March 28, 2020

Slow Church Week 2: The Neighborhood Church

The Village Church Rottingdean, Burne-Jones

The Village Church – Rottingdean, Burne-Jones

Slow Church Week 2
The Neighborhood Church

The ways employed in our North American culture are conspicuously impersonal: programs, organizations, techniques, general guidelines, information detached from place. In matters of ways and means, the vocabulary of numbers is preferred over names, ideologies crowd out ideas, the gray fog of abstraction absorbs the sharp particularities of the recognizable face and the familiar street.

– Eugene Peterson
The Jesus Way

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These characteristics, write Chris Smith and John Pattison, form the ethics of Slow Church. This is how congregations of Christians become, “faithfully and well, the embodiment of Christ in a particular place” (p. 16).

A careful reading of the New Testament shows how differently the apostles addressed the various congregations to whom they wrote. In their epistles, Paul and the other authors used terms and metaphors that grew out of the local history, culture, and experiences of each faith community. This reminds us that, although the gospel is for the whole world, it comes to people incarnated into their own peculiar contexts.

The authors of Slow Church agree — “You can’t franchise the kingdom of God” (p. 41). In contrast to the supra-cultural “taste” of franchise businesses and restaurants, where you know what you’re going to get no matter where you are in the world, Slow Church emphasizes that each community is a “distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ” (p. 43) that complements the character and seeks the good of the particular place in which it is planted.

The authors contrast this with the principles and methods of the church growth movement and the sociological characteristics of “McDonaldization” that we listed in yesterday’s post. The franchise approaches offer “tastes” that are general and bland. They aim for a universal consistency that eliminates the contours of local particularities. “One-size-fits-all success models rarely allow time to discover the assets, needs, history, diversity, traditions and values of a community” (p. 52).

A Slow Church perspective thinks this mentality fails to communicate the message of the incarnate Christ in its fullness. If we don’t settle down, slow down, and sit down at the table with our neighbors, what Jesus are we presenting to them?

“It is difficult for us to bear witness together to the patient and delectable way of Jesus when people are cycling rapidly into and out of our churches” (p. 62). Our society’s individualism and mobility often works against the call to remain faithful over time in our communities, to develop deep relationships of love and partnership within God’s family, and to bear witness to our neighbors about the constancy and reliability of God and God’s promises.

In a post called “Moving” that I wrote a couple of years ago, I reflected upon my own story of relocating regularly and what that has done to my psyche:

Like many who move often, my memories are compartmentalized, like separate chapters in a storybook that have little relation to one another. . . . As one who has moved a lot throughout my life, I’ve developed an ongoing, nagging sense of “What’s next?” My life has not so much been a novel as it has been a book of short stories, each with a definite beginning, middle, and ending.

In a society and economy like ours, this is inevitable. Nevertheless, a great deal of the movement that takes place in and out of communities and churches boils down to the freedom we have in our day to choose alternatives. This is not intrinsically problematic, but it can militate against stability, faithfulness, enduring through difficulty, reconciling conflicts, and learning to put up with others (the biblical virtue of “forbearance”).

I have seen this in myself much more than I would like, and as a pastor, few things grieved my heart more than seeing people decide to leave a church because they weren’t willing to take on the hard work of love. I take it that the authors of Slow Church are encouraging us, wherever we are and for how long, to be fully present in that place and with those people. Get to know that place. Give those particular relationships the attention they deserve.

On the other hand, Smith and Pattison rightly acknowledge that rootedness does not necessarily equal godliness. Stability can degenerate into entrenchment. Commitment to “local” can devolve into parochialism. Outsiders and those who don’t fit the mold may be distrusted and made to feel unwelcome or worse.

God has a worldwide family, and local communities of believers are called to have a heart not only for home, but also for the world. I like the idea of our neighborhood congregations forming partnerships with churches and missions in different settings. Maintaining vital, active relationships with them just might help keep us from thinking the world revolves around us and our ways.

Instant gratification = instant dissatisfaction. Western culture is built on impatience. Few would argue against the fact that this has allowed us to be productive in unprecedented ways, which has led to many benefits. Impatience and its corollaries of ambition, competition, and drive have fueled much salutary progress.

