When my husband and I signed up to go to a “Slow Church” retreat, we had little idea what it was about. Obviously, it must be something to do with not being in a hurry. But beyond that, the phrase meant nothing to me.
At the retreat, we each received a copy of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Chris Smith led the retreat, going over the ideas presented in the book he had co-written.
The idea of Slow Church is borrowed from the Slow Food movement, which I had never heard of before either. Slow Food began as an organization formed to resist the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. Its goal is to preserve traditional, regional cuisine, and it focuses not only on quality food prepared with care, but also on strengthening the local economy by using locally grown food and assuring fair compensation for the workers who produce it.
I found myself reflecting on my experiences eating at McDonald’s in other countries. When I was a college student in Spain, I generally preferred to eat Spanish food and wanted to try the regional dishes of each place I visited. But once in a while the idea of eating at McDonald’s appealed to me.
No only did I get the cheeseburger and fries that I enjoyed, but it was served quickly, in a clean environment. (Spanish bars were good sources of cheap sandwiches, but we Americans found it odd how floors were not swept more often – apparently the idea was that the detritus of past meals showed that the place was popular, while a clean floor might indicate few people ate there.)
In other countries where I traveled during Christmas break, I also tried to eat local food most of the time, but at least once I went to McDonald’s just because I could order a Big Mac without having to speak the local language (Holland was the one country I visited where I could not speak a word of the language).
McDonald’s does make some local variations to their menus. In Singapore you can get a burger served on toasted rice cakes, and in India you can get a spiced potato croquette. You can get falafel in Israel, a lakse wrap in Finland, and gazpacho in Spain. But they are known for the uniformity of how they make and present their food worldwide, and even where the food is adapted to local taste, the focus is on speed and convenience.
This push for convenience and standardization has affected a lot more aspects of life than just fast food. Sociologist George Ritzer calls it the McDonaldization of society. Many churches have been influenced by this trend, trying to provide their “customers” with a convenient form of religion, and one that is much the same from one place to another. Successful megachurches have marketed their “brand” so that their success can be duplicated elsewhere.
This is what Slow Church is trying to counter with its emphasis on each church’s unique ministry in its own community. Instead of trying to imitate what other churches have successfully done elsewhere (even elsewhere in the same city or region), congregations need to assess the gifts God has given them (in terms of people and their abilities, and local resources, as well as physical assets), and see how they can use those to minister in the unique set of circumstances they find in their neighborhood/village/town.
And of course, Slow Church means not being in a hurry to get results. Our society is conditioned to expect results quickly, and to scrap a program if it doesn’t seem to be working and trying another one in its place. We are also, Smith and McKnight say, “obsessed with overcoming suffering.” While technology enables us to overcome some types of suffering, we also have, to a large extent, “lost the capacity or willingness to enter into the pain of others.”
I struggle with some aspects of the book, because it focuses on the kind of ministries that meet people’s physical, emotional, social, and financial needs, but seems to assume that the spiritual needs get taken care of somehow in all that ministry. That may be the case in these authors’ churches, but I grew up in a church where the focus was on those kinds of ministries, to the extent that I never heard the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
But there is a lot of good food for thought in the book – “slow” food for slow and patient thought, of course.