I’m not one for the latest and greatest thing, especially when it comes to trends in church leadership and models. In my younger years I was all for everything that was different and cool and underground. These days I still have certain things that I like that others don’t, but I’ve learned that not everyone is the same, and I’ve learned that – when it comes to church trends – fads come and go and when you jump on a fad you confuse and hurt a lot of people and, before you realise it, become irrelevant. Jesus isn’t building his church on fads, branding, and hype. And he isn’t building it on philosophy, either.
But it’s for these same reasons, however, that I’m interested in what is something of an obscure, emerging, almost fad-like discussion that is about how we run organised church. I say it’s fad-like because it borrows terms from what could be seen as a faddish, hipster movement – namely, the Slow Food movement. Not sure what that is? Here it is on Wikipedia. (Truth be told, though, the Slow Food movement has been around for longer than hipsters. But then again, hipsters aren’t new either – every generation has its own version: hippies, greasers etc.)
So what am I on about? I’m talking about a new book called Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, written by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. And yes, if you follow the links on their names you’ll see that both of these church leaders come with hipster beards. Over and above that, though, the book is about leaving “franchised faith behind” and deeply rooting a church in a local community.
I’m drawn to this for several reasons. I don’t know what the book will say and I hope it doesn’t just judge a whole lot of people. But nevertheless, here’s why I’m drawn to the title and what it seems to be about:
- Franchised, commercialised church does not produce Gospel fruit
I’m convicted about this. This problem isn’t only in America but we see it in South Africa all the time. Once churches run more like businesses they can often pull in large numbers, but not always. This is because a business is often about “location, location, location.” Put a business in the wrong location and it doesn’t work. Location is about the right product marketed to the right people at the right time. If you want to run like a business, you have to always keep up with the trends – good luck doing that on a limited budget.
Church is not about product. Commercialisation of a church makes us lose too much – namely involvement, community, an authentic faith, a living faith, loving hearts and even multi-culturalism. Church becomes about entertainment, hype, numbers and “excellence” rather than about, well, people. And you need to ‘market’ to a niche market, so you attract people of only a certain income group or certain race or culture. Meanwhile, the Gospel is for all.
- Hype makes less people involved
Less hype, more involvement. I only know this from experience – I don’t have research – but I’m sure I’m right. When a church (and its leaders) hype something up and over-brand it (branding is fine – it’s professionalism I’m talking about here, see below) the result is less involvement, not more. If something looks and feels too professional then people will just leave the professionals to do it and not get involved.
Too many pastors love to talk about excellence but fail to realise that there is a particular kind of excellence which makes a church lean towards professionalism, image and perfection, and a particular kind of excellence that is about expression and art. There’s a big difference between a musician who loves music and a musician who loves entertainment. There’s a big difference between the local jazz musicians down the road who are brilliant and the pop music machine. But because the latter brings in the people by the droves, too many pastors assume the latter is more effective.
It’s not. Pop is known to be ‘bubblegum’ music for a reason – you chew it and you spit it out, then you move on. That’s hardly what church is about. That’s why commercialised, franchised churches have lots of people who come in and leave but don’t stay and get involved for very long. Some do, but most move on. If you want involvement then stop pursuing excellence and start pursuing people. A healthy excellence will follow when excellence isn’t the goal or, dare I say it, even the means.
- Church is meant to be counter-cultural
The culture of the day is about big business, mass production, and fast results. In South Africa we’re not as far away from this in our cities as people think. Right now, South Africa is all about economics – we have developed into a super-materialistic culture where we must see results and the bigger the hype, the better.
We’re meant to run counter-cultural to our surrounding culture’s excesses and idols, but too many churches just absorb the excesses under the guise of ‘being all things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:19 – 23). Unfortunately, that’s taking that scripture out of context. You can’t worship money in your church in order to be relevant to people who worship money. You can’t serve two masters.
- We’re a people of peace
In busy cities like Johannesburg, productivity and busyness are idols. Some people worship work and garner too much of their identity from it. Some Christian leaders have made external results more important than inward change.
I’ve observed this first-hand. I’ve heard too many pastors pridefully say, “Yeah, I have a very busy church.” They think busyness equates to effectiveness. I disagree. I don’t think busyness is really anything to be proud of, to be honest. What are your people busy doing? They’re busy being busy, that’s what, and nothing much else. Instead I’d much rather hear a pastor say, “We have a loving church.” My point is too many pastors mistake busyness for life. Maybe your people are being driven by guilt, not love, and that’s why they’re busy. No amount of busyness will ever bring revival, so why all the fuss about being busy?
Let the work follow the inward change, the Spirit’s infilling – don’t try and create the Spirit’s work through busyness. Maybe you think you’re not a legalist, but if you make busyness some form of way to measure the Spirit’s work, you probably are an undercover legalist.
- Church is about real people in a real world
Church isn’t about “the numbers’. People aren’t numbers. When it’s about “the numbers” it’s as if we believe that Jesus died for a statistic. Why the heck are you so worried about the amount of people who came to your church last night? Perhaps it’s because you need to save face – after all you just spent a whole lot of money on a big event, hyped it up to 10,000 degrees, and convinced everyone that it was going to change the world. Next time, try being a church and not an events centre.
- Local church is the antithesis to capitalistic big business and big government
I believe that the answer to our over-materialistic culture is that we rely too much on big business and big government. I’m not being a libertarian – I believe that we need stronger communities and a local church plays a vital part in strengthening community and strengthening the family. I’m a communitarian, if I’m anything philosophically speaking. Today’s church has fallen prey to the modern materialistic hope in big business and big government so much that we’ve just copied these models and tried to implement them in our churches through franchising, commercialising, and over-governing.
We can be so ambitious sometimes that we malign the seemingly small changes to people’s lives we can make and forget that those small changes are big to those people. We want greatness and reputation and people in their thousands to come out and dance in the streets “for Jesus” in the name of our church and think these things will change a city. We think that a march for Jesus counts more than all getting together and repairing a poor person’s house. Thousands of people rock up for political marches all the time but how much really changes? God works underground not in the mainstream, but we want to work in the mainstream, because somehow we think that this is how change will come. It won’t.
I don’t usually talk about these things because I know too many writers who are critical of the way churches work but they never do anything about it. I also don’t believe all my opinions are right and realise this is also about opinion and personal taste. But there they are nevertheless and maybe they’ll at least stir some thought.
Whether or not Slow Church will give me some ideas which I can put to practice in ensuring my church never slips into a franchised culture remains to be seen. I’m grateful for where I’m at but I’m serious about building things well for the future. I’ll pop up a review after I’m done with the book – perhaps some people who don’t have the time or money to read it right now will find my review useful.