The world is fallen, and the way God has chosen to redeem the world is place by place, gathering communities that together seek the common good, the redemption, the shalom of particular places.
– Slow Church p. 42
The universal love of God leads to the contextual love of His church
God is at work in all the world. We forget this sometimes. We tend to get swallowed up in the vastness of brokenness in the world, not to mention the struggles we face every day, and forget that God really is active, seeking to reconcile the whole world. When we remember this reality, however, we are released from the unnecessary burden of figuring out how to bring salvation to the cosmos ourselves. When we remember that God really is at work in the world, we’re able to spend our time in whatever corner we live, and trust him to do his work through others elsewhere.
Once we’ve turned from figuring out how to be God’s witnesses in all the world, we can turn our attention to our local setting, and ask, “How do we be witnesses to God’s good kingdom here?” It is here that we need to heed the instruction of the Slow Church movement, and be willing to sit, and wait, and hear from those around us. It requires that we dream with a long-term lens. Rather than asking, “What do we want our church to look like in ten years?” we need to ask, “What does God want this neighborhood to look like in a generation?” The kicker, however, is that in order to answer that question we first have to truly understand our neighborhoods today.
According to Chris and John, we need to be able to tell our neighborhood’s stories. At the conference, Willie Jennings urged us to know what happens outside our church, and to enter into the vulnerability that is inherent in relating to the unknown, Christine Pohl reminded us to open ourselves up to the needs around us, and Phil Kinneson called us to live to an end of abiding in Christ, devoting ourselves to others, and paying attention to people who are not our own. As the Big Gospel calls us to be a part of God’s reconciling work in the part of the world where we live, the Slow Church is the church that’s next step is to stop, and to listen.
We have two opportunities in the next three weeks at New Hope to stop and listen to our neighbors. Our August 3 community cook-out will give us the chance to talk to people in the neighborhood, hear their stories and get to know them. August 5 is the National Night Out, and it is a chance to gather with our neighbors because of the efforts of our local officials to meet people and hear about what’s going where we live. These type of gatherings can be a place to stop and listen for where the people of Vandalia are in need of God’s reconciling love.
As we listen to our neighborhood, I believe churches will find that they are being led toward their part in God’s mission there. In Slow Church, Chris and John talk about the local flavor of the church. That as the church learns the culture and the history of the neighborhood, and seeks to serve out of the needs of the people who are there, the church will take on the taste of that local community. This is the challenge of Slow Church. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for the church. What it appropriate for the community at the Englewood Christian Church where Chris serves may be wholly inappropriate for the community where I serve as pastor at New Hope. Slow Church pushes us into a richer understanding of being the church though, and challenges churches to be faithful where they grow.
The Slow Church of all Sizes
As I’ve read the Slow Church book and engaged in conversations at the conference, I was greatly encouraged by the idea that Slow Church may offer congregations of all sizes hope that they can be faithful, flourishing congregations where they are. Slow Church allows us to extract ourselves from the insane culture war that has gripped the church at large in America. I believe that as the church gets to know our neighbors, we can stop fretting about the pending assault on our privilege in society. We may be able stop dealing with issues or agendas when we are walking with people who are struggling with personal depression, or are trying to figure out where their next meal will come from. As we involve ourselves in the life of the community, seeing it thrive in the name of Christ can overcome the pressures from the Christian talking heads who believe we all must join the so-called battle for the nation. Small churches can begin to imagine being faithful in the former, and not feel crushed by the weight of the latter.
The desire to be faithful in the local community for the sake of the kingdom also allows us to get off the merry-go-round of the church growth movement. Outside of the suburbs, where everything springs up over night and there’s a virtual cornucopia of the great white whales of the “young, middle-class family,” the pressure to run in circles trying to get more people to come to the church who can spend more money on the programs that are attracting more people is dissipated by the opportunity for everyone to find a way to love our neighbors. There’s a place for everyone to show the love of Christ in the Slow Church, and a church of any size can dream of what it might look like to sit, and to listen, and to be aware of the people around us long enough to hear what God might have for us to say to them. Small churches are full of people who can sit, and comfort a broken hearted neighbor. Small churches still have people who can connect people to the resources they need to survive.
For New Hope, this is a call to see our size as an advantage in serving God in the neighborhood. Too often we get caught up in trying to be like the mega-church everyone loves, and jumping ahead into financial and physical obligations that weigh us down. If we’re modeling slow churches after dinner tables, then perhaps the best image for a small, slow church is the simplicity of a card table. Yes it’s portable, which seems counter to the call to embed into a neighborhood, but there’s a flexibility and a nimbleness that allows the card table to set up for dinner wherever people need to eat a kingdom meal. Small churches might be better not to rush ahead to get the big, fancy, oak dinner table that will keep them locked inside their dinning room, and first trust that like the card table, we can set ourselves up for meals inside or outside, in the church or in the cul-de-sac.
No Gospel Formula
During David Fitch’s talk at the conference I jotted down the following note, “The Gospel is so big, you can start off anywhere and get to the whole.” I don’t know if this was a direct quote or a summary, but as the church slows down to listen to the neighborhood, it’s an important point to remember. I grew up trained in the Romans Road and the great divide tracts for evangelism. You shared the gospel with people by getting them to agree that we’re all sinful, explaining the dire, and eternal consequences of that reality, and then sharing with them how Christ’s sacrifice made it possible to bridge the gap between us and God and experience eternal life.
And I never knew how to interject that into a conversation. The few times I did, people would agree with me mostly to humor me, and then move on to something else.
What the statement above frees us up to, is the reality that as we slow down and listen to our neighbors, we can find the places where the gospel can speak, and allow it to work toward the whole from there. People are hurting, people are lonely, people are buried by their own guilt or their own shame, or their have known only hopelessness or anger or betrayal. As we listen to their stories, as we identify with their struggles, we can speak the hope of the kingdom in response, and then trust in the Holy Spirit to draw them to Christ from there. But we can’t do that if we’re concerned about how fast we get things done, or how many people we have convinced to come on a Sunday morning, or even if we’ve won them over to our social cause of the day.
It takes time, and trust, and commitment, and love. It takes the leading of the Holy Spirit. And ultimately, it takes faith that God is actually at work. He really does want what’s best for the neighborhood, and for the people we meet. When we believe that, we can believe that as we meet people where they are, and give of ourselves out of love and sacrifice God will be at work.