A challenging, refreshing alternative to mass market faith
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
Authors: C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Being in the wrong church can be like being in the wrong job. Those in leadership may point toward the door. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. At times that may be necessary, but the top-down approach, which mirrors what you find in the business world, troubles me.
Jesus made time for people. Oswald Chambers identified that as the mark of a truly spiritual person. If nothing else, Slow Church moves Christians who comprise the church in that direction and this alone makes the book praiseworthy.
Just the title, Slow Church, is appealing in a society that prizes speed and activity. Programs are the order of the day, and if I can’t find a place, there must be something wrong with me. Again, it’s get with the agenda or be held in low regard.
I’m not against efficiency. There is much to do, the work vital and little time. But when achieving becomes all-consuming, people can become a casualty, more like role players than individuals with unique contributions to make.
I’m not pointing the finger at my church or any other. It’s just something I have observed in a variety of settings.
These types of experiences are what make Slow Church challenging and appealing. It’s the opposite of “franchise faith.” Franchises are all about standardizing to achieve quantifiable results.
The authors of Slow Church point out that “the North American church seems to be just as susceptible as the rest of the culture to the allure of fast life, or what the sociologist George Ritzer has termed ‘McDonaldization’—that is, ‘the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’” (13). Ritzer identified four characteristics of this trend: efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control.
Throughout the book, I like how the authors provide the history of how these and related ideas developed and became pervasive. Their inspiration, language and philosophy come in part from the Slow Food Movement. They write, “Just as Slow Food offers a pointed critique of industrialized food cultures and agricultures, Slow Church can help us unmask and repent of our industrialized and McDonaldized approaches to church” (15).
Their vision is the antithesis of the seeker-friendly church growth model: “The primary work of Slow Church is not attracting people to our church buildings, but rather cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (33).
Slow Church seeks to be as Christ in neighborhoods, communities and the larger world. It sees the interconnectedness of all things. God is not just reconciling individuals but all of creation.
The desire to establish justice in every sphere is almost like a reaction against an industrialized faith that concerns itself with saving souls but may be less attentive to righting wrongs. It reminds me of the apostle Paul recalling the admonition given him by leaders of the early church, “They asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10 ESV).
My pastor once noted that churches often gravitate to one of two extremes. On the one hand, you have churches that are strong in evangelism. Others major in social justice issues. One challenge is to recognize the validity of both while holding them in balance. In addition to sharing the gospel, Paul was eager to help the poor.
In seeking to make the world better through following the way of Christ, Slow Church is counter-cultural, which is a form of evangelism. Here in the US that may be an essential component, given that our society is less responsive to words only. People want to see a difference, an embodiment of the gospel, which is what Slow Church is all about. Even so, it’s important that the good news of Jesus Christ be articulated in words so that people can experience salvation and not just be inspired by an example.
A. W. Tozer once decried a lack of urgency in the Church. It is conceivable that Slow Church, which is long-term oriented and favors the practice of dialogue, might not move as quickly as those who believe the time is short. Giving everyone a say can be time-consuming and tedious. Even though Christians differ on eschatology, there does not need to be a contradiction between urgency and furthering justice. We can look to the Head of the Church to help us hold the two in balance.
Even though some aspects of Slow Church may not be for everyone, there is a wealth of wisdom here to consider. Chapters toward the end on work, gratitude and hospitality can be liberating for both individuals and communities.
When worldly ways infect the Church, it falls short of what God intends and can become dehumanizing. Slow Church is strong on community and makes time for people. This is a real challenge to individualized, consumer-oriented Christianity. I find much to applaud in this alternative, even though the paths presented our difficult when we must act contrary to inclinations and a culture that is achievement-oriented.
C. Christopher Smith is the editor of Englewood Review of Books, a quarterly print magazine that I enjoy. Each issue is in harmony with the principles in this book. It serves in part as an extension of the dialogue found on these pages. Those who want to join the conversation can subscribe at subscriptions.englewoodreview.org.