garden) stakes of Post-Industrial Discipleship (Note: These stakes are not intended to be comprehensive and others are welcome).

Four Stakes of Post-Industrialized Discipleship

Efficiency does NOT Equal Effectiveness

A core tenant of industrialism is the elevation of efficiency.  In industrialization, the goal is to create something in less time with less effort (efficiency).  This thinking has seeped into the DNA of the Church through our discipleship models and methodologies.  The goal of our industrialized discipleship ‘processes’ is to make disciples with the least amount of effort, cost and time (evaluated with similar metrics as a factory).

But what if discipleship was viewed through the lens of a pre-industrial agricultural paradigm, the dominant metaphors and paradigm Jesus used, void of industrial baggage?  What if we viewed discipleship as something that is often completely inefficient and in that inefficiency, it finds its effectiveness?

An example of this is found in “spiritual disciplines.”  Spiritual disciplines were understood for centuries as key practices for Christians and a means to grow in devotion and maturity in Christ.  A tenant of spiritual disciplines is found in the world “discipline,” implying continual practice and focus even when it is not efficient.  It is not a coincidence that spiritual disciplines have become less understood and practiced in our industrialized discipleship models.

The same principles that govern success in a factory should NOT govern success in a church or in a believer’s life.  We are not machines!  The church is not a factory for making machines!  Jesus used pre-industrial agricultural images such as vine, branches, soul, seeds, etc. because they communicated something about discipleship.  As a result, we must begin to increasingly recognize the inefficiency that is inherent in disciple making and reject the paradigms that trumpet efficiency as effectiveness.

Pastors are NOT Factory Managers and the Church is NOT a Discipleship Factory

The role of the pastor has been an increasing topic of conversation and debate in church circles.  Questions of what the pastor is called to do and whether this lines up with the North American church’s practice are commonplace.

I would like to suggest that the role of pastor has also been coopted by our industrialized metaphors.  The pastor’s role has radically changed in the last fifty years.  As churches have grown in size, scale and functionality so too has the pastor’s job description.  There was a time where a pastor’s role would have been analogous to a farm hand.  Using the metaphor of a farm, the pastor would have worked the fields, planted, harvested, and would have served the Good Gardener (Jesus who is the head of the Church).  Or using shepherd language, the pastor is a shepherd of a flock following together the Good Shepherd (Jesus who is the head of the Church).

As culture has moved further into industrialization, the role of pastor has also evolved.  The common contemporary pastor’s job description would be analogous now to that of a factory manager, making sure the machine is running and that profits are being made.  I am in no way trying to be draconian here, just making an observation based on cultural changes and the impact of industrial metaphors and influences.

100% Organic and Natural Discipleship

As we move past the apex of industrialization in our agricultural environments, we have begun to see an increased desire and push towards things being 100% Organic and Natural in our grocery store’s produce aisles.  Just as the Chipotle video demonstrates, people want to go back to the start and eat foods that are pesticide free, unaltered genetically and grown sustainably.  Notwithstanding the benefits of industrialization on agriculture (which also exist), the impact of the industrialization on our consciousness is demonstrated in and through our discipleship vernacular.

Recently, I’ve seen several discipleship seminars/books/articles using the word “greenhouse,” describing how our churches need to be “greenhouses for disciples.”  On the surface, this sounds good but consider the industrialization language/paradigm it employs and the resulting effects. A greenhouse’s very purpose is to shelter plants, specifically seedlings, from nature’s elements (storms, pests, diseases, etc.) protecting them until they are mature enough to be planted in the “natural” environment.  Although this may sounds noble, could this philosophy be part of the problem with our current discipleship models and paradigms?  Should we be sheltering people from culture, friends, information, etc. as they grow in their faith?  Should we be protecting them from potentially negative influences or is nature’s environment part of the maturing process?  Is our sheltering of them during their maturity process doing more harm than good?  Are our churches filled with people suffering from “Greenhouse Disease” (The phenomena of “Greenhouse Disease” exists in agriculture, stemming from a large population of one plan in a confined location)?

