Slow Church and Church Growth: What is a Successful Church?

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.

Lessons from Jesus: The Family Gathering

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus is saying many things here, but one we often miss is that He is referring to His family gathering ‘together’ in this passage. The Greek word for “gathered” here is synegmenoi, which comes from the word sunago, which means “to lead, to assemble, to gather together”, and in this instance it is referring to a gathering at a particular place. Where is that place? Jesus makes it clear to us when he says: “In my name.” The gathering together around, or in a name, is referring to a family gathering, where families would gather together according to their ‘name.’ A family reunion of sorts.

The beloved apostle John tells us in the prologue of his account of Jesus’ life, that he came to his own [people], and [they] did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed ‘in his name’, he gave the right to become ‘children of God’,” (John 1:11-12, emphasis mine). To believe in Jesus’ name, his family tree, his divine heritage, is to become part of his family, to receive his name. The Church, at the core of it’s function, is a family gathering in Jesus’ name. Often times, in our pursuit to shape a certain form of church, we miss and lose the function.

Family, it’s the basic unit of society. It’s the place where we share our lives together; where we find belonging. It’s a place, in the case of a healthy family at least, where pretense is absent, where we don’t need our masks, where we run to for comfort and rest. In the family unit, everybody knows one another by name and “real presence” is lived out and practiced intimately, the way Jesus intended His family to relate.

If only two or three of the family members get together, it’s still considered a family get together. The same his true for the Church. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, he is there “in the midst of them”, honoring the family gathering. If Jesus is in the midst, if he is the center, the focus, the chief reason for the gathering, then those two or three, and others who are watching, are experiencing and witnessing the mystery of the Bride, the gathered Church, Emmanuel, God with us.

There is nowhere in all of Scripture where anyone stressed, directly or indirectly, the supposed importance of gathering in large numbers. The twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) Western (modern) Church has been trained and formed to do most things in a big way. “The larger the better”, we often say. Many Church gatherings of today have become incredible multimedia events, supposing that the numbers justify the means. Concerned with numerical growth, and the supposed need for the Church to appeal to the masses, this new program-driven machine, mass manufactures unique religious experiences, tailored to appeal to the interests and cater to the comfort of a specific demographic or a specific tribe or local church.

This form has been so pervasive, that even small churches have invested great amounts of money to compete with large church technology and programs. We desperately need new forms that affirm the smaller gatherings as beautiful in God’s sight if Christ is the center of the gathering, and not have the small church pastors feel like failures for not becoming the next famous pastor with 100’s or 1000’s of butts in their seats.

One of the great preachers of the twentieth century, A.W.Tozer, says this: ”One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization does not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team.”

We need to re-learn the basic math of Christ’s kingdom: 2 or 3 gathering in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God; in street terms, the Church. I like to call this the Mustard Seed Church; small intimate gatherings, patiently working together across the world to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, producing great fruit and large trees for many to come and find food, shelter, and shade over the centuries. This Mustard Seed Church is more of a new ethos than a new form. It can be experienced through larger gatherings as well, but it will take much intention and many challenges to leadership and congregants alike, to abandon the thinking that the big crowd and good feeling worship is somehow more church than the small street gathering around the corner.

But the catch to this basic family gathering is that formations come and go, and transformation is messy and slow. Picture change within your own family structure. If you’re family is anything like mine, we all love each other, but are radically different, and appreciating the beauty of diversity and arriving at a place of unity within our diversity, takes hard work, commitment to staying together, and patience over the long haul. This is what “church work” is supposed to look like; small family gatherings, patient brothers and sisters slowly maturing along with other family members, keeping their home and table open to sojourners and guests, all with a heart to be reconciled together in Christ. But as we know, families don’t always choose to live in truth and work through the pain and tension.

Jesus, in explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples, said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19) I don’t think Jesus is wanting us to take this literally, but rather wanted us to understand the nature of a mustard seed, the smallest known seed in his day, that very slowly, and slowly is the key word here, over the course of a season, would grow into a large, fruitful bush that offered much to it’s immediate environment. It’s an agricultural understanding of growth, which is slow and arduous.

The Church, like the kingdom, is organic, pliable, easily shaped into various forms, and in Jesus’ words, is like the mustard seed. By looking at a dead mustard seed, you cannot tell what the plant will look like when it’s full-grown. The pattern is in the seed and every seed is different and unique; it will bear fruit after its kind, but in different patterns and forms. In the same way, the Church has its own divine DNA and will grow accordingly as God sees fit, from era to era, and context to context.

