Note from CM: My friend C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of several books, including the forthcoming Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, (co-authored with John Pattison, IVP/Praxis, Spring 2014).
You can, and are encouraged to connect with the conversation about Slow Church on Chris and John’s blog on Patheos.
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Chaplain Mike recently invited me to respond to this recent post that was shared here: Another Look: Some Thoughts on “Community.” The basic point of this post was that:
We simply cannot experience community today unless we take some different approaches to life. To have these kinds of relationships, we must disengage from things, even good things, that work against our own human formation and the formation of human bonds with others.
This insight is an important one, and one that has guided the work of many social critics over the last half-century, including Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman and Wendell Berry. But how do we move in this direction? And, to what end do we do so? And what role should our local church communities play in this cultivating of community?
These questions are ones that I have been wrestling with in my forthcoming book (co-authored with John Pattison): Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP/Praxis, Spring 2014). They also are ones that the congregation that I belong to, Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, has been grappling with for over two decades. (A brief snapshot of our story is available on the Christianity Today website). Following in the footsteps of other Slow movements – first and foremost, Slow Food, but also Slow Cities, Slow Money, etc. – we seek to offer in Slow Church, an alternative to the speed and industrialization of our fast food age that prefers quality over quantity and that is deeply embedded within and attentive to the local places and economies we inhabit.
But before I talk about cultivating community in our local churches, I do want to offer a caveat about nostalgia and the question of “to what end?” Among many folks who yearn for a more connected life in community, there is a powerful temptation to look back at some bygone, pre-internet era (say the 1950s, for instance) as the golden age of community. While there are things we can learn from such historical communities, the experience of community in past ages often came at the expense of diversity. It’s relatively easy to be in community with people who are similar – in age, economic status, race, language, etc. – to ourselves, but our call to community in Christ is not this sort of community. Our call to follow Christ as the people of God falls within God’s mission of reconciling all humanity and all creation. It’s good to have friends who are like us and who understand us, but that kind of community is fundamentally not what church is about, rather church is about learning to be a community with those who God has gathered, across generations, economic classes, races, etc. This sense of becoming a reconciling community is often obscured by the consumer Christianity of our age, in which we pick churches in which we feel comfortable and in which our needs are met. And, of course, the flip side of that is that if we ever begin to feel uncomfortable (or that our needs are not being met), we can check out and go find another church.
When we start to think about cultivating community in our churches, one of the first steps is coming to realize the ways in which our theology has been hijacked by the ideologies of the modern age (particularly individualism and consumerism). Essential to the vision of Slow Church is that the people of God are at the heart of God’s mission for reconciling creation. We have therefore intentionally chosen the language of Slow Church, as opposed to Slow Christianity, Slow Faith, or similar label. Part of the slowness of our calling is that we are called into the life and community of God’s people. We are so accustomed in Western culture to living and acting as autonomous individuals, that the idea of being God’s people in the world, as Israel was the people of God in the age of the Old Testament, can be a foreign one for us. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions, and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place.
Gerhard Lohfink has argued persuasively in his books Jesus and Community and Does God Need the Church? that the community of God’s people is essential to the mission of reconciliation. However, Lohfink emphasizes that the people of God are not privileged over the rest of humanity or the rest of creation. All humans are image-bearers of God, and God loves us all. But in order to redeem fallen humanity, God began the mission of reconciliation at a single time and place, and with a single people, Israel. God’s work in the world is focused on gathering a people. This started with Abraham and with God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob multiplied, were enslaved by Egypt, and later led out of captivity by Moses. God gave the Israelites the Torah, which wasn’t primarily an instruction book for righteous living for individuals, but laws that gave shape to a holy people, set apart from the violent, cruel, and self-indulgent ways of the pagan nations that surrounded them. Israel continued to grow over the centuries, the era of kings came and eventually went, and soon Israel was an exiled people without a land.
