Bringing Slow Church to a Fast Generation [Ekklesia Project Guest Post by Jarrod Longbons]

[ On July 5-7, The Ekklesia Project will hold its annual gathering in Chicago, which will be on the theme of Slow Church.  Between now and July, we will be running a series of lguest reflections here by folks connected with the E.P. We've asked guest posters to reflect on the meaning of Slow Church from their own local contexts. More info on the E.P. gathering.  ]

Today’s reflection, the second in the series, is by Jarrod Longbons.
Read the first post by Lee Wyatt.

I am part of a thriving, yet “slow church” community.  It’s called YAC (Young Adult Community), a ministry of Northside Church of Christ for members of late generation X and early generation Y in the campus “twin city” of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  Our group is mixed, consisting of college and graduate students, single professionals, marrieds, parents (babies in tow), dating couples, those who attend Northside, those who are disillusioned with church, Protestants, Catholics, and some with disabilities.  The patchwork of people makes our life together quite colorful.  Like many other ministries, we have regular meeting times, classes, a community garden, creativity nights, campouts, mission trips, service projects, etc.  But the “bread and butter” of our life together is our Sunday evening Eucharistic celebration.

At 7pm, participants descend upon our home with enough food and drink for all.  Our house immediately starts buzzing with fellowship; a meal is shared, stories told, jokes rehearsed.  At dinner’s end, most are intentional about cleaning up the potluck aftermath.  Norman Wirzba is right when he says that even doing the dishes together can build community!

Conversation time begins traditionally: announcements, updates, prayer issues, and then an offering.  The money is taken up and gifted to single mothers, health bills, catastrophe relief efforts, or whatever burden is most pressing.  With the clamor turning to calm, we take a moment to pray for the food.  Often the prayer includes lines such as “God, we thank you for this meal.  We acknowledge to eat something had to give its life, so we are grateful for the gift.  We acknowledge that to participate in the Body of Christ, Christ gave his life, and we are more grateful for that gift.”  This is an intentional way to reflect on the costliness of and grace in everyday life.  With Josef Pieper, we believe this practice wrests us away from the traps of a “workaday world.”

Next, we move to a group conversation.  Currently, we are encountering Bonheoffer’s Life Together with the aid of the Ekklesia Project’s CFI discussion material.  Other times have been devoted to theological doctrines and others to books of Scripture.  As noted, our group is diverse, especially so in relation to people’s understanding of Christian thought.  Our group has a few PhD and MA students of theology/philosophy and others with advanced degrees in economics and literature.  There are also missionaries (on furlough), woodworkers, artists, professionals, and social workers.  So, conversations are varied; not everyone is at the same place.  Paramount to the community is discovering and discussing the faith together, even if it takes more time than one would like.  In fact, a member recently commented that they appreciate how “the group teaches itself;” there’s always someone who can address the ideas of another even if it is not the leader.

Seamlessly, the focus moves to communion.  It is for this reason – not food, study, or fellowship – that we gather.  Everything else finds its consummation in our practice of the Lord’s Supper.  Ever-present are a loaf of bread and a decanter of wine on the table in the center of our space.  We uphold the idea that this is a communal event, unlike the inward private moment so many American churches have made it.  Often, the meditation includes some reflection of William Cavanaugh’s ideas from Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire: “as we consume the body and blood together, we acknowledge that we are being consumed into the Body of Christ.  The deeper we explore the purpose of this meal, the more we become part of one another.  Your hurt is my hurt; my joy is your joy.  Because of Christ, our fates are aligned.”  We then break bread and raise our glasses.  At this time, it is also common for people to share testimonies of thanksgiving with the community.

Though the climax, our evening does not end here.  The spirit of everything before flows into a time of spontaneous fellowship, of simple “being together.”  The point is slow, intentional investment in one another.  This is a low-tech, “high touch” time, as we encourage one another to be present by resisting texting or facebooking; our challenge is to “be where you are.”  Sometimes this fellowship goes on into the early hours of Monday morning.

Not long ago, after the house emptied, I sat outside with Corey, expressing my anxieties.  I explained that I am excited to participate in a group so thoroughly committed to life together.  But could it be sustained?  I mean, in our area, and in my own congregation, people clamor for more community, but lifestyles stand in the way.  Older members of Northside reminisce of a similar time with their cohorts and lament its passing.  I wondered, “When we have kids and buy big houses, will this all end?”

A month later, as Corey and I sat behind my house waiting for another unpredictable Sunday night to begin, Corey pulled out his Mac book and read a letter addressed to me.  Allow me to paraphrase what it said:

“Our group grows because it is about life, which is something everybody wants.  What we do is slow, intentional, and life giving, and if we continue to allow these things to shape our faith, then we will continue to discover how to live in intentional community despite the life stage.  However, if our aim is growth for the sake of growth, we will fail to be life-giving, and we will diminish.”

It rings true to me.  Our little community is experiencing vitality, and it does so because of its commitment to slowing the pace with intentional practices.  The pace and practice has proven powerful enough to withstand my best efforts as a leader to mess it up with too much planning, preparing, and pushing.  YAC thrives because its members carefully filter life through the description of the ancient church in Acts 2:42 – “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (NIV).”

————-

Jarrod M. Longbons is an Associate Minister at Northside Church of Christ in Bloomington, IL and a PhD student at the University of Nottingham (theology).  His theo-blog is www.theartofthegoodlife.blogspot.com

  • LeslieS

    Nice job Jarrod!

  • Grchap

    There seems to be an ongoing theme of dillusionment in the stories of Christians in this day and age. This dillusionment seems to be most commonly associated with gen x’ers and y’ers more than other groups. In the narrative of the time this dillusionment is written as if it should be worn as a badge of honor. I have started to wonder if it is more of a cultural Christianity rather then a Gospel centered life.
    In the 1st century church did the disillusioned just walk away or start a new religious culture that appealed to their likes or dislikes?
    I wonder what a committed church body looks like anymore? A group of people who need no other discription then what the moniker “body of Christ” defines. A community not defined by a level of college degrees, or age, or wealth and status in life; that these cultural proxies for religious success give way to true service of loving one’s neighbor as deeply as the one true God.
    I admit I am disillusioned with the disillusioned faithful. I ask the larger community if we has lost the themes of imago dei and opus dei?
    By the way I am a boomer with a MA Theological Studies/Community Ministry

    • Cmkinse

      My experience says you are right about the “ongoing theme” and some of its implications. But I’m not sure that ignoring it or insisting that it conform will do the gospel’s job either. (Also, maybe the leaders of the established religious culture in the 1st cent. viewed the church in such a way as we are speaking? I am only trying to add nuance to your statement.) As a non-disillusioned person, it is my goal to bear faithfully and patiently with those who do experience disillusionment, as to not perpetuate the demarcation that you have outlined here and to bring them back ever closer to the joyful and diverse community of faith. – gen X with an MBA.

  • Jarrodlongbons

    Grchap,

    You raise some very important questions and concerns. Blessings to you for your desire to do what Ephraim Radner calls the “discipline of staying put.” I only want to clarify, in case my little essay is misunderstood, that YAC is not something that has disengaged from our wider church body. Only having 1,000 words to describe it was a bit daunting for me. But one of the things that I truly love about the community is how connected it tries to be with other generations. The group has the goal of getting together with our most senior group at Northside, it does seem that expression of faith is being shared both ways. (intergenerational ministry is pushed regularly in all the ministries of the congregation I attend)

    So while I do resonate with your point about those who are disillusioned (and YAC has those too), I wanted to make clear that the overall tenor of the group is of another sort. I think it is great to have those who are very committed and those who are disillusioned, or even those who doubt, mixed in the same group. This mix feels very faithful to me; I think it demonstrates a certain fruit of faithful and graceful work that community members are participating in. The aim however, is to pastor and walk with the disillusioned in their journey to, hopefully, gentler pastures.

    Again, I really appreciate your concerns and to a large extent, I resonate with them. I just wanted to clarify a few of those thing to you about these tremendous people.


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