SLOW CHURCH: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. By C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014. 246 pages.
The song goes like this: “Slow down, you move to fast, you’ve got to make the morning last . . .” The Simon and Garfunkel song celebrates having “fun and feeling groovy” (very 1960s), but perhaps it is a clarion call to our society, and to the church, which has embraced speed and efficiency. It’s not just fast food that we embrace; it’s speed in all its forms – especially its technological forms. The growing impatience that marks our culture is, as one would expect, making itself felt in the church. We need to get in and get out quickly, because we’ve got so much to do. The lure of the megachurch is due in part to this felt need for speed and efficiency. Turn off the freeway, turn right into the parking lot, get your spiritual tank filled up, and off you go.
I’m not a Ludite, so I welcome speed. I even am glad that there is such a thing as fast food; especially fast casual food (thank you Chipotles). That said, this book written by Chris Smith and John Pattison is a welcome reminder that a thriving Christian community requires that we stop and smell the roses. Their book, Slow Church, picks up on the emerging slow food movement, a movement that stresses local ingredients prepared carefully and slowly so that the flavors of the food can emerge. It is a response to the McDonaldization of the church, where community is sacrificed in the name of efficiency.
The authors of the book have emerged from congregations that have stressed community building. Chris is a member of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. This former megachurch in a declining urban context has found new life by stressing community and being present in the neighborhood. They have focused their attention on things like economic development and housing for the poor. John is the pastor of Silverton Friend’s Church, an evangelical congregation located in a small Oregon town lying at sufficient distance from the city of Salem to retain its own identity. I should note that the pastor of the Disciples’ church in Silverton is a good friend of mine – and the community dinner that his congregation hosts is highlighted in the book.
We have, by and large, last the vision of the neighborhood as parish. My own congregation, which moved from the city of Detroit over thirty years ago, draws its membership from a wide area and has struggled to find its place in the local community. But we’re not alone. To be a Slow Church, however, requires that we learn the benefits of being rooted in the community, to being a community presence.
The book begins by laying out a theological vision for the church. It is a theology that takes the long view. It draws on the love and patience of God, and by patience they mean something like “long suffering.” It stands, they suggest, in contrast to our culture’s cult of efficiency. Their theological vision embraces the idea of divine collaboration with humanity in the pursuit of reconciliation. This takes time. The heart of their vision, they declare, “is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called” (p. 34).
With this theological vision guiding their work, they lay out the book in three courses (remember that the metaphor is drawn from the slow food movement). The first course is ethics, or an embodied faith, and focuses on terrior, that is – tasting and seeing. As they put it – “you can’t franchise the kingdom of God.” While there are aspects of the kingdom found everywhere, the kingdom takes on a different flavor depending on its location, just as wine reflects the place in which the grapes are grown. There is much wisdom here, because we are continually bombarded with the message from the “church growth experts” who offer us one-size fits all programs that will grow our church. Perhaps that is not the way to go. From tasting and seeing, we move to stability – staying in one place, with loyalty to the community of faith and the community in which one lives. As one who has moved numerous times in life, I wrestle with this part of the story. Finally, they speak of patience, for building communities of trust takes time.
It is time to move to the second course, Ecology, which they understand to describe participating in the ministry of reconciliation. This course begins with an outline of what reconciliation means – wholeness. Being a Disciples of Christ pastor, this resonates with me, for we have envisioned ourselves as a faith community called to pursue wholeness in a fragmented world. In their discussion of wholeness, I especially appreciate the fact that the address nationalism. If reconciliation is the purpose of God, then that “leaves no room for nationalism” (p. 108). It also undermines the idea that we can be faithful to our calling and embrace the homogeneous principle espoused by the Church Growth Movement. To be faithful to Christ’s mission then the church must be open to all. This movement will also involve a new vision of work. Work is central to the human community, but our modern embrace of industrialization and mechanization has often led to soulless work. It’s not that work has to be fun, but because labor is central to the human experience, it mustn’t suck life out of us. If we are to talk about the importance of work, then we must also talk about the importance of Sabbath – the need to rest from our work so we have time to share life in community. Sabbath is important because it demands that we recognize our dependence on God. It is a moment to learn to trust. Slow church requires Sabbath!
The third course, speaks of economy, which involves recognizing the abundance of God, and sharing equally in it. In this third course, we begin by exploring what this idea of abundance means. It means that due to God’s provisions we needn’t live with an attitude of scarcity. Unfortunately, our capitalist economy is rooted in the idea that there is a scarcity of resources, and thus we must hoard and use whatever is present, unwilling to share with others, lest we not have enough. Acknowledging abundance, however, leads to gratitude, and then to generosity and hospitality. Community life depends on gratitude, for with gratitude comes joy. Gratitude is present when we recognize the many gifts – including the people – to be found in our communities. Of course, it takes time and conversation to discern these gifts. Gratitude leads to hospitality, and hospitality is more than simply offering a nice meal (or coffee hour). It is an attitude of openness to the other. It is the attitude that allows one to welcome the stranger. Remember the message of Matthew 25 – even as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
The book closes with a chapter on sharing meals together. The purpose of this chapter is to remind us that conversations often take place over meals. They don’t have to be fancy, but they become the foundation for building trust. And that’s the point. The value of moving to this Slow Church movement is to find ways of building communities where trust is present. Why is this important? Well look around. It is said by many that one of the reasons why there is so much polarization on Capitol Hill is that no one socializes any more. They don’t know each other. Is this not true in the church? And it’s not just true in big churches. Even in small churches our circles of conversation can be extremely small. But if we’re to move toward consensus decision making, then learning to have conversations that are open and trusting is important. Indeed, very important because there are life and death issues at hand that need our attention, but if we don’t trust each other we’ll not be able to do this work.
The authors have offered us a vision of the church that they claim isn’t a utopian one. It’s not an unattainable goal. It will take great effort. It will take time. But if we’ll slow down, be patient, have conversation, then the work of reconciliation that God in Christ is intent upon pursuing can begin to bind the wounds and build the relationships that are often broken. And this is done for the glory of God who has reached out to us in Christ.
This book is a gift to the church. It is thoughtfully written. It is theologically engaged. It is open to new visions. It points us forward in a new direction. You don’t have to feel guilt about stopping at McDonalds. It has its place, I suppose (I go there on occasion), but there is more to food than fast food. There is more to church than fast and efficient church. There is a place for the Slow Church where community is built, lives are transformed, and God is encountered and glorified. So, take and read and you will be blessed.