With all of the handwringing and dire pronouncements about the state of the church in America, the invitation to “Slow Church” would seem to be misplaced. We need to act quickly! The church is dying! Do something, anything! And in fact, large segments of the church have been doing a lot. We have done our best to apply the marketing and corporate strategies of our capitalist culture to the business of doing church, and it would appear that churches who do that well are the only ones currently growing and avoiding the larger decline of the surrounding culture. Church growth strategists have identified the basic elements required to develop a large church, and churches across diverse denominations and theological perspectives have been successful in incorporating them.
But at what cost? The historically long, messy, and unpredictable challenge of cultivating Christian community has, over the last half a century, been scaled into a one-stop supermarket of spiritual goods and services. While it can be argued that many of these churches have been motivated by noble ends, the means have often been overlooked. As Chris Smith and John Pattison point out in their introduction to Slow Church, “The ethics of Slow Church is the challenge to be, faithfully and well, the embodiment of Christ in a particular place … .This compels us to pay more attention to not only what we are pursuing as churches, but how we do so.”
One of the professors at my seminary continually challenged students with the idea that what you win people with is what you win people to. Studies such as Willow Creek’s Reveal seem to confirm that large churches struggle to move people beyond a consumer mindset and into the difficult and messy work of life-on-life discipleship. This isn’t at all surprising when the means of church growth are designed to get as many people in the door as possible, as quickly as possible. Just as the cultivation of rich and life-giving soil can take years of hard work to achieve and properly maintain, it would seem that the soil of true Christian community requires a similar amount of blood, sweat, and tears.
As Smith and Pattinson reflected on the dynamics at play in what has been called the Slow Food movement, they realized there were significant ways it could help critique how the American church was operating. Like the move from family farms to corporate farms, small, localized churches are being replaced by large, corporate churches. Just as the Industrial Revolution introduced means to better harness and control the natural processes of food production, “Western Christianity . . . adopted shortcuts that are the church equivalent of imposing a mechanistic mindset onto a biological world.” Just as agricultural technology helps mitigate the uncertainties and limitations of nature, corporate church strategies help mitigate the unpredictable and non-linear dynamics of the spiritual life.
As a student in seminary, I began to wonder how genuine discipleship was possible in a culture where people were so mobile and disconnected from each other. How could the church expect to foster the kind relational depth needed to grow true spiritual community when people only saw each other, at best, a couple times per week? Even in my seminary dorm, which had the benefit of close proximity, there was a general lack of life-on-life discipleship. I began researching the concept of intentional community and finding ways to shoehorn the topic into papers for various classes. I explored Zinzendorf and the Moravians in my church history class and wrote about the 12 Marks of the New Monasticism in another. I was inspired by the long history of radical Christian community documented in books like The Beloved Community by Charles Marsh.
As these depictions of community filled my imagination, I decided that I had to put them to the test. I began searching for a church community that was living out more of a life-on-life approach, one that saw church as more than just a place to commute to a couple times per week. That search ultimately led my wife and I to Vineyard Central, a place that has been as experiment of blending church and intentional community for over twenty years (and where Chris Smith had been an intern many years before). We came to the community during a season of transition and deep soul searching about its future. We were able to take part in a year-long discernment process that involved weekly conversations about every aspect of the community’s life.
It was the epitome of slow and drawn out. Some grew tired of the talking and decided to go elsewhere, but at the end of that year, a core of about 40 people committed to a renewed vision of Vineyard Central as a neighborhood, parish-style church. The time we had spent discussing and wrestling through difficult decisions had formed us and bonded us together in a unique way. In the very act of discerning together, we were unwittingly building the kind of relational sinews required to sustain true community. We probably broke every rule in the church growth handbook, but we also cultivated a soil of trust and openness that has served us well in the years since.
Since joining Vineyard Central, the language of gardening has come to dominate the way I think about the church. This is no accident and reflects, I think, why the Slow Food movement is such a helpful comparison for the church to consider. The Gospels are filled with agricultural metaphors, in part because of the audience Jesus was speaking to, but also, I think, because the character and methodology of God are woven into creation itself. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ecology of nature has parallels in our social and spiritual ecology. When we seek to control or manipulate either ecology, bad things happen, and God’s good designs are damaged and lost.
Every week we have two “services” in our community. One is a Sunday morning gathering in an old Catholic cathedral. It is a broken and beautiful space that speaks of both the beauty of God and of the brokenness of our world. We sing songs, listen to God’s Word and celebrate the Eucharist together. We seek to reorient ourselves around Christ and the story of his work in the world. We haven’t “grown” much from that original core of 40 from a few years ago, though we have added a few new families and other occasional newcomers. We continue the slow work of loving each other and loving our neighbors, seeking to proclaim and embody the good news of Jesus.
Our second gathering happens on Friday nights. Here, the space is a corner cafe, and the Eucharistic meal is pizza made from ingredients grown in our neighborhood. Our friends Robert and Erin have given themselves to this work and see it as a way to testify to the goodness and provision of God in this place. There are no set prices, and Robert has named this weekly pizza parlor Moriah Pie after Mt. Moriah in the story of Abraham and Isaac. So far, God has provided enough food and income to keep them going for the last two and a half years. It has become a gathering place for a wide variety of people, both from within our neighborhood and beyond it. In a beautiful way, it honors the slowness and rhythms of both nature and the spiritual life as God designed them.
As I experience more and more of life in this community, I am more and more convinced that the remedy to what ails the church in America is not to be found in fast church strategies that merely adapt corporate and capitalist methodology, but rather in joining the One who Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama referred to as the “3 mile an hour God” in the slow work of cultivating true discipleship and Christian community. Just as traditional farming is a long, difficult and God-dependent task, so discipleship is a long, difficult and God-dependent task. And just as the Slow Food movement is rediscovering the benefits and sustainability of this approach, so too will the Church if she is willing to take this slower road.
Joshua Stoxen grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, studied youth ministry at Judson University, and earned his MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently serves as Pastor at Vineyard Central in Norwood, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Photo: Asif Akbar; Bev Lloyd-Roberts LRPS