It was during the Roman occupation of Israel that God sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, a backwater town that paradoxically confirmed Jesus’s kingship. There has been a strong temptation throughout the history of the church to place Jesus over and against the work God started in Israel. This temptation, called supercessionism, fails to see the integrity of God’s people-building work in the world. But the old tree wasn’t chopped down to make room for the new one; Gentile Christians were, in the words of the Apostle Paul, a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:1-24). The reconciling work of Jesus extends outward from Israel. The people of God become therefore a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.
Though he often challenged the rabbis of his day, Jesus was firmly rooted in his identity as a Jew in first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine. As Lohfink observes, it is striking that the heart of Jesus’s work was located in the calling and teaching of a small community of twelve disciples. Far from accidental, this number indicated that Jesus’ work was oriented toward the fullness of Israel. Jesus called his disciples from among the Jewish people, but there was a wide diversity among them. For instance, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot were two disciples whose backgrounds couldn’t have been more difficult to reconcile. Called by Christ, the disciples were a community. We tend to think of Jesus and his disciples in terms of their religious activities—preaching the Good News and casting out demons—but we shouldn’t forget that their common life was much broader. They ate together, traveled together, and shared in all facets of life. Centered as they were on Jesus, these seemingly mundane activities took on their own significance in the mission of Jesus.
Through the dispersion of the disciples after Pentecost, God’s work of gathering a people was extended beyond the boundaries of Israel. Out of Israel, after many generations, a messiah was raised up who would open the doors so that the blessings of chosenness would now be available to all regardless of their ethnic heritage. There is a continuity and integrity to God’s work in the world: the calling and shaping of a community of people that began in Israel has, through the work of Christ and the little community of his twelve disciples, been extended to Gentiles as well as Jews. “The Church did not regard itself as a new people appearing in the stead of the old people of God, having dissolved and replaced it,” Lohfink says, “but as Israel, or more precisely as the beginning and center of growth for the eschatological Israel. … The post-Easter community continued what Jesus had begun” (Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?, 220 – italics preserved).
With this basic theological narrative in mind, we turn to the question of HOW we go about cultivating community in our local churches? Reinterpreting the three cardinal virtues of the Slow Food movement, Good, Clean and Fair, we have described three aims that are essential for churches to focus on as we seek to slow down and cultivate community: Ethics, Ecology and Economy.
In relation to Slow Church, ethics is the pursuit of quality rather than quantity. In following Christ, what we are seeking is not which will make us look and feel good, but rather what really and truly is in the best interest of our neighbors and ourselves. Seeking goodness is impossible without our maturing in practices like work and stability. In contrast to the convenience culture of our Western world, we recognize that doing anything well requires significant work and effort. One does not, for instance, learn to be a master chef or pianist overnight. Furthermore, goodness is cultivated in communities, not apart from them. Stability, the commitment to stay rooted in a particular place, is therefore very important to seeking the well-being of our communities. If we continue to conform to consumer Christianity (as mentioned above), the patterns of transition and upheaval will be seriously detrimental to our efforts to cultivate community in both our churches and our neighborhoods. Seeking goodness as churches requires that we stay put in a congregation indefinitely (not necessarily forever, it seems to me like there is room for thoughtful and robust habits of sending and receiving people from one church to another), and commit to working toward the cultivation of community. Both of these commitments, I would add, fly in the face of modern, consumer Christianity.
In talking about Slow Church, we use the term ecology to remind ourselves that our calling to follow Christ comes within God’s mission of reconciling all creation. We do not act in a vacuum; we must be attentive not only to seek the ends of peace and reconciliation to which we have been called in Christ, but also to do so in a way that bears witness to the love of Jesus in our neighborhoods and beyond. (Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way is particularly helpful as we seek to examine our means and ends). We seek our calling within all the social, economic and natural networks of our particular places; it is within the work of building collaborative partnerships with local agencies, organizations and institutions, that we slowly and patiently bear witness to the all-reconciling way of Christ. Although work is an essential practice as we move in this direction, we also value the practice of Sabbath, as an important reminder that it is God who is healing and reconciling and not ourselves, and as a space in which our pausing affords us the opportunity to contemplate and envision how we are going to move forward together as churches and neighborhoods toward healthy and flourishing communities.
