I don’t know any pastors or church leaders that want the ministry of their church to be a flash in the pan for the spiritual lives of disenfranchised sometimes church-goers. We all say that we want a ministry that lasts, even into eternity. But somehow many of us still resort to microwaving discipleship and producing worship services.
C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s new book, Slow Church, evokes some of the richest imagery that I’ve heard to challenge the temptation to inject our ministries with life rather than nurturing life. The “slow food” movement’s challenge of industrialized agriculture wonders whether the soil has simply become only an apparatus to “hold up the plant.” While the soil holds it up, all that is needed for the plant to sustain life is dropped on it from outside the soil in the form of chemical fertilizers. In contrast, creation (or nature, as the secularist calls it) produces fruit from the bottom up. The soil has to be healthy and cared for because it isn’t just holding the plant upright, but it is the source of sustenance and life.
Smith and Pattison suggest that the program-driven churches of the church growth movement have succumbed to this unsustainable top down “fertilizing” of individual spiritual lives. Church development and church planting resources and conferences teach the techniques and formulas for “growing” a thriving ministry. Find one growing suburban development area. Add a casual preacher with an edgy message. Throw in a worship leader with a v-neck shirt and Les Paul. Don’t forget good children’s programming during the worship hour. Keep a steady stream of a sufficient number of advertising dollars. Twenty-four months later you have a burgeoning congregation and you just need to keep it alive long enough that the giving equals expenses. I never had an opportunity to plant a church myself, but just a decade ago I was quite convinced that I could successfully plant a congregation in any community with a sufficient population if I had the budget to do so. Before a bunch of church planters blast me with a thousand critiques, I now know that it isn’t that simple. I now know that even really good pastors that seemed to have all of the right “inputs” still cannot grow a congregation and that doesn’t mean that it is their “fault.”
But even if it isn’t that simple, I think that many of us are still under the illusion that when it doesn’t work it was a result of not having the inputs that were needed: They didn’t have enough money. They didn’t have enough leaders/support from the neighboring congregation. They choose a bad style of music. The preacher wasn’t good enough.
But maybe the problem isn’t the correct inputs. Maybe the problem is that “church” has become like the soil that holds the plant while all of these inputs are rained down upon it. Maybe the churches that fill pews and produce celebrity pastors and worship musicians have no more sustainable growth than does the failed church plant. Surely some of them will grow, just like the corn throughout my home state of Indiana that seems to get taller and taller every year. “Knee high by the fourth of July” has started to look more like “chin high by the fourth of July” at the same time that the suburban megachurch is trying to buy that corn field to build an ever larger parking lot. But we must ask whether we can continue to pour chemicals upon behemoth corn stalks or build parking lots that sit empty 165 hours per week.
As Smith and Pattison warn, “Americans seem increasingly wary of being sold another product so scrubbed and polished and unsurprising you’d never guess it had been born of soil and sun and scat” (Slow Church, 15).
The alternative, if we are to follow the analogy a bit further, is to again see the “soil” of the church as the nurturing resource that feeds the growth of its fruit. This is not a flashy program but the cultivation of a community of formation. Formation is slow work where persons become rooted deeply within a community that is being shaped by the reading of Scripture, care for their neighbor, and the labor of a toil for justice. In short, sustainable fruit comes from cultivating the right kind of communities.
The idea that we need to counteract our fascination with church technique is not new. Smith and Pattison haven’t diagnosed a problem that none of us recognized before. Rather, their contribution is the humble suggestion that the conversations of the “slow food” movement might teach the church a few things about cultivating communities of spiritual growth (and not only numerical growth). Check out the book if you want to follow this metaphor a bit further. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter at #SlowChurch. I’ll write a few more posts over the next few weeks telling how the book has helped me think about church better.