By LeRoy Lawson
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2014
iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013
Brave New World
New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics; originally published in 1932
Chris Smith presented the argument for Slow Church to a small gathering in Erwin, Tennessee. After a season of serious drought, First Christian Church has been enjoying renewal under the steady leadership of Chris’s friend Todd Edmondson. Erwin was a fitting venue, since many of the growth techniques that have proven so successful for megachurches simply don’t work in this mountain community. Slow Church does.
I went to the meeting because I knew a little bit about Chris’s church, Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, and wanted to learn more. I used to preach in his town, back when Englewood was one of the city’s big churches. We didn’t call it an “emerging megachurch” then, because the term hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s how we designate churches with a weekend attendance of between 1,000 and 1,999 today.
Between those thriving days and now, hard times hit. The neighborhood changed, the congregation split, the pastor who led the congregation to its greatest numerical growth, and through the split, answered the siren call of the West, and the downward spiral accelerated until it bottomed out with a handful of stubborn believers who, no matter what, would not give up.
As a result, unlike so many churches in similar circumstances, Englewood’s doors did not close. Instead, the struggling congregation reinvented itself and is now an inspiration to others who take lessons from Englewood on how to do church slow—as the subtitle says, in the Patient Way of Jesus.
That’s Chris’s church. Coauthor John Pattison’s church is in Oregon, almost as far from the bustling metropolis of Indianapolis as you can go, geographically and culturally. Yet in both semirural Oregon and urban Indiana, the Slow Church experiment is succeeding.
It definitely is countercultural. In an era of fast food, fast cars, fast Internet service, and even faster impatience, these Christians are exploring the almost lost virtues of slow meals together, genuine conversations, the practice of hospitality, long commitments to relationships and community, deliberate inefficiencies, quiet meditation, regular Communion, community gardens and other ecological practices, and—old-fashioned as this sounds—a desire to attain and protect “liberty and justice for all.”
In other words, they want church to be a gathering of people who know and care about one another—through thick and thin. They think this is what the kingdom of God is about.
I enjoyed and was challenged by Chris Smith’s talk that evening. I bought the book because I wanted more of what he said. This thoughtful volume, easy to read but buttressed by thoughtful scholarship, delivers.
As if to further illustrate what Slow Church is reacting to, Craig Detweiler brings us iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. All you need to convince yourself that the shaping is subtly, insidiously transforming our world is to watch your grandchildren manipulating (and being manipulated by) their iPhones, iPads, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and posting their selfies on Instagram.
What makes Detweiler’s analysis so intriguing is that he loves the technology he analyzes. He’s not just some grump griping about this technological fantasyland of ours. He loves it—but with a discerning love. He doesn’t, like so many critics of this bewildering society, just rant. He doesn’t advocate a return to the pre-Internet era (an impossibility, anyway), nor does he eagerly embrace all the latest gadgets. While admitting (and appreciating) the benefits of technology, he warns of its dark underbelly.
His discussion of the proliferating social media (texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) balances the joys of immediate connectivity with the loss of face-to-face community. Are they making us more loving, more thoughtful, more articulate—more responsible persons? They are certainly fostering more impatience, not just when the Internet sputters, but even more when people disappoint and social systems collapse. And as we hide behind our anonymity and complain about the nameless “theys” who are responsible for all the evil in the world, what obligation will we feel for the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized?
When technology becomes an end in itself, we must beware. When it becomes a means of enhancing relationships and serving the greater good, it is to be welcomed.
Detweiler is professor of communication at Pepperdine University. He writes as a Christian for Christians. He finds parallels between theology and technology prowess. He occasionally preaches, straining a bit to connect the two. Still, I kept on reading.
As Chris Smith and John Pattison might ask, “Google and Facebook and Amazon and Apple and YouTube and Twitter and . . . and . . . make everything closer and faster, but do they make persons deeper and relationships stronger?”
Detweiler’s book deals with the same question—but of course you don’t need a book to answer the question. Just look at all those people ignoring one another at restaurant tables while they fiddle with their smartphones. It’s pretty hard to pay attention to flesh and blood people with you while focusing on receiving and sending messages into cyberspace.
Writers have been wringing their hands over society’s upsetting changes for a long time. One who caught the English-speaking world’s attention more than 80 years ago was Aldous Huxley with his Brave New World. In this dystopian (as far from the Garden of Eden as you can get) novel, Huxley casts his jaundiced eye on a London ruled by technocrats, to the destruction of humanity as we know it. The author wrote in the era of cheap (and fast) cars, telephones (instant communication), radios (mindless entertainment), and rampant sexual immorality. His great fear was that the individuals would eventually disappear; conformity would rule.
The setting is London in the year 2540 (AD, we would say) or 632 AF (After Ford, they would say), and the scene is not pretty. Mass mechanization—of machinery and humans, employing the assembly line popularized by Henry Ford) now governs everything. Machines are stamped out according to blueprint. So are babies, who are no longer conceived by male-female mating, but are produced according to type in factories.
“Mothering” has become outmoded. The World State controls everything. People will be happy—or else. They are kept happy by a plenteous supply of food, security, and sex. If somebody veers toward unhappiness, a soma pill quickly restores normality.
All children are not created equal, of course, because somebody has to do the work, so there are five rigid, inescapable castes. How else could you have a predictable society? If people are free, there’s no telling what they’ll try to become. So keep them happy and unthinking. “Sleep learning” (slogans and axioms piped in during sleep, thousands of repetitions over multiplied years), makes it impossible for one to deviate from the party line.
It was good for me to review this classic. It reminded me that we are still trying to find the balance between fast and slow, between the latest technology and how things used to be, and between becoming “the church of what’s happenin’ now” and “church as we used to do it when we were doing it right.”
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.