IN SPRING 1986, a group of Italian activists led by Carlo Petrini launched a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. This protest marked the origin of the Slow Food movement, which has spread over the last 26 years to more than 150 countries.
Following this Slow Food effort came a host of other Slow movements—Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Money, and more—that collectively raise opposition to the speed and industrialization of Western culture. Slow movements are beginning to recover what we have lost in our relentless pursuit of efficiency. Many Christians have been challenged by these Slow movements to consider the ways in which our faith has begun to move too fast as we make sacrifices to the gods of efficiency.
This quest has sparked a renewed interest in the joys of sharing life together in local congregations and has intensified into a growing conversation—rather than a movement—called Slow Church. Slowness itself is not a cardinal virtue of Slow Church, but rather a means of resisting the present-day powers of speed in order to be faithful church communities.
The biblical vision of God’s mission in the world is God’s reconciliation of all creation (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-23 and Isaiah 65:17-25). But too often we narrow the scope of our faith and ignore the massive damage that incurs. Some Christians reduce the faith to four easy steps to stay out of hell, others to a set of techniques for growing a large church, and still others to a political ideology (of the Right or the Left). Christianity has also been reduced by some to a feel-good spirituality that has little or no bearing on the rest of our lives or in the public square.
Slow Church places value on local congregations and recognizes that our Western preference for individualized faith, over and against faith communities, is one of the shortcuts that has been taken as the Christian faith has accelerated over the course of the modern era. We prefer to act as autonomous individuals or, on the other extreme, to work for justice on the largest global scale possible. Of course, we should desire God’s reconciliation in all parts of creation, but if we can’t love and be reconciled with our brothers and sisters that God has given us in our local congregation, how can we expect to love people in other places around the globe in deep and sustainable ways? The local church is the crucible in which God forges us slowly—and often painfully—into the shalom of reconciliation intended for all creation.
A GOOD DEAL of synergy exists between the “new monasticism” movement and the Slow Church conversation. Many of the 12 characteristics that define new monasticism are pillars of the Slow Church conversation, including geographical proximity, intentional formation in the way of Christ, supporting local economies, and a disciplined contemplative life. There are many parts of this conversation, but three major streams stand out: ethics, ecology, and economy.
ETHICS. The Slow Church emphasis on ethics focuses on recovering the joys and goodness of Christian faithfulness in a local church community. These joys include stability in a place, the familial community that we have been given in the local church, the bearing of each other’s burdens, and the goodness of work in a labor-saving world inclined to avoid toil and suffering. Gerhard Lohfink has noted the evangelistic function of joy in our life together: “[In this world,] joy in God’s story is ultimately stronger than all inertia and greed, so that this joy continually seizes people and gathers them into the people of God.” Slow Church aims to recover the gospel of Jesus as a message that is not a religious burden, but rather—in a deep and everyday fashion—is truly good news.
ECOLOGY. By focusing on ecology, the Slow Church conversation remembers that humankind is part of an interconnected creation that God is at work reconciling. Modern science—and particularly physics and ecology—is beginning to reveal how deeply interconnected and interdependent the world is. Similarly, farmers such as Wendell Berry and Sir Albert Howard have reminded us how intertwined human life and health is with that of the soil on which we walk. As part of God’s creation, we must be attentive to the ways in which our actions might produce unintended consequences, and thus learn to act patiently and humbly in ways that fit the ends of reconciliation for which we long. One key part of this work is naming the powers (for example, individualism, nationalism, and consumerism) that serve to fragment and isolate us from humanity and other parts of creation. As part of our efforts to live within the ecology of God’s creation, we also learn to submit to the Sabbath rhythms of work and rest that God intends for the health and well-being of creation.