Economy, the third and final virtue of Slow Church, is essential for the flourishing of communities because God abundantly provides the resources needed for the reconciling work into which we have been called. The economy of creation, as theologian William Cavanaugh has argued in his book Being Consumed, is one defined by God’s loving and super-abundant provision. Most of the world’s economic systems are built upon the assumption of scarcity: that there are not enough resources to go around. As we are engaged with our neighbors in the journey of seeking the flourishing of our place, we bear witness to the economy of creation. No person is expendable; everyone has gifts and skills that can benefit the work of seeking and healthier communities. The practices of gratitude (living as people thankful for God’s provision) and generosity (sharing abundantly as God has shared with us) will help us bear a deeper witness to the economy of creation. Our communities and places will flourish only to the extent that we are grateful for the people and resources that exist within them and to the extent that we share the abundance of God’s resources with one another.
I have named a number of practices here that are vital to Slow Church, but the one that is perhaps most essential is conversation. In our experience here at Englewood, it was conversation that enabled and drove us deeper into these other practices. Stumbling into the practice of conversation almost twenty years ago, we quickly realized that we didn’t know how to talk well together: people yelled at each other, some checked out of the conversation permanently, others left the church altogether. But, as we kept talking together, what emerged was not unanimity on every theological or practical question (though I’d like to think we have moved a wee bit in that direction over the years), but the forging of a deep trust that allowed us to work together even if we didn’t always agree on the rationale for how or why we were doing the particular work that we were. (I have told the story of our experiments with conversation in the ebook, The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities).
Our first priority as our churches as we seek to slow down and cultivate community, is creating spaces for open and meaningful conversation. What would it look like for us to have our life together centered – as the earliest church in Jerusalem was – on dinner-table conversation? I don’t think churches should abolish their traditional practices of Eucharist, but if we adopt practices of dinner-table conversation, we should see them as Eucharistic, by which I mean that we enter into conversation with the sort of radical self-denial that defined the life and death of Jesus and that we remember in the celebration of the Eucharist. It must be the Holy Spirit who speaks in our midst and guides our conversations. If we speak (or listen) out of our sinful nature, passions will be ignited and division will ensue. If we allow our selfish agendas to dominate our conversations (and particularly the “what’s in it for me?”mentality), we are setting ourselves up for power struggles and many other kinds of trouble.
Second, conversation should be open; anyone and everyone should be allowed to contribute. Open conversation in the church is rooted in the convictions that God has assembled us together in this place and that everyone that God has assembled is a gift given for the maturing of Christ’s body (for more on the significance of open conversation, see the chapter on “The Rule of Paul,” in John Howard Yoder’s book Body Politics). Our conversations should be both Eucharistic and open; everyone should be permitted to speak, but those who speak should do so not out of self-promotion or selfish ambition. Silence and careful listening are just as important in church conversations as speaking. Sometimes we need to hear the particular wisdom of certain people (e.g., in reading and understanding a particular biblical text); at other times, it is just as necessary to hear the questions of one who does not understand something that has been said.
As we explore the practice of conversation in our churches, it will eventually flow outward from our congregation and draw us into conversation with other churches and with individuals and organizations in our neighborhoods. God is at work reconciling all humanity and all creation; the way forward toward cultivating community begins with our churches immersing ourselves in this mission, actively seeking – in conversation – to discern the ways that God is leading us into deeper expressions of community as God’s people. Thus, we bear witness to our neighbors in our particular places of a gospel that is really and truly good news, the healing and the joy we find as we are slowly beginning to be liberated from the fragmenting and dominating powers of individualism. Our local churches can be a sort of laboratory, an environment secured by the love, grace and commitment we extend to one another, where we can begin to recover the civil arts that have been all but lost in Western culture at large. We will undoubtedly bumble along in this direction, failing perhaps as often as we succeed, but these failures become opportunities for repenting and extending grace, which will in turn drive us deeper in our calling as the people of God.