Immediately after the mustard seed parable, Jesus shares another parable about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like on earth: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) For those concerned with Church growth, this passage ought to be on your radar! A very small amount of leaven is powerful enough to leaven a whole batch of bread.

Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, in a home, in the office place, a courtyard, a community center, or a church building, or a downtown park, are leaven. These small intimate, intentional gatherings, are like a mustard seed, or a little leaven, that makes all those around them, watching them, rise up and become who they were supposed to be, but this is a slow process. The witness of a family gathering’s visible love for each other, declaring the love of Christ next door, upstairs, or outside, that is the purpose of being the Church.

Jesus did not send us to entertain the world, but to go into it, underground like a seed, or smothered in the middle of it like leaven in flour, with the subtle and yet overwhelming dynamic of His love, in the context of being a family. This is the Mustard Seed Church, or the Leaven Church, where just a little bit goes a long way. It is a matter of keeping the right math, or the right ingredients: 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God, or as Lesslie Newbigin says, “The Household of God.” These ingredients will always change the world in huge ways. Do you believe that?

Often times our belief is hindered by layers of Church culture that has sold us many false notions of success. Pope Francis has been an outspoken proponent of the Church reforming not in form as much as a reform of our hearts, our ethos. In one of his many profound speeches he has made, he has said this about the Church: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.” We need to hear those words and let them sink into our ethos.

“Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 of the leavened dough and the mustard seed remind us that God’s transformation comes slowly, working outward from the place where the change begins. In an age when instant gratification reigns supreme, the lesson of these parables is provocative and surprisingly insistent—but this seems to be the way God usually works in the world.” Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith and Pattison, 24.

The Evolution of Kineo

Kineo. This was the name of a church plant that I pastored for 5 years. It’s a name loaded with meaning to me personally. It’s bigger than just what Kineo Church meant to me though. It’s a Greek word that literally means “to move” or “to put in to motion”. I have a good friend who mentioned this quote below years ago and it ‘moved’ me:

“If you claim to stand in a rushing river, yet you are not moved, then you are not standing in a rushing river.” Unknown

This impacted me greatly, as I was someone who claimed great things about God, who He is, and what it meant to be a worshiper of God, yet I was unmoved and uninspired most of the time in life. The word Kineo came to mind when I looked up what the phrase “to move” meant in Greek literature. This first ‘moved’ me years ago, and continues to move and shape me to this day. So I wanted to share with you the evolution of what this word has become to me.

Kineo. It is not really an entity, although I often dream about a non-profit called Kineo. But even if it never becomes an entity, it will always be an idea, an ethos or lens with which to view life. Kineo, “to be moved”, is not concerned with the type of movement that explains the “How do you become successful” questions, nor is it the kind of movement that answers the “What do you do” type of questions. No, the movement of Kineo to me is an ethos (look up what ‘ethos’ means in a dictionary if you have to… there’s no shame in that… I had to do that when I first came across the word). Kineo is an ethos which is radically committed to answering the “Who are you” and the “Why do you do what you do” type of questions in life. If the “Who” and the “Why” are covered, you can handle any “What” and “How” in life. This is a new/old way to be human; it’s an habitual spirit of a community of justice and love, displayed in what it desires and how it behaves.

Kineo is a call to move.

To listen.

To see.

To stand.

To hold.

To fight.

For the vulnerable.

For the marginalized.

For the broken.

For the grieving.

For the lonely.

Kineo is a corrective voice to the dominant culture, to help open eyes and ears to voices and stories that have been lost in the wreckage of Western development. It’s a corrective voice for entrepreneurs of the future to consider a new way of business and profit, of shared values and community engagement that gives birth to new types of partnerships. It’s a corrective call to break the silence of the powerless, and to pave new ways of success and healing from trauma. It’s a corrective voice to the old forms of the gathered church to consider alternative communities: slow, organic churches, neighborhood parishes, shared living communities, communities that rediscover the power of proper lament, rest, and the sacramental life, but not dismissing the old forms either. It’s a corrective voice to the consumer model of living that has left sabbath on the dusty shelf of life.

It is within this idea, this ethos, that Kineo was birthed. It’s been my desire for this ethos to penetrate hearts and minds, to begin to take shape in neighborhoods and businesses, families and faith communities, cities and states. It’s a movement with no real form, and is already happening regardless of myself or this blog post. It’s an underground erosion of the soul that moves people to begin alternative ways of doing life, caring for the marginalized, regaining hope, experiencing beauty, resting and playing, and boldly loving which brings about change.

