Taking the Long Road Home

HERE’S WHAT Slow Church is not: A how-to manual with five easy steps to make your congregation more thoughtful. A celebration of how using the word “community” often on your church website will multiply your pledge and attendance numbers. An ode to really, really long worship services.

Rather, Slow Church explores being church in a way that emphasizes deep engagement in local people and places, quality over quantity, and in all things taking the long view—understanding individuals and congregations as participants in the unfolding drama of all creation. Authors C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison are self-proclaimed “amateurs,” insofar as they are writers-editors and lay leaders, not professional pastors, theologians, or congregational consultants. But this book is richly informed by their experience in their own church contexts (Englewood Christian Church in a gritty neighborhood in Indianapolis for Smith; an evangelical Quaker meeting in small-town Oregon for Pattison), conversations with other church communities, and close reading of classic and contemporary literature on culture, Christian community, scripture, and spirituality.

The book’s name is a reference to the International Slow Food Movement, which resists the homogenizing and industrializing effects of globalization on food. Smith and Pattison cite sociologist George Ritzer’s argument that fast-food principles, what he calls “McDonaldization”—marked by efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control—are taking over broad areas of culture in the U.S. and beyond. The authors see McDonaldization affecting churches as well, as church-growth methods and the pace of consumer culture push congregations to seek faster gratification and achieve business-inflected benchmarks. Slow Church is an argument to return to the countercultural roots of the church, the ones that call it to be salt and leaven in the places it is planted. Smith and Pattison write:

The Slow Food Movement is fundamentally about the richness of a common life with the neighbors who grow our food, prepare our food, and share our food. Slow Church is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation, and an attentiveness to the world around us and the work God is doing in our very own neighborhoods.

Following a chapter offering their theological vision, the authors describe their proposal for the ethics, ecology, and economy for Slow Church. The main dimensions of the ethics are embracing the distinctiveness of your church’s geographic and cultural place; stability; and patience in terms of slowing down and entering into the suffering of others and the brokenness of your own community.

Smith and Pattison outline ecology in Slow Church terms as emphasizing God’s work to reconcile all things into wholeness (with an acknowledgement of all in ourselves and culture that tends toward fragmentation); work as an opportunity to participate in God’s reconciling mission; and the importance of sabbath as intentional space to recognize God’s gifts and presence. As they note, “we have to choose whether our approach to life will be primarily acquisitive or inquisitive; it can’t be both. Sabbath, celebrated as a corporate spiritual discipline in our families and churches, can help us choose the latter.”

Finally, the authors explore the ideals of a Slow Church economy, rooted in the reminder that God deals in abundance, not scarcity: “Scarcity is a pretender to the throne. The law of God’s household is life, not death; windfall, not shortfall; provision, not lack; and it is characterized by the radical immanence of God in the Spirit.” To live into this, the church needs three practices: gratitude, generosity, and hospitality.

For me, the strength of this book is in its consistent encouragement to reorient ourselves through prayer, scripture, and practice to God’s abundant gifts and wellspring of possibilities, even in broken places and circumstances. While the generative, imaginative space this creates doesn’t work miracles (remember, we’re talking slow) on tight church budgets, neighbors struggling with an exploitive landlord, or conflict in a community, it does open us up to material and spiritual resources we might otherwise overlook and remind us that transformation, though it may be a long time coming, is promised to us and all creation.

Slow Church includes stories from churches and communities putting these principles into practice, and implicitly and explicitly notes some of the flaws and cracks inevitable in any human endeavor (no matter how earnestly seeking God’s partnership). Still, this isn’t the book you’ll go to, for example, to troubleshoot why consensus decision-making isn’t working in your church, how to deal with burnout, or to get the full how-to on asset-mapping your neighborhood. But for inspiration you may find yourself returning to this gracefully written ode to God’s wonders close at hand, with its vision for individuals and faith communities to savor that goodness and more fully incarnate Christ’s love, wherever we have been called to be. 

Julie Polter is a senior associate editor of Sojourners.

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