I think we see this manifested in how we have, over the last couple decades, separated evangelism from discipleship.  We have come to believe in the compartmentalized idea that if we disciple people (note that most people wrongly assume this solely means educate) then they will, as a result, go and evangelize (share their faith) with others.  In other words, if we keep believers in the greenhouse, they will eventually decided to go out into the elements thriving and reproducing as a natural progression in their maturity.  This, I believe, is false!  Instead, what if this mentality is the problem?  What if the world, with its spiritual storms, pest and diseases, etc.), is part of the maturing process?  What if evangelism, sharing one’s faith, wasn’t the result of growing in your relationship with Christ but a key and foundational part of this process?  What if, by keeping new Christians confined in an artificial environment, we infect them with “Christian Greenhouse Disease?”

The church must begin to critically reflect on its discipleship language and metaphors and begin to shift towards discipleship that is 100% Organic and Natural, void of artificiality.  Although this process may be messy and exist outside the greenhouse, this might actually be the fertile ground disciples are grown and matured.

Uniformity and Yield are NOT Goals to be Sought

With the apex of industrialization, particularly in the area of agriculture, two goals emerged: uniformity and yield.  To be efficient and increasingly profitable, the crop produced must have a high yield and must be as uniform as possible to increase the efficiency of the machines involved in harvest and the process of shipping.  This is evidenced in a recent LA Times article that reports genetically tomatoes are lacking in flavor because of the increased value of uniformity. (My favorite quote in the article: “’If I see this tomato is not uniformly ripe, that means that it’s not the cardboard junk that they’ve been producing for the past 30 years,’ Klee said.  ‘It’s almost like a badge of honor.’”  There are so many connections to our uniform discipleship models in this statement.)

This mentality has influenced the church when it comes to discipleship.  The bigger a church gets, the more complex the discipleship process and the more it has to be based upon the two values/goals of industrialization: yield and uniformity.  As a result, people have become caught in the cogs of our programs that have served to create a one-size-fits-all discipleship process.  We have created processes and models under the influence of industrialization to the place where people are forced into uniformity, even if it means they lose their taste and uniqueness (or as Jesus said in Matthew 5: salt and light).  Additionally, we evaluate the success of our programs and methodologies based on industrialized goals of increased yield.  In other words, the more people attending a program, activity, or event the more successful it must have been.

Moving forward, we need to recognize our tendency toward the values of uniformity and yield in our industrial paradigms, seeking to allow for diversity and uniqueness in the lives of people and their relationships with Christ.  People will learn differently, connect with God in different ways, and live out their faith with uniqueness.  All of which is not a sign of disorganization or failure, but a sign of God’s creative genius.


When it comes to discipleship, we need to “get back to the start!”  We need to recognize the impact our industrialized metaphors have had on our discipleship concepts and reawaken the pre-industrial organic metaphor of ‘growth’ within our mechanistically mastered methodologies of ‘make.’  We are not machines, created by a factory in order to create more machines.  We are relational beings, created by a relational God, created for relationship with God and others.  Our discipleship concepts and understandings must reflect this reality.

We must get back to the start!


9 Responses so far.

  1. Vince says:

    This definitely helps me wrestle with the pre industrial interpretations of the use of “μαθητευσατε” in Mt 28:19. My struggle is no longer the verb and it’s usage, but now rather the assumptions of the mind set, the container if you will, or the frame of our thoughts that keep us from a relational context this command gives. They’re not widgets to “make” but dearly loved people. The imperative shifts from “teach” to “relate” in proper alignment.

    Thank you for posting, and thank you Dr. Sweet for tweeting.

    Vincent Hart
    Round Rock, TX

  2. Thanks, Vincent! The challenge with the word “make” in the great commission is that we have industrial baggage that clouds the concept and muddies the English word. Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement!

  3. KM says:

    Thanks for this article. Will share.

    In the section “Pastors are not factory managers” — did you mean to type “the pastor would have worked the fields, planted, harvested, and would have _served_ the Good Gardener”? It would fit the sentence better than “severed.”

