The ‘terroir’ of church

September 23, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 19
Troy Watson |

During our 13 years in Niagara, my wife and I grew to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the winemaking process. Wine is fascinating to me. So is its intimate connection with the Christian faith. Consider how significant Jesus made wine to our understanding of redemption.

Jesus’ constant use of earthy images and metaphors to communicate spiritual wisdom is so effective because he typically doesn’t teach with words only. Instead, he creates experiences. At the Last Supper, Jesus engaged all the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. He used two of the most enjoyable aromas and tastes on earth—freshly baked bread and a freshly opened vessel of red wine—to teach his disciples about the transformative power of God’s sacrificial love and his abiding presence with us.

Visiting farms, orchards, wineries and vineyards is more than an agricultural tour for me; it is a window into the divine design of creation. I remember visiting a small winery called Coyote’s Run in Niagara, where the vintner introduced me to the significance of “terroir” to the taste of wine. “Terroir” literally means earth or soil, but it has come to mean more than that in the winemaking world. It refers to “the specificity of place,” including the soil, climate and exposure to sun—anything that makes that particular vineyard unique.

She poured me two glasses of Pinot Noir, a Red Paw and a Black Paw, then asked me to taste them and describe the differences. She explained that the two wines were exactly the same, with one exception. The Red Paw was made from grapes in a vineyard with red soil and the Black Paw from a vineyard next to it with black soil. Other than that, the wines were identical. I was amazed I could taste a difference.

“The difference you are tasting is terroir,” she said. “That is how important soil is to the essence of the wine.”

I immediately thought of the church. How important is terroir to who we are and what we do as faith communities?

C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church, write about the many parallels between the agricultural industry and church today. For example, the small family farm is quickly becoming a thing of the past. You have to go big to stay sustainable. More than this, modern farming has imposed a mechanistic mindset on the biological world. Current agricultural practices feed plants from the top, spraying fertilizer from above, whereas nature feeds plants from the bottom up. Research demonstrates these modern fertilizing practices are killing the soil, destroying the bacteria that naturally replace nutrients in the ground.

Smith and Pattison claim that these same trends are hurting the church. Small churches, like small farms, are slowly fading into extinction. Most “growing” churches have adopted modern agricultural attitudes, imposing a mechanistic mindset on the living organism of the body of Christ:

  • We don’t develop worship music from our own “soil”; instead, we import it from songwriting “factories” in major cities in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.
  • We don’t develop our own ministries and ways of connecting with our community; we import programs perfected by suburban mega-churches.
  • We don’t develop theology and teaching from our local experience of God in our midst; we import theology from our denominational headquarters or the most influential communicators on faith in the world.

Very little in local churches comes from the bottom up, from the soil of our own community.

Pattison and Smith believe it’s time we learn from the “slow-food” movement. “The ‘slow-food’ movement is fundamentally about the richness of a common life with the neighbours who grow our food, prepare our food and share our food,” they write, believing it’s time for “slow church.”

Slow church is essentially a call to pay attention to, and participate in, what God is doing in our own faith community and in our surrounding neighbourhoods. It is about honouring the terroir—or specificity of the place we find ourselves. Where fast-food church is governed by predictability, efficiency, calculability and control, slow church is focussed on quality, uniqueness, local relationships, patience, wholeness, indigenous worship, incarnational presence and hospitality.

Pattison and Smith don’t introduce anything new or groundbreaking in Slow Church, but it’s a good reminder of how incredibly important terroir is to the essence and future of the local body of Christ.

Troy Watson ( is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

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