Slow Church and the Missional Movement

[Note: This is the first in a series of posts about some of the best, and sometimes most frequent, questions Chris and I are fielding while we are on tour talking about the book. Our blog posts are only part of the discussion. More than anything, we'd like to hear how you would respond. We'll be checking the comments frequently!]

Earlier this month I had the privilege to participate in a conversation at Warner Pacific College on the theme of “rethinking church”. The event, curated by Tony Kriz and Michelle Lang, was lively and engaging and just a blast. The other featured guests that night were Kelly Bean, author of the brand new book How To Be a Christian Without Going to Church, and the three authors of The New Parish—Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen. (I wrote another post about that event here.)

After I gave a short, PechaKucha-inspired presentation on Slow Church, the audience had the chance to ask questions. One audience member asked me about the relationship of Slow Church to the missional movement. I didn’t like my answer to this very good question.  In fact, I found the questioner afterwards to apologize for how cynical my response had been. I want to flesh out that response a little more here.

As I said that night, missional thinkers and practitioners—Lesslie Newbigin, Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, David Fitch, and Alan Roxburgh, to name just a few—have been hugely influential for Chris and me.

My main concern (and this was the bulk of my response from stage) is for how diluted the label “missional” has become. For example, I know of churches that run food and clothing pantries, but treat the people they are serving more as client-customers than as neighbors, and yet still describe themselves as “missional” because they are doing acts of charity outside the sanctuary. I want to acknowledge how far I am from being an expert on the missional movement…but somehow I doubt that what the missional pioneers meant by whole-life mission was to overlay a missional sheen on well-intentioned, but ultimately impersonal, busywork.

A couple weeks ago, I was with my family, my pastor’s family, and others from our church at Silverton’s weekly Community Dinner. Community Dinner was started in 2008 with the goal of serving a couple dozen spaghetti dinners to people in need. Six years later, it is a fabulous collaboration between multiple churches and community groups, serving more than 400 meals every Wednesday to people from all walks of life. It is one important way people in my town stay connected.

On this particular Wednesday, more than 600 people had gathered at Community Dinner to celebrate our 100,000th meal served. A number of folks were recognized for their longtime support. One person who spoke was an executive at Marion-Polk Food Share, a hunger-relief organization that serves two Oregon counties. He said, “Our goal at Marion-Polk Food Share is to make sure no one in our community goes hungry. But here at Community Dinner, you come at it from the opposite direction: no one goes hungry because you’ve built a community.”

I hope Slow Church and the missional movement can be animated by this same heart. Slow Church begins and ends with deep presence—with God and with one another. Deep presence with God and neighbor is not the means to an end but the end itself. Faithfulness to a vision must submit itself to the requirements of faithfulness in this moment and with this person. This is slow, small, daily, often unglamorous, often invisible work. And “it takes time, over time,” as one Slow Church friend put it. But it all matters. And we thank you for it.

Question: Once again acknowledging my lack of expertise on all things missional, how would you respond to the question about Slow Church’s relationship to the missional movement?

  • Joe Watkins

    The Slow Church movement seems to be part of what the missional movement has grown into over the last decade. That’s about how long I’ve been reading people like Newbigin, Roxburgh, and the work of folks coming out of schools like Fuller, and there seemed to be a real newness to the idea then. As it’s gained traction in the mainstream, the word’s lost a lot of its meaning,* but there still seems to be a movement happening that has grown out of, or is the maturation of that earlier missional work.

    At some point, it seemed the missional movement came across some questions that it had to wrestle with. To me that Slow Church grows out the the sort of theological roots that moves things forward, and when that’s put alongside the work of people like David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, and others at Northern I won’t be surprised to see the missional movement grow into itself more.

    *I often see people use the world missional and it’s obvious that there’s a difference between the way it’s used when it grows up out of a robust missio dei theology and when it’s added on top of existing ideas about the church. The later seems flimsy and faddish and unrelated to Slow Church in about every way.

  • Mike J.

    I was at the Warner event, and had wished there was more time to discuss that particular question so I’m interested in where this conversation goes (I would actually like to ask the same question of Paul/Dwight/Tim regarding the world of the New Parish where the term “missional” is sometimes heard). I’m somewhat familiar with the basic landscape of the missional movement, at least at a cursory/layman’s level. I appreciate and have learned so much from writers like Frost and Hirsch and others and certainly there are some really good things happening in the missional movement. It seems like the term “missional” is useful as far as those using it have a common understanding of what it means within the particular context or conversation it’s being used. But, because it is used so broadly, often as a simplistic label dropped into a conversation (“yeah, we’re pretty missional, bro”) I don’t always find it that helpful. I think just about anybody would agree with the idea that we want to participate with God in his ongoing mission. The distinctions between different movements or groups (various missional groups/New Parish/Slow Church/etc.) might be found when we discuss our feelings of what the actual “ongoing mission of God” is. It seems that much of the missional world focuses on the mission of “going (being sent) and making disciples (individuals) who make disciples who make disciples….” It seems, in some cases at least, this might become a formulaic means of reproduction (McDonaldization?), with the ongoing mission of God simply being boiled down to the terms of the Great Commission, by which we mean “exponential” reproduction of individual disciples (I may be unfairly painting with broad strokes here).

    I have come to some understanding (I think) in which the act of going-and-making-disciples does not simply and completely capture the heart of God’s ongoing mission (but is indeed a component of, I suppose). Instead, God’s whole point, the thing that has kept him awake at night from the beginning of time and will until the end and everything in between is his desire for a reconciled union between himself, humanity, and his creation, which started and continues with the formation of “a people” rooted in a place(s). This is what we see all throughout scripture. That is a somewhat different understanding with different ramifications for participating in “God’s ongoing mission” than simply referencing the Great Commission, sending/going-therefore, and individual disciple-making… It was actually another “Slow Church” article that introduced me to this idea and particularly the writing of Gerhard Lohfink, both of which were certifiably mind-blowing for me and so helpful. In it, Chris Smith states, “essential to the vision of Slow Church is that the people of God are at the heart of God’s mission for reconciling creation…There is a continuity and integrity to God’s work in the world: the calling and shaping of a community of people that began in Israel has, through the work of Christ and the little community of his twelve disciples, been extended to Gentiles as well as Jews.” So as far as that’s what we mean by participating in the Missio Dei, rooted in our particular time/places, I’m in. I don’t know if that makes me missional or not, but whatevs. :)

  • Leon Longard

    John, I think you’re right in your assessment of much that is called “missional” today. When we water missional down to service activities added to the overall program of a church, it misses the incarnational quality needed. If Slow Church begins and ends with deep presence with God and with one another, than it has a significant place in the missional conversation. Authentic missional activity begins with embedding into the community and seeking shalom in and with that community. This requires the deep presence of incarnational living more than projects.

    In my conversations with Chris and what I have read from both of you in the book, I see the same principles that are at work in the missional movement being expressed in Slow Church thinking. Knowing a bit of the story of Englewood here in Indianapolis, what excites me about the way your book is catching on is that it has the potential to refocus the missional conversation on what it is meant to be at it’s core level. The story of Englewood and what I’ve read about your church in Silverton both provide good models for other established churches on how to have a conversation about totally changing their culture to a more missional mindset as opposed to adding missional events to the long list of programs. I just recommended your book to an old friend I saw this week because he is exploring how to make this type of transition in the congregation he now leads.