However, we have not always counted the cost of the threats such impatience poses to human flourishing or the health of our planet. Though we rejoice wherever progress has made life better, progress will not redeem the world, put it to rights, or bring in a new creation. It always yields unintended consequences. We are not ultimately in control.

oakNor can the impatience to advance create communities of faith, hope, and love. It does not equip us to suffer or bear the burdens of others. Virtues like forbearance and longsuffering are not its forte. It aims for the glory of the next big thing while despising the way of the cross.

As a witness to the longsuffering of God and the patience of Christ in his sufferings, the church embodies a more patient way: a way of daily dying and rising again, of daily immersion in and contemplation of the works and actions of Jesus, of regular ongoing conversations with one another and with our neighbors, of faithful actions designed to help our local communities flourish, of not growing weary in prayer and doing good.

Miles Stanford once wrote about a professor who gave an impatient student advice. The student wanted to take a shorter course, but the teacher said, “When God wants to make an oak, He takes a hundred years, but when He wants to make a squash, He takes six months.”

Chris Smith and John Pattison are calling for more Christians and more congregations to be planted as oak trees in their communities, patiently growing and making their neighborhoods more lovely and welcoming as the years go by.


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Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
IVP Books (May 6, 2014)

Previous posts:

Part One: The Convivial Church



  1. People may have an ill defined yearning for such a church but, unfortunately, they tend to make “snap” judgments after one or two visits. Our culture has so influenced us that we expect “satisfaction” in a very small sample. What it takes is PATIENCE in the seeker.

    And when someone comes into contact with such a church they may feel intimidated by a different church culture. I’m not trying to disprove the “Slow Church” model, I’m just trying to look at it from the outside, as a newbie might.

    Then, again, the “Slow Church” model MIGHT be found in a smaller venue WITHIN a larger body. Homegroups, ministry groups, etc., can offer the place, stability and patience that helps people to prosper in their faith.

    Maybe I’m just rambling or talking out of my head. It’s 10:30 PM and past my bedtime. Good night.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > People may have an ill defined yearning for such a church but,
      > unfortunately, they tend to make “snap” judgments after one or
      > two visits.

      Oh yea, I certainly stand convicted of such a charge.

      > Our culture has so influenced us that we expect “satisfaction”
      > in a very small sample. What it takes is PATIENCE in the seeker.

      Yep. And this may be an upside to denominational loyalty; one may be more prone to stick around in a particular church when one feels attached to its label.

      > And when someone comes into contact with such a church they may
      > feel intimidated by a different church culture.

      Agree. I think is is one area where the emphasis on placeness in this literature matters. The Church, IMO, works best when it functions as a ‘fourth place’, which does makes it dependent on the existence of a “third place” [Ray Oldenburg]. The church can interface with the third place [but by definition cannot be the third place. The definition of a third place is a “neutral ground”, not home, not work – hence “third place”; as home is the first place and work is the second place]. The church needs to learn (or relearn) how to non-obnoxiously enter the third-place; EOs and Romans have the advantage that many of them never stopped doing this – perhaps not intentionally, but by circumstance – but most of the Protestant sects very much followed the Clapham model and opted out of societie’s third places. Then Evangelicals have tried to take/re-take them using commerical and militant approaches [which, of course, failed, badly].

      > Then, again, the “Slow Church” model MIGHT be found in a
      > smaller venue WITHIN a larger body. Homegroups, ministry
      > groups, etc.,

      Certain true. Isn’t this what the “small group” model has tried to manufacture systematically? Sometimes it works, many times it doesn’t. The “small group” model very much wants to funnel (and rush) people into such groups, to capture them before they slide back out the door again. Probably every long-lived congregation of even a few hundred people has numerous sub-groups which have formed more-or-less organically.

    • No, I think you make good points, Oscar. The one thing I would say is that “slow church” is not a “model.” Indeed, it is the antithesis of a “model” approach. It just involves being present and faithful where you are.

