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Unpredictable Path of God.
A Feature Review of
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
John Pattison and C. Christopher Smith
Paperback: IVP Books, 2014
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Reviewed by John Nugent
Churches in America have long suffered from success syndrome. We want to attract people, grow steadily, and make genuine disciples. We don’t want any of this to happen in isolation. We want the wider community to know that we exist and to appreciate what we do. We want to be dynamic, visible, newsworthy, sticky, like-worthy, tweet-worthy, pin-worthy, praiseworthy—in a word, significant. We also aspire to more noble aims, like helping individuals leave behind the seductive sin that destroys lives and populating our communities with healthier homes, thriving businesses, and active non-profits. It would also be great if we could serve on the frontline of disaster relief, end poverty, shelter the homeless, educate every child, beautify every park, furnish clean water for every village, sponsor every malnourished child, forge legislature that promotes the common good, and create social spaces where the uniqueness of each individual can express itself freely and without fear. In short, we want to be all and do all. We want to make the world a better place, and we want to do so in Jesus’ name so as many people as possible may see our good deeds and give glory to God in heaven.
I don’t need to tell you that this is a tall order, but many of us need to be reminded that this is not the order that Christ has given us. Leading thinkers in ecclesiology (the study of the church) have been reminding us that the primary task of the church is to be the church. Being significant is not about how many needs are met, how inspired people are by what we are doing, and how far our ministry happens to reach. The significance of God’s people is found in how faithfully our life together serves as a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom.
Several decades ago, scholars like Stanley Hauerwas, Gerhard Lohfink, Lesslie Newbigin, Walter Brueggemann, and John Howard Yoder began renewing this ancient calling. They did so in a variety of denominational contexts and a variety of academic niches, and they did so with great eloquence and erudition. Yet their writings have been difficult for the average believer and church leader to process. The words make sense, the concepts are solid, and the Bible is clearly on their side; but it all seems so abstract and disconnected from the daily and weekly rhythms of congregational life. Thought it sounds right, it doesn’t preach and church leaders struggle to rally around its vision.
We are grateful, therefore, that disciples of these landmark thinkers—people like Philip Kenneson, William Cavanaugh, Howard Snyder, and others—have gone further to flesh out the implications of their work for today’s most pressing challenges. We are also grateful to organizations like the Ekklesia Project and the Center for Parish Development for bringing such insights into roundtable discussions with pastors and lay leaders through annual conferences intended to keep such conversations alive.
We must admit, however, that such gatherings are having a difficult time keeping pace with celebrity pastordom, trendy twitter feeds, viral blogs, flashy pastor pep rallies, and megachurch seminars that swear they are not offering blueprints but nonetheless continue to generate dwarf replicas. By and large, churches don’t want to participate in painstaking conversations that generate incremental change that takes decades to produce modest crops of wholesome fruit that is still somewhat bruised. Let’s face it, even good Christian people want a standardized model that pays immediate dividends and we want it now. We want results that are tangible, predictable, calculable, and controllable. We want in our day what ancient Israel wanted from the monarchy and what the church later wanted from Christendom.