Review: Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“You can never franchise the blessings of God” (41).

And yet, it is hard to deny the effort the church has made to franchise church life. In fact, a church in town has started offering a “30 minute worship experience”–the equivalent of a drive-thru pit stop for spirituality, not the organic communal church life I’ve enjoyed my whole life and see demonstrated in the Scriptures. Authors Smith and Pattison compare the “mega-church” phenomena to the methods of food production and distribution that have become standard practice in the U.S. The comparison is incredibly apt. They point out the church’s emphasis on homogenous growth (drawing demographically similar people from an extremely wide radius to one central worship location) and a kind of McDonaldization of church life which focuses on efficiency, calculability (taking pride in numerical results), predictability (making all aspects of church life routine and formulaic), and control (seen in the proliferation of branded “satellite” churches piping in a sermon from a distant pastor). The goal is to eliminate the awkwardness and mess of dealing with inefficient, uncertain, and unpredictable relationships with people.

The solution they offer is slow church or “taking time over time” to become a family of believers and children of the Father. And for much of the book, they elaborate on what “slow church” life looks like. Here’s my take: MOST of the chapters are full of beautiful quotes (how can you not love a book that quotes Wendell Berry so frequently and so favorably?) and beautiful ideas, elegant in their simplicity. There are also a few chapters (especially towards the end) where they begin to over-explain (and dare I say, attempt to franchise?) their own methods of doing slow church. Read the whole book, but realize you don’t have to use it as a manual (I don’t think that is what they intended anyhow). The book paints a simple and beautiful picture of the ways the church can pull away from the tides of this culture and engage in true fellowship, deep neighborhood ministry, and lifelong growth rooted in one place.

Some favorite quotes that stand out (among MANY!)

“What message do we convey to churches in and around our neighborhoods when we zip past them to go to distant churches that we deem more desirable?” (109). We are the small neighborhood church and we think we’ve got a great deal to offer: a healthy, diverse fellowship where believers of all ages know each other deeply and pray for each other earnestly, spontaneously, continually; a robust calendar of fellowship events, Bible studies, and ministry opportunities that allow nearly everyone in our fellowship to use their gifts and minister to one another throughout the week; a solid, Biblically based teaching ministry that doesn’t rely on flashy topics, overproduced graphics, or feel-good themes but focuses instead of developing believers who know the whole counsel of scripture. It is a question we’ve pondered often: why people drive past our church and a dozen others like it every Sunday…

“We often fall into the trap of thinking that if we can’t do something in a big way, it shouldn’t be done at all” (172). Oh, how often I’ve felt that pressure as we hosted our little VBS for just a handful of kids…

From a monastery in Dubuque, IA: “We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s one offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving” (62). Is that not a beautiful picture of slow church? Of committing to a body of believers that you live with and grow with for years?

And finally, my favorite insight from the book…
The most eye-opening chapter for me was titled “Abundance” which dismantled the “myth of scarcity” that (as Walter Brueggemann says) “gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed, and brutality… It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves–and it is the prevailing creed of American society” (156). In this chapter, they focus on the idea that God has promised to provide all that creation needs to sustain itself. He demonstrates this provision powerfully through the miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, where they are left with 12 baskets of excess. He demonstrates this subtly through the observation of the natural world, which reveals that every plant contains in itself the genetic material for incredible reproduction (think of how many seeds are in a single pumpkin, for example!) This trust in God’s abundant provision frees us from anxious striving for more and allows us to be both grateful and generous in response.

And it is because of the abundance of God’s kingdom that I can walk away from this book with peace. I have been feeling the anxiety of the small business owner, wondering how I will compete with the bright and cheerful big-box store. This chapter reminds me that there is enough, enough, yes, more than enough kingdom work to be done, enough harvest to bring in, enough living water to be poured out, enough loaves and fishes… enough of a reason for our little fellowship to exist and even to thrive by kingdom standards. This is why I loved this book so much, I guess.

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