      • Radagast says

        But is it so slow that another church plant with a more aggressive marketing model might just come down and lure away those congregants? I know that sounds a bit cynical but is this way of church more geared to those who might want to be deeper in Church and isn’t that as a whole a lot smaller percentage of the congregation?

        Another question… in your experience do high liturgy churches tend to be less susceptible to “fast Church” and gimmicks? Of course one could make the argument that a high liturgical church with its standard liturgical practices could be construed as McDonaldization but I believe it goes deeper than this.

        • 1. No doubt this happens. Megas and church growth churches stereotypically grow most by transfer growth.

          2. Churches that have a strong view of tradition and practice a vibrant liturgy may be less susceptible. This is not to say that they don’t have their own problems of stagnation, etc. There is a reason energy and gimmicks attract people, and it’s not always simply because people are gullible or not fully committed to their congregations. Sometimes the “slow church” is the “sluggish church” and is not really engaging in the kinds of “slow church” practices being commended here.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            ” Churches that have a strong view of tradition and practice a vibrant liturgy may be less susceptible”

            I think they are indeed less susceptible, but it should be noted that these things don’t fall cleanly along denominational lines. There are many Lutheran churches that lack a strong view of tradition and do not practice a vibrant liturgy. Frankly, I think this is true of more than not. Quite a bit more. There certainly are any number that fell for the church growth movement.

    • Danielle says

      “And when someone comes into contact with such a church they may feel intimidated by a different church culture.”

      I think that’s a very valid concern. Generic evangelical culture sustained by CCM and popular evangelical literature often does “work” for people. Likewise, the “seeker-friendly” venues that seem more like a business conference with motivational talks do attract people. I suspect that is rooted partly in the fact that Americans are highly mobile, used to events or shows that offer some immediate response or experience, and understand programming. Programming is impersonal, but when it’s the water in which you swim, it can seem relatively easy and non-threatening to connect to a program, than to interact with a community. People want community ultimately, but at first pass, it might not be obvious how to walk into an unknown community without a lot of structure & engage with people.

      I haven’t read Slow Church yet, and so I don’t know how it deals with place (I’m reading Adam’s comment above with interest). But it strikes me that the problem can be mitigated somewhat by the community making bridges between itself and the community—a very different and more “nebulous” problem than offering programming. Yesterday’s blog post noted that Chris’ other book was about “being present” to the local community. I’m actually tempted to begin with that book, especially since it relates to Chris’ experience in an urban church. (We live and go to church inside the city.)

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > the “seeker-friendly” venues that seem more like a business
        > conference with motivational talks do attract people

        And there isn’t anything wrong with programs & confernces, etc… People go to them, I go to them, I enjoy them. Someone putting on a show or presentation is just fine. The problem is when there isn’t anything other than, or very little other than, a show. At some level most people acknowledge this [at least I beleive that is so], but we haven’t had the language to articulate it.

        > I suspect that is rooted partly in the fact that Americans are highly mobile

        An insteresting statistical footnote is that the meme of Place – which is proliferated into almost everything [not just Slow Church] – is rising as the mobility of Americans is declining. 2000 – 2010 saw the lowest rate of mobility [35%] since data was recorded. While 35% is a very mobile population it is less mobile than the previous generation – and it means that 65% of people [within ten year window] did not move [that is 6 out of 10, a majority].

        > But it strikes me that the problem can be mitigated somewhat by the
        > community making bridges between itself and the community—a very
        > different and more “nebulous” problem than offering programming.

        Nebulous maybe, but actually quite straight-forward. Encourage people to enter third-spaces (parks, sidewalks, pubs, coffee shops, bus stops, train stations, shopping plazas, etc…) without an agenda; encourage them to consciously think about seeing the people around them as The Neighbor, rather than The Stranger (which is how we are culturally programmed to react). Community doesn’t begin with an agenda of creating community, it begins with a frame of mind, that the community is there, with room for one more participant [you].

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Though we rejoice wherever progress has made life better, progress will not redeem the
    > world, put it to rights, or bring in a new creation. It always yields unintended consequences.

