This thing called ‘our flesh,’ or others would call it ‘the natural mind,’ has been culturally conditioned to believe that our forms and methods about how to build the Church are more important than God’s forms and methods. Now of course, none of us say this outright, rather we do what is comfortable and familiar to us to the point of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, believing this is God’s form or method, but really it’s culture that has shaped how we do it, and what it looks like. Driven by our egos and a desire to self-preserve, we often lead ourselves while saying we are following Jesus. Our desires reveal what we really want though, and we can see it in the dominant model of building and growing churches.
What’s silently tragic about this, is that we inevitably begin to care for ourselves, or our tribe first, and we quickly become ethnically, nationally, culturally, and socially divided. It has been called the homogenous unit principle by some. This idea that churches grow faster and more conversions happen when people are lead by those who are ethnically, nationally, cultural, and socially similar. This is a church growth model that has been rejected by many leaders, at least in theory, but as we look at the way their churches are still being structured, this principle is winning the day.
Again, it’s a good intentioned self-preservation, that slowly erodes our ability to see other forms that God may want for his Church. This type of self-preservation always leads to the dehumanization and oppression of those who aren’t like us. We have anesthetized ourselves from the reality that we could actually be deceived in our understanding, and prove the social theory of the false consensus effect: the tendency for humans to over estimate the degree in which everyone agrees with us.
Chris Smith and John Pattison are co-authors of the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. This book indirectly answers the question of what it looks like to be successful as a church, as Chris and John unfold a new kingdom ethos for being the Church, present and rooted in a particular place. In the opening chapter they address the danger of our culture’s commitment to individualism (which plays into the false consensus effect):
“In the Western world where individualism reigns supreme, there is unfamiliarity, awkwardness and even slowness in our calling to live as a community of God’s people. We are so accustomed to living and acting as autonomous individuals that the idea of being God’s people in the world can be tough to wrap our heads around. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient (and even considerate!) to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read Scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place. The people of God become a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.”
Our preoccupation with the question of how to build the church, what a successful church looks like, or how to build something large and significant for God, has led many of us away from the simple truth that Jesus will and is building his Church through a display people (a family). Jesus didn’t write scripture, he was Scripture, and he left us not with books, but with a community, a gathering of new creation family members.
We desperately need God to restore to us the simplicity and power of our faith in Jesus, a faith that rests in God’s sovereignty and believes that if we gather around the person of Jesus, God will grow the Church together as a new family in new and fresh ways.
Later in their book, Smith and Pattison clarify a core ethos of what “Slow Church” is: “Slow Church is rooted in the natural, human and spiritual cultures of a particular place. It is a distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ. ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood’ (Jn 1:14 The Message).”
Pastor, missionary, theologian, and author, Lesslie Newbigin, has written extensively on the nature and mission of the Church, and reminds us that the emphasis in scripture is not on church growth, that’s God’s job. The emphasis is on faithfulness. Jesus says in Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Will the Son of Man find faith in the Western church, or will he find sophisticated forms and methods that have become clubs with members who are more pre-occupied with running a good business, than being faithful. We have to keep asking ourselves, have we worshiped the form of church more than we worship the one who formed the Church? Have we been more impressed with church growth models and large churches that offer everything and do it with perfection and creativity, more than we are impressed with faithful living among a local community? What really makes a successful church? Is a slow growth model that is rooted in the patient ways of Jesus, committed to building a neighborhood parish to care for the least, the last, and the lost even worth it? Is it possible for a church to be more concerned about being present in the neighborhood they’ve been planted than in growing numerically so it can become financially self-sustainable in our Western church model? This is my prayer.