A Slow Study Guide a Comin’: a study-guide review

It has been almost two years since I plowed through Slow Church — a book critiquing the fast-food-like-franchising of the church, suggesting instead a more local, organic and inclusive vision of Christian community. I devoured the book. I didn’t read it slow. I swallowed it whole. I was (and am) sympathetic to the vision that C.Christopher Smith and John Pattison painted. The franchise model emphasizes efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. A slow church model seeks out  sustainable practices and the cultivatation deep relationships (to people and places).

4130IVP has recently released the Slow Church Study Guide which invites small groups and communities to participate in an 11 week discussion of the book. Each session is made up of six components:

  1.  Readings of Slow Church (the book) for participants to do prior to each meeting
  2. resources for facilitators to prepare, including videos, audio clips and blog posts (all linked at http://guide.slowchurch.com)
  3. a welcome (usually a poem or a quotation to center group members and help them to be present with one another
  4. Lectio Divina on a relevant portion of scripture
  5. Conversation starter questions
  6. closing thoughts

Ideally each sesson take about an hour and half to go through as a group.

The study guide is a chance to chew on the concepts and practices suggested by the book and press into its implications in the context of community. I did it wrong. My wife and I did the sessions together. I did go back and re-read the relevant sections of the book, but I doubt Smith and Pattison envisioned this as a “couple’s devotional.” We did read slow and follow the format of the book. We shared about the theological vision for slow church with our fifteen month old beside us and our toes in the sand overlooking Tampa Bay. We discussed the terroir (taste of place) over the finest Pinot Noir we could find (that came in a box). We discussed our church community and churches we’ve been apart of. We explored the character of our neighborhood and community and what we could do to embody God’s reconciling love and welcoming mission to our peculiar place.

This is a great guide and would be a wonderful small group study or a framework for church plant teams, or church lead teams to dream up possibilities for their community. I  resonate with both the book and the guide; however I have one small critique. One of the things I appreciate most about the vision for Slow Church is how inclusive it is. Franchised churches  commodify the gospel exclude the marginalized. In contrast, the theological vision for slow church emphasizes the inclusion of everyone (see the Lectio Divina on 2 Cor 5:14-21 in session one, the session/chapter on hospitality, etc). However I am not sure how inclusive the study guide is..The resources and welcomes are drawn from mostly white males. Ethnic and immigrant communities have a lot to teach us about local expressions of church (i.e. local theologies). It would have been nice to see more diverse voices included in the facilitator preparation especially. Also the focus on this as a book study caters to the more literary, thinkers and bookish types.  That describes me and I love it, but I am not sure that everyone I ever sat in a small group with would feel engaged by the material. I know a study guide can’t be all things, so put these critiques in the FWIW category. I liked it and overall give this study guide four stars.

Note: I received this study guide from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

There’s a Slow Church a Comin’: a book review

Across the cover of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus is an endorsement from Scot McKnight advocating a slow read of this book. Weeks before I picked up the book I plowed through a ‘Slow Church sampler’ which included the introduction and a chapter from the book. This project excited me, but when the book came I was slow to work through it, finding myself lingering on pages. I concur with McKnight, this is worth a slow read. Chris Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and John Pattison, editor of CONSPIRE magazine are steeped in the idea of slow church. Both men are part of faith communities that seek to live out the Kingdom of God in particular contexts. Taking a nod from the Slow Food movement, Smith and Pattison eschew the McDonaldization of church. Where churches have often taken cues from a culture emphasizing ‘efficency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results)  and control’ (13-4), Smith and Pattison call us back to a recovery of a more organic, local and holistic way of embodying God’s mission in the world.

Pattison and Smith have set the table for a feast! They present a three-course meal. In the first course they give us the terroir–the taste of place (chapter one), They advocate ‘stability’ and commitment to a particular place for the long haul (chapter two) and urge us to be ‘patient’ by placing the mission of the church within the larger story of God’s coming kingdom (chapter three). They name this first course ‘Ethics’ and by this they do not mean a list of rules but a set of commitments which help us navigate the world of church and mission (slowly).  The second course they call ‘Ecology.’ Here they help us counter our tendencies towards dualism and fragmentation by advocating wholeness (chapter four). They urge us to a deeper appreciation for work and vocation (chapter five) and the counter-cultural practice of Sabbath keeping, including its implications for life sharing and economic leveling (chapter seven). This ‘ecology’ reveals a different way of living in place. Smith and Pattison give us a vision for holistic mission which honors the work of the people, and God’s provision. The final course is called ‘Economy.’ At the head of this section is a chapter on abundance (chapter eight) which exhorts us to trust in the resources we have in Christ. This is explicated in the following chapters: chapter nine shows us how to have gratitude for God’s provision (including asset-mapping our neighborhoods); chapter ten encourages us to a robust practice of hospitality; chapter eleven calls us to the deep, messy experience of life sharing through dinner conversation. This vision encompasses both the messiness of community and the eucharistic sharing of church.

These are rich an and suggestive reflections. My summary does not do justice to how graciously Smith and Pattison have laid this out. Here is a book that challenges what many of us have found wanting in our American church experience, but this in not bitter bashing of  the mega church complex. It is instead provides the positive case for the church as a faithful and prophetic community which challenges the status quo. This would be a perfect book to read and discuss with an elder’s board or church staff. But it isn’t a heady leadership book. Church small groups and individuals would also benefit from it and will find their lives and theology challenged. This is a book that calls us to deepen our faith practices and our commitment to one another. Buy it and read it slowly. Then read it again. Five Stars★★★★★

So good!

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.