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C. Christopher Smith on the Slow Church Movement

By Ken Wytsma

C. Christopher Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. He is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. He is currently finalizing a book with the tentative title Reading for the Common Good.

KW: What was the inspiration behind starting the Slow Church movement?

CS: My co-author (John Pattison) and I were fascinated by the Slow Food Movement and other Slow movements that have arisen in its wake over the last 30 years. Slow Food works to promote top quality, local and organic foods, but on a deeper level their aim is building community. This community-building takes shape in many ways, but especially the sorts of bonds that are formed as people come to know the farmers who grow their food, and also the community of the table that is nurtured as we share good food together with families, friends and/or neighbors, food that is worth lingering over and having conversations over. This emphasis on community resonated with the call for our churches to be communities of God’s people, a call that is too often minimized amidst the individualism of our day. I should add that we very intentionally close the name “Slow Church” – and not “Slow Christianity” or “Slow Religion” or “Slow Faith” – to emphasize that our call to community is at the very heart of the Gospel, and that in the overwhelming individualism of today, the call to focus on being the church, is its own sort of slowness and messiness.

KW: How do you think the church today exhibits the 4 aspects of McDonaldization? (Efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control)

CS: Here are a few ways in which these aspects manifest themselves, but I would challenge readers to ask themselves how their own churches have been overly enamored with these values of McDonaldization.

  • The Individualization of the Gospel. Reducing the gospel to a story about Jesus and me. This shift is especially driven by the desire for control and for efficiency – i.e., you don’t have to have the messiness of having your faith bound up with that of other broken human beings.
  • Overemphasis on the Worship Service in the Life of the Church. In most settings, it’s easy to control what goes on in the service, and to a lesser extent to predict what people will walk away from it with. In contrast, it’s much harder to control all the sorts of interactions that take place as the church disperses and embodies its faith in homes and schools and workplaces throughout the week.
  • Over-reliance on the energy and work of pastors and staff – It’s much more efficient to have a pastor say this is the vision for our church, versus asking questions together as a congregation: Who are we? What is God doing in this place? Etc. Too often we expect pastors/staff to do work that should be shared across the congregation – caring for the sick, listening and providing counsel to those who are struggling, building relationships with neighborhood groups, etc. – and these high expectations can lead to pastoral burnout.
  • Measuring our success numerically – It’s tempting to use numbers (size of our congregations, amount of money in the offering, etc.) to define our success/failure as churches. This temptation to quantify is at the heart of what sociologists mean when they refer to the value of “calculability” within McDonaldization.  These numbers can be helpful, but the truest measures of our success are qualitative, not quantitative: deeper faithfulness in following Christ or deeper, transformative relationships with our neighbors, for instance.

KW: What are the principles of the Slow Church movement and how were they developed?

CS: The key virtues of Slow Church, which overlap and intersect in substantial ways with one another, are Ethics, Ecology and Economy.  We adapted these virtues from the Slow Food Movement that is focused on food that is good, clean and fair, taking one of these and interpreting it into language that is more familiar to Christian theology. Here’s a short version of what we mean by each of these:

Ethics: Our primary focus needs to be on the quality of our faithfulness to the way of Jesus, and as part of that faithfulness to cultivating deeper life together in churches and neighborhoods.

Ecology: Our call to follow Jesus comes within God’s mission of reconciling all things. The gospel is not primarily about Jesus and Me, or even about Jesus and our particular local church, but rather about bearing witness to God’s work in reconciling all creation.  One important consequence of the belief that God is reconciling all things is that we need to be particularly attentive not only to what we believe God is calling us to do, but also to HOW we go about pursuing that end. If God is reconciling all creation, no one or no thing can be taken for granted.

Economy: A careful reading of scripture reveals that at the heart of the economy of God’s kingdom is God’s abundant provision for creation. This conviction stands in contrast to the principle of scarcity – that there are not enough resources for everyone – that undergirds all major economic systems, including capitalism. Certainly there is real scarcity in the world – people dying from hunger or from lack of clean drinking water – but this scarcity is not what God intends for creation. It stems from sins like greed and from complex geo-political histories that prevent resources from flowing to the places in which they are needed. We embody the economy of the kingdom, as we respond to God’s abundant provision with first gratitude and then generosity, sharing abundantly as God has shared with us.

KW: What role do specific practices play in the movement?

CS: We identify practices – all of which have deep roots in the Christian tradition – that will lead us deeper into each of the key virtues of Slow Church that I described above: ethics, ecology and economy. We don’t advocate that churches necessarily must practice all of these things, but rather that they may want to experiment with some of these as they seek a deeper life together. We also emphasize that the way in which these practices unfold may look quite different in various local church settings.

Here’s a quick overview of the practices we recommend:

Ethics:
Stability: Rootedness of individuals in a particular church community, and rootedness of a church in its place.
Patience: Learning to enter into the struggles of others instead of to avoid them.

Ecology:
Work: Diligently laboring to bear witness to God’s love and reconciliation
Sabbath: (The flip-side of work) Learning to pause from work, to trust in God’s provision, and to know others in ways that run deeper than their work identity.

Economy:
Gratitude: Paying keen attention to the resources (human and otherwise) that God has provided in our churches and our neighborhoods and leveraging those resources to draw us into deeper forms of community.
Hospitality: Perhaps the most intimate form of generosity, in hospitality, we share the abundant resources that God has given us within the context of relationship: sharing our church buildings, our homes, our dinner-tables with one another, with our neighbors and with the stranger that God brings to us.

Perhaps the most important practices that we recommend, however, are eating together and talking together, because it is in these very basic practices – and ones that churches all too often do not take seriously enough – that we discern the shape of our life together and discern what other practices we are going to undertake together and how we are going to do so.

KW: What is your hope for those who read this book?

CS: Our hope is that people would read it with others in their church, and that they would be inspired to experiment with some (or even one) of the practices that we suggest are helpful for guiding churches into a deeper and more connected life together. The book’s final chapter suggests the image of “church as dinner table conversation,” and we especially hope that after reading the book, people would explore how their church might begin to create deeper practices of eating together and talking together.

KW: What are other resources you would recommend for people who are trying to slow their lives down in order to focus more on spiritual community?

CS: Reading, and talking in our churches about what we are reading is an important practice, that helps to slow down and to grow into a deeper faith. We’ve included a long list of recommended reading (tied to each of the chapters in our book) at the back of the book, which is also available online here.  If I could narrow this list to only two must-read books, I would recommend The New Parish by Dwight Friesen, Tim Soerens and Paul Sparks, which helps us imagine deeper connectedness between our churches and the neighborhoods in which they exist, and Jesus and Community by Gerhard Lohfink, which makes the compelling case that the people of God is at the very heart of what God is doing in the world.

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Categories: Church & Theology,Justice & Culture

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture