I visited a church down South recently that left me starved and speechless. Immediately after the sermon, the pastor began baptisms. A parade of children, one after another, was immersed and toweled crisply and efficiently. I discovered later that the children were brought in on the church’s bus from some distance away.
At some point, the baptisms stopped, and the service ended with a prayer and a final hymn. People got up to go, but the pastor, inexplicably, returned to the baptismal and kept pumping more children through as if on a factory line. The congregants ignored the proceedings and lit out the door—late for a barbecue, maybe? They were too busy to witness baptisms or greet visitors. I left confused and disturbed by the whole show.
If I remembered the exact church, I would overnight a copy of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (InterVarsity Press). In fact, I’d like to send one to every church I know. I would highlight the chapters on hospitality, Sabbath, wholeness, and patience. I would do this gently, confessing my own sins of self-absorption and speed, because the book should not be wielded as a weapon or an accusation but rather given as a gift. Or, perhaps more apt, it’s an invitation to sit down for dinner after church (minus the takeout buckets of fried chicken).
Wendell Berry Goes to Church
Slow Church joins a host of movements inspired by the Slow Food revolt begun in the 1980s, a global coalition that resists the industrializing of all aspects of food. Not all churches have been seduced by what Smith and Pattison call “Franchise faith” or “McDonaldization.” Still, the authors say, at least some fast-food, consumer-culture values—an obsession with efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—have unwittingly crept into many houses of worship.
Smith and Pattison contrast the dominant “attractional” church model with the “incarnational” model, described by missiologists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, who founded the Forge Mission Training Network 15 years ago. Up to 95 percent of Western churches, they estimate, function essentially as mission outposts luring unbelievers to their doors through imported, prepackaged programs and services. They tend toward top-down leadership structures and dualistic thinking about the church and the world. Because the church is often far from its commuting congregants, it can feel not only disembodied but also displaced, even “placeless.” This model sees people as “in or out,” belonging or not.
A Slow Church, in contrast, attempts to be “incarnational,” focusing less on attracting outsiders and more on the quality of its common life. The authors’ congregations work at “cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ,” not through a Sunday “consumerist experience,” but by the daily discipline of “deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies.”
The main attraction, then, is not the building or even what its members do, but who the church is: ideally, a people marked by love for Christ and service to neighbors. They prize stability above mobility, relationships above efficiency, generosity above scarcity, and Sabbath renewal above perpetual activity. These communities are likely praying what Paul Sparks, a cofounder of the Parish Collective, calls the reverse Prayer of Jabez:
Shrink our territory,
And narrow our boundaries
That we might truly be a blessing to all.
Fans of Wendell Berry, the author and agrarian apostle, will rejoice in this book. It could very well be subtitled, “Wendell Berry Goes to Church.” But Slow Church, like Berry’s work itself, is more than trendy: Its theological and historical roots run deep. Churches should cultivate long-suffering with one another because God himself cultivated his people patiently, over generations. Anxiety over “scarcity” pervades our culture, feeding competitiveness rather than cooperation. But the church’s generosity and hospitality are fed by a God of abundance. The Sabbath allows us to enter God’s own time and economy, to “pause our striving and start abiding.”
What might an “incarnational” church look like in real life? The authors don’t leave us guessing. Smith takes us inside his own church of 180 in a gritty urban neighborhood outside Indianapolis. Pattison describes his experience in an evangelical Quaker meeting in rural Silverton, Oregon. They share their own practices of keeping the Sabbath, working for the good of their neighbors, and even sharing jobs, presenting a whole menu of ideas to strengthen the bonds between Christ, people, and place.
Slow Church is a manifesto and handbook rolled into one. Unlike most manifestos, it is beautifully written, blending historical analysis, personal narrative, and scriptural exegesis into prose that is languid, incisive, and eloquent. It reads like what it is: the long, patient fruit of two men deeply rooted in a particular place, among neighbors they know, love, and serve.
For all this good, I do have a few concerns. The authors quote a pastor who hangs out at McDonald’s every day rather than, say, an independently owned coffeehouse where they hand-roast their fair-trade beans and serve it in crockery made by refugees. The pastor defends his presence under the golden arches: He’s there because his neighbors are there. Enough said, you might think. But the partisans of all-things-slow might not buy that excuse. So the pastor goes on to explain, “We might have to actually inhabit, engage, and be present in order to bring justice to overwhelmingly large systems.” Is it really necessary to justify drinking a cup of coffee at McDonald’s? And isn’t this kind of hipster overspeak a little pretentious?
This touches on a larger issue with the Slow Church movement—indeed, with the many countermovements that represent its closest kin: the new monasticism, agrarianism, and intentional communities, all of which I admire and support in some way. We might critique the “attractional” church for dividing people along an “in or out” fault line. But isn’t the slow, incarnational church susceptible to the same temptation? Any dissenting group with shared values will develop its own lexicon and look, but the danger is a creeping clubbiness and self-righteousness that parses the “ins” from the “outs” even more adeptly. The net effect can be division and isolation from the larger body of Christ. But Smith and Pattison won’t take us there. They are too sincerely insistent on gratitude and humility.
I worry, too, that church leaders, seeing the words slow and patient, will steer clear, believing their own mega, mobile, urban, or rural congregants are simply too busy to profit from this work. Yes, the book describes a life not available to all. We will always be fighting the clock, but that needn’t consign us to a drive-through church or a “fast-food faith.”
No matter the size of our church body or the kind of neighborhood we live in, we would all do well to slow down and examine ourselves in the clearest light available—the light of history, the light of Scripture, and the light of Christ himself—rather than the fluorescent light of business models and burger joints.
Make haste, then. Run, do not walk, to your favorite bookstore, buy a copy, and set your church table for a feast.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson).
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