    I’ve been part of an denomination that started using the motto “Unity in Diversity” about a decade and a half ago. Unfortunately the org practice didn’t match the motto: the “in Diversity” got dropped and unity morphed into uniformity and conformity. We have suffered greatly as a result.

    Yet one of the reasons this sort of thing persists regardless of outcomes is that it’s motivated by deeply rooted values. We can be concerned about the practices of industrialism, but maybe we should also re-consider the ideals and values — philosophical and religious — that motivate and sustain it.

    For instance, my denomination may not ever shake the presumption that being aligned with God means being in doctrinal/lifestyle lockstep with peer members. But until it does shake that presumption it’ll have no motivation to respect member variations or see them as part of “God’s creative genius.”

    • Thanks for the heads up on the typo:)

      In terms of your thoughts, I think the “Unity in Diversity” challenge is one denominations struggle with as they move away from a Movement and slide towards Institutionalism. In a movement, people are drawn together for a common purpose, mission and creed highlighting what brings them together for that commonality. As they grow and become institutionalized, the common purpose, mission and creed get lost from collective consciousness and a survival mentality sets in. This is the challenge with every organization as it evolves from a movement to self-preservation.

      Good thoughts.

  4. RD Rauser says:

    Good thoughts Bryce.

    One of the ironies in the whole discussion of efficiency is that it turns out that the most efficient means of food production (i.e. industrial farms) are not that efficient after all. They’re toxic to the environment, they destroy any quality of life for animals, they steamroll workers’ rights and produce dangerous, demoralizing and disheartening employment, and they produce food which is lower in nutrition and sometimes even deadly (as with BSE).

    I propose the problem is not efficiency per se (that is, the means) but rather the end goals that we seek to attain. Thus, food production need not reject efficiency. Instead, it needs to expand the set of end goals for food production to include concern for nutrition, animal quality of life, worker safety and satisfaction, benefit for environment (and taste!). When all those criteria are added in to supplement the current monolithic corporate focus on cost, then the most efficient means to achieve those varied goals will look very different.

    The same goes for discipleship and the other tasks of the church. One could argue that here too the problem is not efficiency per se but rather an impoverished set of end goals. When we have a broadened vision of the church’s missio dei and God’s redemptive plan for his entire creation, the most efficient means to attain the goals will look very different.

    • Thanks for your challenge and thoughts on this topic. I knew I could count on you to push the conversation along:)

      I think I agree with you but wonder if the challenge still remains that efficiency has become the end goal in Industrialization and, correspondingly, our view of discipleship. I agree that efficiency is not bad as a means but the problem is that we have elevated it to the end. In many ways, I am attempting to calling that out and trying to seek a way forward that is critically aware of how pervasive industrialized paradigms and metaphors have become and how they have affected our discipleship models and methodologies.

    • RD Rauser says:

      For all practical purposes we’re in agreement. But here’s a concrete example as to where we might differ in description of an action if not the action itself:

      I once heard it said that Luther declared if Jesus were coming back tomorrow he’d plant a tree today. I haven’t been able to locate that quote (I looked in the Table Talk, but not closely I must admit). However, whether or not Luther really said it, we can think about the attitude it expresses.

      At first blush this idea of planting a tree with the second coming imminent seems terriby inefficient, even scandalous. But what if we believed that Christ is restoring his creation as Romans 8:19-21 promises? In that case, planting a tree might seem to be a prophetic, anticipatory act of the coming kingdom. And thus taking the time to plant a tree could actually be an efficient use of the day before Jesus comes back.

  5. Ken DeMaere says:

    Thanks Bryce. We do walk an interesting balance between best production and not messing with what is good. It is true in Discipleship, in getting along as the body of Christ, and even connecting as people one to one. Good thinking. Thanks

    • Thanks, Ken. I am, increasingly, aware of the pervasiveness of industrialized language, metaphors and paradigms in our discipleship conversations and methodologies. I wonder how much our paradigms have effected how we think about it and if that kind of thinking is part of the problem.

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