Will you be a part of the movement? It requires great costs. It demands you drop the act and begin to be honest with who you are. It’s terribly scary and will wreck your status quo agenda in life. But it’s essential for those who are longing for more. It’s your choice. This is your world. You’re shaping what it’s like every day you’re alive. Join the invisible movement today! Tell me about your “Kineo” story. I would love to hear.

Slow Church

slow-church

Last September I was in New Orleans with my wife (Amy) at a CCDA conference (Christian Community Development Association), and one of the small break out groups was called “Slow Church”, where Amy and I heard a short interactive presentation by Chris Smith on “church conversations” that serve to build up and unite the body of Christ. The brief presentation affirmed many thoughts in our own hearts, thoughts and questions we have been wrestling with for years as Young Life and church leaders, namely, the question: “What does it look like to be successful as a church?”

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. Jean Vanier has said, “A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.” This is what Chris and John have done; proposed a new theological vision for church with ‘on-the-ground’ examples.

The “slow church way” is a necessary correction in the life of the American church. As someone who loves the bride of Christ and in no way desires to tear her down with criticism, Slow Church eloquently points out glaring weaknesses in the consumer-driven, church-growth model, Western church that views success in quantifiable numbers (butts, budgets, and buildings), which makes church something we consume, rather than being consumed by Christ. But after the critique, Chris and John offer refreshing and life-giving alternatives for the Western church today to be a display community, showing off kingdom values through everyday life.

The framework they build their book on (ethics, ecology, and economy) provides a broad holistic base with which to help the reader re-imagine what the church was meant to be in culture. Jesus’ slow way of life shines through these pages as the reader is invited into the patient way of the kingdom that bears fruit only after the proper season and the proper work has been done. Chris and John speak of sabbath, place, patience, work, reconciliation, sharing, gratitude, hospitality, sharing meals, and sustainability all re-imagined within the story of God.

We need more slow church parishoners and leaders who are committed to being a truly alternative community in the midst of unchecked capitalism, out-of-control consumerism, self-serving individualism, and the growing number of “nones” who do not identify with any religion at all. So here’s to those living in light of the true story of the universe, as ones who know how it all ends, and are co-actors/laborers with Christ, offering a foretaste today of the kingdom to come when the King comes. Chris and John, thanks for creating space for conversation, critique, grace, forgiveness, messiness, responsibility, and much needed correction.

La Querencia of Sabbath

Our family of 6 just embarked on a two month trip in a 26′ RV and we are traveling around country chasing good weather, family, and friends who are intentionally living out the mission of God in diverse contexts. This is a trip of a lifetime for us, especially since I just graduated from grad school, have no job, and no home to live in until the end of July (thus the RV). Leading up to this trip, God has prompted many thoughts and topics in my heart and mind that won’t leave me alone, and I have found myself reflecting a lot about: patience, pace of life, food and how/what we eat, being present with my wife/kids/family/friends (in the moment), and sabbath (rest).

This morning I was reading a copy of a book called Slow Church (I will write a short book review about it in the next couple weeks) and there is a chapter talking about sabbath rest and they quote the American author Barry Lopez writing about the Spanish word querencia which is sometimes translated as the “haunt of wild hearts”:

“[He] describes la querencia as a place on the ground from which one draws strength of character.”

It is clear to me already on day two of our trip, that sabbath rest was meant to be our querencia. In a world full of busyness that drives us to live at a pace that is not based on a biblical worldview; and culture that “forces” us to eat whatever is placed before us (or is cheapest and easiest to get); and a society that has placed work and money at a level that turns people and places into commodities to be consumed… we are in desperate need of alternative lifestyles that display a different kind of pace, a different kind of patience, a different kind of work ethic… all of which are not possible if we are not a people who know how to rest and trust during the “unproductive” days of rest.

Time. Time reminds us that God is not in a hurry and rest is a way of trusting God in the midst of world that feels like there’s not enough time in the day. Time reminds us that we are living in eternity now before God. Time reminds us that God shows up in the now; he dispenses grace, mercy, forgiveness, reveals beauty, and matures us in the “now”. Learning to live in the present, pacing myself, eating slower and being more aware of what I am eating are all being sharpened and awakened as I slow down, rest and trust God in the seemingly “unproductive” now.

This trip is the beginning of a new kind of sabbath for me, a sabbath that leads me to places of querencia that I believe God wants his people to inhabit with him daily. A querencia that charges up God’s people to live holistically productive lives which means a healthier pace, more responsible eating, divine rest, and a holy patience with work, people, and life in general.