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Last year in this very season, after moving to Roanoke and collapsing the last box, our family began the dreaded work of finding a new church home. Most people call this process “church shopping,” and I would have used this term, too, except that I’d done enough “church shopping” over the past years and many moves, and knew “shopping” was not a helpful attitude to engage when trying to connect with the local body of Christ. Shopping requires a self-centered, consumer mentality. It is consumerism. Belonging to a local church is anything but—at least it should be.
Because of some of our experiences with past congregations, we knew it was time to think differently about church and our role within it. Our younger selves would have been searching for a church with “relevant” teaching, loaded worship time, amazing (and lots of) programs (especially for kids), and an attractive (read: sexy) vision statement—with no real regard to the church’s distance from our home, justifying the drive time for the awesomeness of the church. Six years and dozens of programs, Sunday morning concerts, spiritual gifting tests, leadership meetings, and 6-week relevant sermon series later…well, let’s just say our prayers for where we should belong in Roanoke looked more like: Please, Lord, let it be a small, slow-moving congregation, without many programs, close to our home. J
Enter in the primary premise of C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s newly released book: Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP Books). Slow Church is a philosophy inspired by the Slow Food Movement—an international resistance against fast life and the way it has infiltrated itself into our experience with food and local economy. As the Slow Food movement is committed to absolute investment in local farmers and local resources, Slow Church is committed to “reimagining what it means to be communities of believers gathered and rooted in particular places at a particular time.”
True to its roots, the book expresses itself slowly and with deep purpose. Rather than splatter a hundred ideas that can be packaged, presented, and then recreated in any congregational setting (a strategy that would surely give the authors hives), Smith and Pattison seek to open a conversation for how local communities of believers can and should be a part of God’s work specific to the time and place in which they live.
There was much I appreciated about Slow Church. The language, imagery, beauty, and depth of quotes from other saints through the ages alone made the book worth reading. But there is much more here than beautiful words: Smith and Pattison challenge me to re-examine how faithful I am to the little things and the least of these—namely, my faithfulness to entering into the work of Christ in the immediate time and place in which I dwell. It is a call for American Christians to re-examine the ways in which we have drifted from a community of believers patiently and sacrificially committed to one another despite differences and difficulties, to becoming embedded in the consumer-driven, “McDonaldization,” me-first mindset of the modern western culture in which we live.
No aspect of living goes unexamined in Slow Church. The authors carefully present readers with three “courses”—not the kind you take at University, rather the kind you experience at the table of a feast. The first course’s theme is Ethics—tasting and seeing the uniqueness of the local church in which one belongs, committing to becoming a stable force within that community, and patiently entering into the suffering of others as a primary means to expressing that fidelity. The second course is on Ecology—God’s reconciling work of all things, our responsibility as local congregations to enter into this reconciling work, and recognizing the rhythms of work and Sabbath. And finally, the third course: Economy—living according to God’s model of abundance (rather than the world’s model of scarcity), receiving what He has already graciously given, generously sharing God’s abundance with others—namely those within our immediate community, and shared meals as a primary way of “being church.” Each chapter ends with “conversation starters”—questions meant to open dialog for local congregants reading the book together.
While I highlighted and made notes of so many worthy ideas, quotes, and considerations throughout its pages (my favorite chapters being on work, Sabbath, and God’s Economy of Abundance), Slow Church did leave me with one unanswered question and a critique. Throughout the book, the authors continually use the word reconciliation as the impetus for Slow Church. They even devote an entire chapter to the topic (chapter 5), which they entitle “Wholeness—The Reconciliation of All Things.” But by the end of the book, I was still not absolutely clear as to what this term “reconciliation” means. Because this term is: a) one with deep theological implications depending on how it is interpreted, and, b) so central to the authors’ Slow Church philosophy, I would have appreciated a deeper discourse on their understanding of reconciliation apart from its relationship to doing church slowly.
Finally, while I could personally relate to much of what the authors shared about the “McDonaldization” of the American Church, the term became tired by the second half of the book. Furthermore, I found some of their criticisms harsh. I know plenty of Christians very concerned about the environment and committed to issues of ecology, whether or not we think it will “all burn in the end anyway.” Nor have I experienced a congregation that only invests in missions and ministries that are likely to succeed, or that do not extend hospitality to any particular group of people because of their skin color, socio-economic class, or even sexual orientation.
Despite these concerns, I have gleaned much from reading Slow Church. Smith and Pattison, through their writing and their lives, offer Christians some extraordinary ideas that are, in their own words, truly just ordinary. Ordinary living done with consideration for the why and the how, and embedded within the time, place, and community in which we live. Truly these ordinary ideas are worth our considering as we seek to be the body of Christ in these post-modern times.
Click here to join with Chris and John as they continue the Slow Church conversation.