C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
What does it mean to be part of a household that makes table conversation at mealtime a priority? Do we “grab a bite to eat” so that we can get on with our important projects as a household, or do we understand that time spent preparing and sharing mealtime food and conversation is the essential practice which forms us into family members? C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison expand these questions into the scope of the practices of a church family, which gathers several households into an organization in order to worship publicly together and integrate itself constructively within the broader local community. In their book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith and Pattison appropriate the Slow Food movement's concern with economic and ecological health and justice regarding daily food consumption practices in order to critique and celebrate various values and practices which are part of a church culture. The authors build their discussion primarily upon the eschatological vision of Christianity which celebrates and anticipates Christ's accomplishment of the reconciliation of all things (from the cosmic to the particular), and they argue that a local church congregation who wants to follow the way of Jesus needs to be attentive to the tangible, particular attributes and assets of the land, the neighborhood, the people, and the resources which make their own location a unique and prime spot for this slow work of reconciliation.
The book is served up as a thoughtfully planned meal might be, divided into three main sections called “courses.” Each course discusses an alternative or corrective approach in response to unhealthy attributes often found in church organizations which tend to be “attractional, dualistic, and hierarchical.” Whereas the church-growth movement tends to value business and marketing techniques to attract new members to a “developing” location, the first course of Slow Church encourages congregations to reorient their desire to the place they already are, using ecological and agricultural practices such as appreciation for terroir, stability, and patience. While church communities often contribute to the social blights of economic, generational and cultural segregation and rely upon dualistic divisions of work, time and place into sacred or secular categories, Slow Church aspires in the second course to celebrate wholeness, shalom, and reconciliation in human life by seeking a reintegration of social groupings, as well as a communal rhythm which honors the integration of work and rest. The final course discusses how church congregations can resist an economic paradigm of scarcity and a pyramid structure of leadership and instead move into an orientation to economic and ecological abundance and interdependence in order to respond with gratitude, reciprocal service, and hospitality in its organizational practices and routines.
Smith and Pattison season their text throughout with citations to other poets and scholars, which will benefit readers who are interested in a more extensive exploration of a topic which is presented. The book includes brief descriptions of several churches who have implemented Slow Church practices in their communities. Each chapter closes with two or three discussion questions which assists reading groups in conversing about ways to integrate Slow Church values into their own church practices.
As a 30-something mother who is part of an aging and dwindling church congregation in a re-segregating south suburb of Chicago, I feel encouraged through reading this book that our own local space and group will become a peculiar presence within its current and future community, not by following a franchise manual for a quick-fix performance-oriented transformation driven by the anxiety of achieving new member/visitor quotas and deadlines, but by practicing stability, hospitality and patience in the ordinary ways that are profoundly meaningful to the particular people we encounter, even if not flashy or dramatic. I experience “conversion” as a lifetime process of slow and steady transformation in my everyday habits and routines of ordinary life, so I appreciate that these authors are encouraging church groups to aspire to an ongoing conversion process that is akin to the pace of authentic human change and growth.