Christopher Smith & John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014.
“How many kids are in your church/youth group?” An innocent enough question, but the most common, and often the only question I get asked. Apparently we have as a culture developed a significant and complex matrix of understanding that allows us to surmise the value of a ministry based solely on the number of attendants (indexed and actual). No, we don’t really, but in many ways we lack a good grasp of better questions to ask or better metrics to use. Slow Church is one of those books that takes a swing at this problem.
Taking their cue from the “Slow Food” movement, Smith and Pattison see the necessity of doing away with the glittering vices of shallow ministry and ecclesial goals: increasing numbers, tithes, and cultural homogeneity. Great! Sounds good already, right? Of course, Smith and Pattison are not the first to write a book about the subject (see: Renovation of the Church by Carlson and Lueken), and certainly not the first Christians to see these shallow ministry goals and practices as problematic. But many of us have trouble figuring out how to do otherwise, and sorting out the systemic levels of thought and practice that push us towards these goals in the first place. That’s the reason I picked this book up in the first place.
What they offer instead of a church-growth model are a set of beliefs, values, and practices that aim at what the authors deem to be truer to the Gospel and at the same time capable of replacing our mania for growth. The book is in a way a manifesto of values of the coming generations, waxing eloquently about ideals like: investing in the local community and heterogeneity. At the same time I think there’s a real spark here of systemic revolution like when they say this: “The extraordinary thing about Slow Church is how ordinary it is. Slow Church is just church—or it should be…What we’re advocating is that we live more deeply into the ordinary patterns of our lives, considering and talking with others in our church about how and why we do the things we do.” I like that.
I think the focus on the location of the church was the thing that sticks out to me the most. Besides the chapter explicitly on this subject, several of the other chapters come directly from this central idea, from discussions of hospitality to doing local and congregational history to using the resources of the church and its members to benefit the broader community. If we could fixate less on putting more bodies in the pews (and more cash in the collection trays) and start doing things like these then we can be confident that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, regardless of attendance.
Another thing that stuck with me is something I continually got hung-up on about the book. I called it a manifesto earlier because in so many ways it is just a mish-mash of really good-sounding things mixed together with a very one-sided and un-nuanced critique of the “bad guy” church-growth models. In this respect everything seemed so triumphalistic. As if by doing the things they suggest we do our church lives will enjoy unprecedented levels of serenity. As if mega-churches have no interest in deep discipleship and community benevolence.
I still think they’re right about their refocusing of values, their critique of church-growth models, and their desire to just “live into the ordinary patterns of our lives.” But, if I’m relying on this book alone, I’m not sure why. It doesn’t do enough to address the real systemic theological and sociological underpinnings of either the present state of affairs or the vision that they are advocating.
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)
Its ironic then that churches that pattern themselves on church growth models tend to resemble the mission stations McGavran so disapproved of. They are Christian colonies, safe havens in an otherwise hostile and foreign world. They become ends in themselves, often devoting an enormous amount of time, energy and money to finding just the right “ministry mix”—newer and bigger buildings, contemporary preaching, inspiring worship, abundant parking, excellent programs and a vibrant cell-group ministry—that will beef up attendance. (48-9)
Many churches have put down only shallow roots in their neighborhood, or no roots at all. We’ve all heard the question, “if our church suddenly moved to a new location fifteen miles away, would anyone in our neighborhood notice we were gone?” But what if we asked ourselves this question: “If our church was magically lifted off the ground and moved to a location fifteen miles away, would we notice the difference?” (67)
The church growth movement’s emphasis on homogeneity seems to imply that it sets its sights on something less than God’s reconciliation of all humanity and all creation (110)
Palmer has written extensively about clearness committees, which he says free us from the pretense that week now what is best for the other person and the arrogant assumption that we are obliged to “save” each other. (118)
[W]e might have to actually inhabit, engage and be present in order to bring justice to overwhelmingly large systems (quoting David Fitch, 122)
One of the primary functions of the ekklesia should be to help people discern their gifts, develop those gifts and exercise those gifts through cooperative work with God—whether that’s at home, in the church, in the community, in a job or as a volunteer. (134)
What if churches became clearinghouses for good work in our neighborhoods, facilitating connections between employers looking for good workers and good workers looking for good jobs? (136)
Sabbath is a way of slowing down and becoming attentive to the reconciling life of God in creation most immediately at hand, in all its complexity and particularity. It affirms work by keeping work in its proper bounds and reorienting it toward the glory of God. IT is also a way of reining in our consumptive desires and cultivating a spirit of gratitude. (149)
Churches that do have dedicated buildings should look to see if those facilities can be sold, rented or used more carefully throughout the week to generate economic activity. (170)
The pressing questions are these: Are we willing to creatively and faithfully plug in to the abundant economy of God? Will we submit the resources we have been given (as individuals and as church families) to the work of God’s kingdom? Are we being attentive to the gifts God has given us, not only in our congregations but also in our neighborhoods? (172)
Every Sunday night, we circle up the chairs in a multipurpose room and have an ongoing conversation about who we are in Christ and how we should share life together in our little corner of urban Indianapolis. (219)
At the end of the day I like Slow Church but I think the way it gets out is probably more like Ugly Church. Maybe that can be their sequel. I think doing these kinds of things are right, I just don’t think doing them will look or feel as amazing as the authors tend to construe them. Perhaps they don’t give us the deepest insight into the challenges that face us, but I think they point us in the right direction, and I think that churches that embrace this vision will stumble awkwardly into something more closely resembling the Kingdom of God.