    One of the worst aspects of this is what happens to those who cannot “progress”. Sometimes people get stuck, or are simply exhausted – and the “progress” mentality can be very cruel while wearing a mask of positivity. Someone who gets knocked down by life is `encouraged` to “move on”. Sometimes they can’t. Then why should be “permitted to hold everyone back?”. The desire to always be lunging forward is woven all though the American vernacular.

  3. I’m very much interested in this book, for I have been thinking along these lines for some time but have not articulated them well, not even to myself. I have it on my Kindle now and hope to start reading it soon.

    My problem is that my association doesn’t think this way. Many in my congregation do want a genuine sense of community in our church, and to a large extent we already do. But there’s always that underlying notion that we need to get out, plant here, grow there, reach out everywhere. These things are not wrong in an of themselves but it’s the “holy fire” and “wretched urgency” (posted here recently) that is like the elephant in the room–everyone knows it’s there but no one wants to talk about it, much less deal with it.

    I suppose I should read the book and have a few others read it along with me, start a conversation, and see where we go from there. This I know for sure w/o even reading page 1…if a church with a deep rooted rapid growth model is to be transformed to a slow church model, the transformation itself will be slow.

  4. David Cornwell says

    The concept of “place” described so aptly in this book has made me stop and think again about several things that have happened in my own life and in the churches I have attended, served, and observed.

    For many years I have been saddened by the Church’s abandonment of old neighborhood churches, some of which go back to the late 19th century. One example is in the city of 255,000 where I lived until just a few years ago. The church is Lutheran, on a street called “Broadway,” in an old neighborhood just a few blocks from downtown. It was organized on January 1, 1900. Over time it became an large important part of that part of the neighborhood. It was also a few blocks from the General Electric factory which at one time employed thousands of local people. Early in GE’s history German engineers and machinists came to the city to work and become an important part of the community. Some of them attended this church. The church grew, added a school, and was very important to this part of town.

    Over time GE closed down part of the plant, moved a lot of their manufacturing to Mexico, and then left the city. The plant is now an empty hulk with only it’s large sign reminding us what they left behind.

    Then, because of the changing neighborhood demographics, and its inability to adapt to the situation, the church packed up, built a new building in a “better” part of town, and closed its doors forever in 2001. Now all that is left is the old building which has remained “out of business” most of the time since then. From time-to-time a “for-profit” charter school has used the building.

    I have a difficult time with this, because it proves that the church lost contact with its neighbors, its surroundings, and the problems of the “place” is was originally planted.

    Now I am having my own struggle with the concept of “place,” admittedly made more difficult because of Slow Church. About six years ago I moved away from the same city described above. I had good reasons to move, and am not sorry. I now live near my daughter and her family on part of their farm. It has taken time, but I gradually have learned that this is now my place, my home, and I will probably remain here until someone carries me away to a nursing home or my final place, my plot of ground, where what began as dust once again becomes dust.

    My struggle now is with my church in the city. We were part of it. Some of our most important friends are members. They took me in at a time when I was disgusted, saddened, and tired of church. The church is another old downtown church. But it is one that stayed. And now downtown is reviving in a big way, and I feel this church is firmly planted.

    However — now I am not. For a long time we drove back and forth, about thirty miles to attend. I love the Sunday worship. I love many other aspects. However the trip is becoming too much for us. We are not part of that community. We cannot be part of that church in the way we once were.

    So now — finally, we are seeking a new place to worship. One that is close to us and to our neighborhood. The worst part — I am not enjoying changing churches at my age. It is hard to let go. Also we will probably end up choosing a small rural church, that might well be “sluggish”, and that will be entirely different. It will not be easy.

    • David, may God guide, strengthen, encourage, and bless you and your family and give you wisdom.

    • Yes, David, all the best to you. Perhaps a time to take advantage and break some boundaries and molds. I just finished moving 130 miles north outside a little town of 250. It has three churches, Methodist, Lutheran, and Evangelical, plus a bar. No compulsion to visit any of them so far but I expect to along the way. I’m finding my back yard vista is providing rest and recovery enough from the stress and strain of a 25 year family business experience, plus moving. Really like it here. Sort of like going back to 1960 without the downside of that time that nostalgia covers up.