ECONOMY. The Slow Church economy is also rooted in God’s abundant provision for creation. As Walter Brueggemann and others have observed, the myth of scarcity that undergirds all major economic systems is useful for protecting the interests of the rich and powerful, but it does not fit with the biblical vision of the economy of creation, in which the fullness of creation belongs to and is sustained by God. Our faithful action within this economy is to respond to God’s abundant generosity, first with gratitude and then with goodness and hospitality toward others. Additionally, as social philosophers Ivan Illich and John McKnight have argued, it is essential that we come to see all people—and especially those within our local congregations—as gifts from God and thus as having a broad range of skills and talents that are beneficial to the reconciling work that God desires in our places.
At my home church, Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, as we began to slow down our life together, we became deeply aware of the uniqueness not only of our particular church but also of other places. Almost everything we do as a church—from running daycare to fixing up houses to selling books—is the result of particular people in our congregation who have the gifts and skills to coordinate that specific kind of work. We’ve become resistant to one-size-fits-all church programs, and we are learning to see everyone—our members; our neighbors (some of whom have mental illnesses or other severe challenges); visitors from other churches; people of different ages, faiths, economic status, etc.—as unique gifts from God. Every place is distinctive, and we believe that God gathers and connects people with particular skills that function together to embody Christ in a way that the neighbors of that place can understand.
THERE ARE several groups whose work is driving this conversation about Slow Church. Perhaps foremost is the Ekklesia Project, which has existed for more than a decade and whose primary objective is to celebrate and nurture the work that God is doing in local church communities. The talks given at its recent conference, called “Slow Church: Abiding Together in the Patient Work of God,” critiqued the speed and inattentiveness of our lives and challenged participants to immerse themselves in the work God is doing in their local churches. One session featured a dialogue between theologian Stanley Hauerwas and noted pastor and writer Kyle Childress, one of the first people to use the term Slow Church. In the course of this conversation, Hauerwas described the essence of Slow Church by emphasizing philosopher Paul Virilio’s notion that speed is violence and defined the call of local church communities to be “islands of patience in a world of speed.”
The Parish Collective is another group helping to shape the Slow Church conversation. The Parish Collective acquaints churches and other faith-based groups with the tools of community organizing and community development. The main thrust of its work is twofold: helping churches to slow down and cultivate faithful presence in their places, and fostering parish renewal— a vibrant local, public life energized but not controlled by churches. Co-founders Tim Soerens and Paul Sparks note that their work is timely and well-received. “There is so much change happening—politically, economically, socially, civically, environmentally,” says Soerens. “I think the more we lean into the reality of globalization, the deeper our longing becomes for home and a sense of stability.”
To call Slow Church a conversation is to recognize that dialogue is essential to progress toward the ethical, ecological, and economic life that it imagines. As we are regularly reminded in today’s deeply partisan political climate, meaningful conversation is hard to find. At Englewood, we are learning to listen to and converse freely with one another—within our church community, with our neighbors, and with others. As we learn to open ourselves up to one another in conversation, we find joy and grow deeper into the interconnected life that God intends for creation. We come to know others as gifts from God and learn to trust each other even when there is sharp disagreement. We’re finding that our practices of conversation are beneficial not only to us, but also to stir the imaginations of others who desire flourishing places—in our community and beyond.
Many people have a deep sense of the brokenness of the modern world. The Slow Church conversation is marked by the hope that God is at work healing and transforming creation. By being deeply rooted in our local churches, by seeking first the health and flourishing of our places, and by being linked with others who are doing the same in their places, our lives will bring forth the reconciling fruit of God’s Spirit. Many of the world’s injustices are rooted in unhealthy desires that plague all humanity: selfishness, greed, jealousy, impatience, etc. The Slow Church vision is to create spaces in our local churches where we can begin working honestly and gently through these desires. I am hopeful that as we do so, we will find the reconciling and transforming shalom of God sweeping through the streets of our neighborhoods and the byways of our nation.
C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author (with John Pattison) of the forthcoming book Slow Church (InterVarsity Press, 2013). Smith and Pattison blog at SlowChurch.com.