Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (A Book Reaction)

“We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.” – Pope Francis, quoted in Slow Church.

Slow Church, written by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (IVP, 2014), is a book that encourages an alternative way of living as the church today. This alternative isn’t new, it’s actually quite ancient, quite rooted in Jesus. But it’s an alternative to what is causing a great deal of spiritual exhaustion today, an exhaustion caused by a church or religious “experience” that is mass produced and exists not for the health of the person but for the reproducibility and market value of the franchise.

Smith and Pattison’s angle is influenced by the “slow food” movement. The “slow food” movement says that personal, communal, and global wellness are tied to the local farmers and craft-peoples – that the best is the smaller, the local, the particular of a specific season and place. “Slow food” speaks a firm, No! to the reduction of a human person to a calorie-intake machine. Instead, it says, “Taste what is local and can only be found here in this time, with these people.”

Smith and Pattison’s Slow Church is about Christian spirituality with  a similar DNA to the “slow food” movement. They are inviting us into the beauties of the particular and teaching us how to participate.

Within my context, I receive many people’s stories of spiritual burnout and exhaustion. By the time we meet one another, many of their stories are littered and empty. They feel worn through by the meaningless attraction of a crowd to fancy worship services; we’ve found one another because they desire to practice a particular way of life, a life which they feel would be the most “attractional” thing they could truly offer.

Their exhaustion often comes when the practice of a way of life is sidelined and what’s celebrated is a cheap attempt to draw a crowd or make a spectacle. They see this ideal as something similar to a Jesus who listened to satan and did jump from the temple top. They have felt that what is fast and “effective” for drawing a crowd is celebrated and what is slow and necessary to produce real life is left as optional.

As we finish talking, the left over question has always been: What is “success” for us?

Slow Church responds. Success is “Conviviality” (a living-with) one another in a particular time, a particular place, and with the particular purpose of attending to the way of Jesus and becoming sensitive to the work of God’s Spirit. For, “Fast and slow, [writes Horneré] are not just rates of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, agressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections – with people, culture, work, food, everything” (p. 13).

“How?” my companions ask. “How can we practice a life of following Jesus that’s not diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship to Jesus that happens in the context of Christian community?”

See, they view the fast-food style of attracting a crowd with its promise of a “spiritual high that’ll get you through the week,” as lacking real spiritual substance (at best) and distracting from the real Christian life and hope (at worst). The real life to be had is not about spiritual highs about getting through (or to get to heaven when we die) but about the unfolding reign of God in the present moment.

Slow Church works to answer the, How? through examining the “Ethics, Ecology, and Economy,” of the way of Jesus and the people gathering in faith for Jesus.

The ethics (read here: the pattern of sharing a common life with others), Smith and Pattison write, are, “rooted in the natural, the human, and spiritual cultures of a particular place. {We must focus on] a distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ. And if we’re with are being called to live with a particular people of a place, then this means we will clash with the homogenous practices found in many ”fast food“ churches today, where only people of a certain socio-economic or ethnic status are gathering together (which is a practice founded on crowd-making principles [read: “church” growth], a practice recognizing that it’s simply easier to make a crowd when there are less differences between people …this is counter-Acts and counter-Paul, both of which speak that the ”great mystery of God” is that Jews and Gentiles are being made into a single people for God’s great redemptive purposes.(Eph. 1.9–10)).

So then, faithfulness, not numbers, must become the “metric of success”, the aim of the people. And many have proposed that if the church focused on faithfulness as its principle ethos, the number of people interested in this life would also be affected.

This ethos of faithfulness is practiced through stability and patience.

Stability is about staying put and staying with a people …sharing life with people who wemust learn to forgive rather than abandon when times get tough. Patience is the inner quality that makes stability work. It’s a posture of reliance on God our Father that we receive as we’re immersed in the Scriptures and find our inner restlessness is challenged.

The next part of Slow Church’s “how” is Ecology. This is a section that focuses on cleaning up our lives (Wholeness), our perception of work (Work), and the perception of being more significant if you make more money or work more hours (Sabbath). The essence of these chapters is that the way of Jesus is a counter-culture story. For many of us, the story we hear is that having a fragmented attention (or even pledging allegiance to multiple dominant things, but not sensing a conflict of interests) is preferred. …that you are what you do, and if what you do makes more money then who you are is more culturally signficant. …and that if we don’t keep working, the whole world will fall apart – it’s up to us!

Yes, Jesus is counter to these stories and the words in Slow Church invite us to hear Jesus’ take on these things. Their hope is an ecological refreshing of our lives.

The final section is on Economy which can be summarized by awakening to Enough-ness instead of scarcity. Seeing God as a loving God who has made enough for all allows us to be hospitable, to pour our excess into the lives of others, and to find gratitude within ourselves (which a gift from God as well).

Slow Church took a neat angle in comparing the essence of the “slow food” movement with a living Christian faith. I apprecaite the parallel and believe the authors provide some great questions to think through. This happens primarily as chapter ends. There you’ll find some thought provoking questions; these would be great to think through with a group of friends.

The best setting for this book would be a discussion group who is looking to improve the health of their local congregation. If they feel their congregation is focusing on the wrong priorities or attempting to franchise the faith, taking its substance and real taste away, thenSlow Church would be a great dialog piece.

In conclusion, I say, Yes, success is found in “conviviality”, in living a real life together, noticing one another, noticing Jesus, and discerning the work of God’s Spirit. This takes time and it takes a focused, dedicated people. Distracted, frenzied people will find it harder to truly live, to truly experience the work of grace for and within themselves. If we want to come alive as Jesus invites us to do, we will find ourselves slowing down to the eternal pace of God; we will taste the Christian communal experience that is local and done with other people, not just beside them; and we will all discover our fit within the very simple, almost barter system of God’s loving economy.