    • Robert F says

      How hard transitions and endings are; how uncertain the next leg of our journeys can be. God bless you, David, and your family.

    • David, I’m sure that you will be a blessing to the people you decide to join yourself to. The changes you describe are just simply difficult. In whatever circumstances you come into I pray that you will receive refreshment.

    • Danielle says

      David, We’re among that trickle of people who have moved back into the city. So the old city churches are of interest to us. At least in the couple places we lived most recently, the shift of people away from the city neighborhoods during earlier decades had led the membership to contract. Compounding that is the shift the tendency of mainlines overall to have fewer young members. Compounding this problem still more is the fact that the more historic buildings are also expensive to maintain. I hope a good portion of these churches will survive the transition. I’m looking forward to taking a look at “Slow Church,” since the question of how churches can better interact with their immediate contexts is so clearly an important factor for the city congregations.

      Before our most recent move, we attended a small church that didn’t have a lot of programming. They ran services, and held fairly laid back game nights or potlucks or studies that were more conversational than programmatic. As the church was located directly in front of a public housing complex, it also ran a little afterschool homework program for the kids who lived right on the side the church parking lot. I miss the community there: it was doing some good things, it wasn’t hurried, and it was a safe space. I miss it. But there certainly wasn’t an sufficient influx of people to match the families who had moved away over time – I suppose you could say that it was successful at maintaining community, but not particularly good at recruitment, and its ability to serve was limited by the limitations of small numbers and resources. That said, there were a couple of new members and their kids who were just joining at about the time we moved, from the community next door. And there was us, if we’d settled down in that neighborhood (but we didn’t). In any case, I really want to see churches operating along those lines pull through.

      Churches aside, all the best to you and your wife. While it’s interesting to explore a new context, I dislike feeling uprooted & spiritually tend to talespin for a while until I feel somewhat anchored again. So you have my sympathies about detaching from one place and having to navigate a whole new one.

      • David Cornwell says

        Danielle, thank you. I am going to do some research before checking out some churches. There is one about three miles away I intend to attend first. I know the pastor somewhat, and probably some of the people who attend. It is rural, and not sure what they do, but it has been there for many years. And then a little further out are some town churches. I really hate church shopping, and have done very little of it in my lifetime.

        It will definitely be a big change for us.

    • David Cornwell says

      Thanks to everyone for the support and prayers. This is a great place.

  5. It is becoming quite difficult to find a local church where the gospel is proclaimed in it’s purity, and where the sacraments are administered in accordance with that gospel.

    I used to pass at least a dozen Lutheran churches on our drive to the Lutheran church we worshipped. About an hours drive.

    One of our members drives an hour and a half, one way, and has done so for over 15 years.

    Each of us has tried Lutheran churches closer to us, only to discover a watered down gospel (which is no gospel at all) in which the message invariably got back to us, and what we should, ought, or must be doing (a “3rd use of the law – and also a social 3rd use).

    I do feel quite blessed to have found a place where the law is preached…and HARD…not to make me a better Christian…but to kill me off. And then Christ is handed over to us, free of charge. And that’s the last Word.

  6. Richard McNeeley says

    About 30 years ago we moved to a small city (about 40,000 now). Over the years I have watched pastors come in and try the latest gimmick only to fail. The ones that have lasted are those that first became a part of the community.

  7. Christiane says

    was thinking about the use of the word ‘patience’ and how appropriate it was,
    and how it seems so absent in the models of proselytizing (selling Christ) which rely on a ‘quick sale’ and credit for the salemen.

    that word ‘patience’ is listed among the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and I got to thinking about the other ‘fruits’

    . . . ” the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . ”

    my conclusion is that ‘slow Church’ might be a better model to incorporate the fruit of the Holy Spirit for lasting results, if not ‘quick conversions’ . . . and isn’t that a better goal anyway when so many among new converts fall away when the attention on them lapses ?

    • Rick Ro. says

      This seems to make sense, too, Christiane.

    • This is an interesting avenue of inquiry.

      “How are the fruits of the Spirit embodied and encouraged in the context of our church ‘programs’?” could be a good question to be asking ourselves.