Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
C. Christopher Smith
IVP Books, 2014
247 pp., $17.00
Rachel Marie Stone
Church as a Shared Meal
Like other children of clergy, I spent an inordinate amount of time at church, at church functions, with church people talking about church business. I was privy to my father's many stomachaches (even, once, an impressive bout with colitis that left him writhing on the floor in pain) brought on by impossible board meetings and threatened church splits over issues as hotly controversial as whether we should, in fact, repair and pad the 150-year-old pews, many of which were cracked lengthwise and which therefore had the nasty habit of pinching people's rear ends just as they rose to their feet to sing a hymn or recite a response. I folded bulletins and then picked them up after services, crumpled, scribbled upon, and sticky with chewing gum. I listened to very strange stories, ate many Jell-O salads, helped clean and fill the baptismal tank, and feigned gratitude for handmade Christmas presents so bizarre that to this day I'd be hard-pressed to identify what, exactly, they were.
But for all the awkwardness—and, sometimes, the plain old-fashioned sinfulness—church was my life, and it was, almost without exception, the sort of life described beautifully in Chris Smith and John Pattison's Slow Church. My father is and always has been a pastor in small churches, churches that have little in the way of the polished professionalism of so many large evangelical churches. But they have, without exception, been churches of terroir (no, not terror, though they've had their moments)—churches that have the "taste of the place," the flavor of their immediate contexts, reflecting not the trends and fashions of national conferences, magazines, and Christian retail shops but rather the community that's actually around them.
That's no small achievement. As Smith and Pattison describe, American churches, like so many other aspects of American society, have been "McDonaldized," given over to principles of efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control such that a suburban megachurch in the Midwest may not feel in any way distinctive from a similar church in the Southeast. The specific shapes that this takes—"plug-and-play ministries, target marketing, celebrity pastors, tightly scripted worship perfomance, corporate branding … , church growth formulas that can be applied without deference to local context"—promise speedy growth and success that comes at a cost that the authors want Christians to consider. "You can't franchise the Kingdom of God," they remind us.
But you don't have to be an assiduous follower of trends to notice that we are in a cultural moment in which significant resistance to the homogenizing, commodifying, instantly gratifying ways of mass culture is gaining ground. Among the scores of food blogs out there, few detail how one might whip up a dessert from boxed and bottled ingredients in five minutes or less; they're all about "reclaiming" the lost arts of making pastry from scratch. Mason jars for canning homemade jam are cool again. I have been to parties where to express preference for a national brand over a local small-batch label would be social suicide. People in their twenties and thirties pursue hobbies that are aggressively unhurried: brewing, baking from scratch, knitting, embroidery.
For many folks there is a conscious rejection of "the cult of speed" and efficiency in these small and sometimes symbolic acts. As Smith and Pattison recount, all manner of "slow" movements—Slow Money, Slow Parenting, Slow Gardening—have been inspired the Slow Food movement, which got its start at a protest of the opening of a McDonald's near Rome's historic Spanish Steps. Slow movements, they explain, aim at something more than the mere opposite of "fast." They are about fostering deeper, more meaningful connections between people and places, and the pursuits and passions that are significant to them, inviting us to resist the automatic and mindless response, to be skeptical of slick marketing, instant results, and anything that claims to be one-size-fits-all. They aim toward greater thoughtfulness in a world—and in this case, a church—too often marked by unthinking consumption.
Pattison and Smith are laypeople, neither clergy nor academic ecclesiologists. They are amateurs in the sense that the late Robert Farrar Capon used the word—lovers of the church. And as Capon wrote in his modern classic, The Supper of the Lamb, "Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world … needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get …. There, then, is the role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace."