A Dark Side to Slow Church?


I have been reading a bunch of articles today on the legacy of John Howard Yoder (what his well-documented incidents of sexual harassment mean for how we interpret his theology).  Lots of good important questions being asked, and many of them related to Slow Church.  For those interested, I started here and was eventually led to this superb two-part article.


The most challenging question is: Does the slowness of Slow Church just serve to prop up existing power structures, such as patriarchy, whiteness and heterosexuality?  Is this a dark side to Slow Church? Particularly, are the practices of conversation and discernment (central to Slow Church), little more than thinly-veiled efforts to kick the can, and not intentionally NOT address pressing concerns related to race, gender, sexuality, etc.?


After some reflection, my short answer to these questions is “No, I don’t think so.” But the story is, as usual, more complicated than this simple answer.


To examine these questions, however, I will begin with the question of identity. As Christians, our primary identity and allegiance is to follow Christ.  All other facets of our identity (and I certainly recognize that there are indeed other facets) are secondary.  Yes, these other facets do very much influence our understanding of what it means to follow Christ, but nevertheless following Christ is primary and race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc are at most secondary factors.  But what does it mean to follow Christ?  The local church to which we belong is essential to our identity in Christ, as we are called to embody Christ together in a particular place. Our life together bears everyday witness – for better and for worse – of Christ to our neighbors.


If I read Willie Jennings’s work correctly, our Western inability to be a people in a place was a key factor in the formation of race as we know it today. I haven’t given it much thought, but I wonder if there is a similar connection between place and sexuality? (I’m sure that there are people out there writing about this… I’d love to know who they are and where to start with their work!)  Staying in a place and finding our identity as part of Christ’s body there, will be our guide to knowing how to rightly and justly understand the vast diversity of human life – but especially the sorts of diversity that are inherent in the midst of our church community, and our neighborhood.


The local church, central to our understanding of Slow Church, is – I believe – where the primary discernments related to questions of gender, race, sexuality must be made (Are we going to ordain both women and men? Are we categorically denying any office or sacrament of the church to some group of people?  Will we accept LBGTQ people as full members of our congregations; will we ordain or marry them?)  We need to wrestle with these questions, deciding who we will be as a church community.  Being in discernment on one or more of these questions is fine, but as a local church community, we have to live together day-by-day, so discernment can never be a permanent state of affairs, and efforts to silence people by appealing to discernment must be named as such.  People may leave our congregations because of the decisions we make, and, if we handle that graciously, it is not necessarily a bad thing.  We certainly should encourage commitment and stability within the local church community, but on the other hand, we cannot force anyone to stay.


As we make decisions about who we are as local congregations, we will have to work through the consequences of what those decisions mean for our relationships with our denomination or more informally with other churches.   (And certainly these relationships will always haunt us as we make decisions about we will be.)  We might face punitive measures, or be removed from our denomination, or force larger conversations, in which we might band with similarly-affiliated congregations.


It seems to me that there is a tendency to want to resolve these questions from the top down, that is, starting with denominational policy, and from there dictating the stance of all local congregations in that denomination.  This seems to me, at least, to be its own kind of violence, and this is where my account gets complicated.  Yes, it is probably true that discernment might well mean propping up existing – and often unjust – power structures at levels beyond the congregation (diocese, synod, district, region, denomination, etc.), but, as I described above, we are learning to imagine and embody new ways of being in our local congregations, and these new ways will – if we are attentive and persistent in our local identity – begin to shape the policy of larger church groups.


It is important to note that discerning our identity as local congregations, will ultimately impact the policy not only of our church institutions, but also of governmental and social institutions in which we are engaged.  If our congregation decides to marry same-sex couples, for instance, (or if we choose not to do so) that will have sociopolitical ramifications for our neighborhoods and cities.


As Jesus’s parable of the log and the speck reminds us, it is very easy to see and denounce the violence of another, but much more difficult to see the violence inherent in our own theologies, policies and actions.  A key facet of Slow Church is not only seeking that injustice be reconciled, but doing so in a way that is itself just and not inflicting further violence, and I believe that we learn reconciliation best when we do so in the context of real, embodied relationships of persons, not as abstract political issues (although they do have significance for real individuals and groups).  Our politics must follow from who we are as communities that embody Christ, and not vice versa.


I’m mostly thinking out loud here…  What do you think? Does this account give too much leeway to powers of whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, etc?

  • http://love2justice.wordpress.com Joe D.

    Chris, I’m glad you’re wrestling with this question. It’s one I remember having about slow church in the past.

    When you began the paragraph about our tendency to address issues of race, class, sexuality, etc from the top-down and then advocated for a localized, bottom-up approach, I thought of Paul’s letter to Philemon. I’ve read some commentators who describe it as a “ticking time bomb” for the unjust system of slavery in which Philemon and Onesimus are involved. I think they’re right. This “time bomb” was nothing less than a plea for community at a very local level; it was a simple relationship between two people and a probably a small group of others. Sounds a lot like what you’re getting at, no?

    Still a lot to wrestle with here and I don’t think I have any more to contribute at this point ;) So, look forward to the continued discussion!

  • Stephen Milliken

    I think the the more general question, “How slow is too slow?” is an important question. However, I think the reactionary demand for change in such circles as these (gender, racial, sexual issues) is what we’re trying to resist. And it isn’t that we don’t want change, I think we very much do and we want it sooner rather than later, but we know that in order to have the kind of substantive deep change that we are striving for, that sort of change will take more time. Bringing everyone into the conversation makes a much longer conversation, but the fruit is so much richer. That’s the fruit we are looking for, I think.

  • Gary Lynch

    Chris you asked:”Does the slowness of Slow Church just serve to prop up existing power structures, such as patriarchy, whiteness and heterosexuality? Is this a dark side to Slow Church? Particularly, are the practices of conversation and discernment (central to Slow Church), little more than thinly-veiled efforts to kick the can, and not intentionally NOT address pressing concerns related to race, gender, sexuality, etc.?”

    I believe your short answer; “No, I don’t think so.” should suffice, because I think to the heart of the matter, you did ask a question that deserved a straight forward, yes or no answer. To me one of the biggest problems that Slow Church might encounter would be that at times by its very nature it leaves no room for straight forward simple responses.
    My hope is that as part of the process, that the church community would come to a point where we can let our yes be yes and our no be no (see Matthew 5:33-37), and that in and of itself would give validity to our bearing witness in the world.
    Getting back to the question though: if by “prop up” you mean to shed light upon, then maybe the answer should be a positive yes instead of a negative no, because if through our conversations and slowness we are drawing attention to (shedding light on) an injustice, then I think it is the very thing that we need to be doing.
    If by “dark side”, you mean; there are some who don’t/won’t understand what we are doing, then I guess you are probably right.

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    Excellent and challenging thoughts. I’m fully on board with your approach. I have two responses to this post.

    First, you say “discernment can never be a permanent state of affairs…” I wholly disagree. Isn’t one of the essential functions (if not THE essential function) of the Church communal discernment? The creation of Creation is ongoing until reconciliation is complete. We have new information and cultural contexts to struggle with. We may discern what our next few steps toward shalom are, but there’s no way map out our entire journey when we can’t see around the bend in the road. To approach discernment with the idea that issues of personhood and privilege will be completely settled is, I think, to shut out the Holy Spirit behind a door of moral certitude.

    Second, I wonder if there is a way to faithfully undertake the discernment process and still address urgent issues of violence and injustice in a meaningful way. For my part, I know that the application of traditionalist doctrine regarding sexuality is leading to the death of gay people. The non-affirming LDS church actually builds suicide ideation into their model for sexual identity formation [I'm not sure if you accept links, I'd be happy to provide them if you do]. We know that suicidal thoughts are reported in as much as 60% of the gay Christian population. I believe we are morally obliged to stop the harm without delay.

    Can the slow church adapt an ethic of total inclusion? Can the church body agree to withhold judgement of disputable matters under discernment and accept all who faithfully come to the communion table? Why would you exclude a gay couple from membership or service? Why would you exclude a woman from ministry? (I understand there might be further considerations for ordination and marriage – but I’m not sure they’re necessary). Personally, I believe conditional membership is unbiblical and contrary to the example of Christ. It seems unjust to erect doctrinal boundaries with the sole purpose of identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out”.

    One of my core beliefs is that we are sanctified through relationship. Knowing and being known by others – even and especially those who believe differently than we do – leads to mutual transformation. We’re all at this earthly dance together and God sent the invites. Exclusion and rejection seems to invariably lead to injury, whereas inclusion and acceptance seems to be invariably generative.

    I wish you peace

  • Susan Adams

    As a member of Englewood, I will say that part of our slowness has been the humble acknowledgement that in the past, in our hubris led to hasty, decisive action born out of the mistaken idea that God needed us to do something for him. We spent significant time unlearning this and trying instead to become a faithful people. Our emphasis, in our best moments, is on being, rather than on doing. This has slowed us down dramatically in some ways, and ironically it has also produced some dramatic accomplishments you might never expect from a small group of people like us. And yes, the slowness can be maddening and yes, it does sometimes mean that we leave in place some institutions we know must change. In the case of one pending change I am thinking of, we are waiting with (hopefully) loving patience, rather than rushing in with destructive and hurtful sledgehammers to dismantle an institutional practice that no longer serves us. Slowness is not perfect, but at least for now, it seems wiser to us and to the Holy Spirit.