Sunday, September 14, 2014

Phil Kniss: Slow Church

2014 Park View Church Retreat
Psalm 46:1-5, 10-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 24-35; Ephesians 4:1-6

Watch the video:

Video guide:
0:00 - Music and photo introduction
4:05 - Phil Kniss meditation on "Slow Church"
19:40 - Faith statements and baptisms of six youth

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

There are two separate brief presentations, Saturday morning and Sunday morning. The video above includes only Sunday morning. The text below, and the printer-friendly PDF includes both presentations.


You probably heard this one before, but speaking of slow church . . .
A person was talking to God. “God, how long is a million years?”
God answers, “To me . . . . . . it’s about a minute.”
“God, how much is a million dollars?”
“To me . . . . . . it’s a penny.”
“God, may I have a penny?”
“Sure . . . . . . Wait a minute.”

We all know about fast food.
It’s where you realize you are hungry,
swing your car into a drive-thru,
decide what to eat,
have it prepared,
pay for it,
and start eating it,
while you’re pulling back into traffic,
all in less than 3 minutes.
That scenario would have been unthinkable,
and probably disgusting,
when Park View church was founded 61 years ago.

Now, it’s normal.
Fast food has not just changed the way we eat.
It has changed the world economy.
And it has changed our culture.

30 years ago some Italian activists started a protest
against a new McDonald’s
opening near the historic Spanish Steps in Rome.
That protest started the “Slow Food” movement,
which, when it comes to food,
calls for the opposite of McDonalds and other fast-food joints.
Slow Food is traditional and regional cuisine,
it’s growing plants, seeds, and livestock
that are natural to the local ecosystem,
it’s taking time to prepare and enjoy food,
in community with others.

The Slow Food movement spawned other “slow” movements,
Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, and now more recently,
“Slow Church.”

All these movements resonate with 
the work of sociologist George Ritzer,
whose 1993 book The McDonaldization of Society
criticizes what happens when whole cultures adopt
the characteristics and values of the fast-food industry.

Yes, there is a time and place for
speed, efficiency, predictability, and control.
But what are the long-term impacts 
on human health, on relationships, on cultural diversity?
when faster is always better?
when efficiency is more important than quality and durability?
when predictability and control
is valued more than spontaneity or creativity?
What do we lose?

This weekend, and maybe for longer . . . 
we are inviting this community of Park View Mennonite Church
to ponder the blessings of “Slow Church.”

Slow Church is a fairly new conversation happening
among pastors and church leaders.
There was a conference on it in Indiana earlier this year.
A book was published this summer titled,
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
This sparked my interest a great deal,
and when I shared the idea with the retreat committee,
they jumped on it . . . a slow jump, of course.

So what is “Slow Church”? First, I’ll tell you what it’s not.

It’s not doing everything we’re already doing,
but moving more slowly as we do it.
It’s not just having a nice, slow, relaxing weekend together,
to take a break from the speed of life in the marketplace.

No, it’s about a different way of life, as a church.
It’s about valuing relationships and conversation.
It’s about entering deeply into a particular place and context.
It’s about listening and taking time to discern what God is doing
in the neighborhood.
It’s about having the patience to stay, 
instead of always looking for the next thing—
the better, faster, bigger, shinier thing.
It’s about being content with enough.
It’s about radical dependence on the Holy Spirit,
and bold engagement with God’s mission in the world.

Slow church is local, communal, missional,
it is patient, forgiving, healing, listening, and discerning.

Slow church is the opposite of what Western Christian church culture
seems to think is normal—
building up our Christian religious enterprise
as quickly, efficiently, and productively as we can,
by aggressively marketing our goods and services, 
protecting our brand,
consolidating our power and resources,
having slick entertaining productions,
and hipster preachers.

Let me read you part of the publisher’s blurb for the book:
“As a church, we often fail to notice how quickly we capitulate . . .
to a culture of unreflective speed, dehumanizing efficiency 
and dis-integrating isolationism.
In the beginning, the church ate together, traveled together
and shared in all facets of life.
Centered as they were on Jesus, 
these seemingly mundane activities 
took on . . . significance in the mission of God.
In Slow Church, [we] leave franchise faith behind 
and enter into the ecology, economy and ethics 
of the kingdom of God, 
where people know each other well 
and love one another as Christ loved the church.”

A pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, said this,
“In this agitated and anxious world, 
our worth is determined by our productivity 
and our value is measured by how much we can devour. 
Without much thought, even our churches have become tangled up
in our quick-consumption mentality. 
[Slow Church is] a different vision—
one of a careful community of deep relationships.”
(Carol Howard Merritt, pastor, author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church)

Mark Scandrette, another author, writes,
“Hurry, worry, stress and striving
have come to dominate human consciousness
in the twenty-first century—
the logical consequences of a society
built on individualism and productivity at any cost.
We long for a pace of life that allows us to enjoy deep relationships,
meaningful work, 
spiritual vitality 
and the simple pleasures of life.”
(Mark Scandrette, author of Free and Practicing the Way of Jesus)

Mark Lau Branson, professor at Fuller Seminary, said,
“All of our churches are shaped by our cultural environments . . .
forces such as fragmentation, impatience, commodification,
branding, hyper-mobility, individualism and efficiency
too often dominate our practices and priorities.
We strive for control in the midst of fears and self-protection.
Slow Church provides theology and imagination
that connect gospel embodiment with place and neighbors,
calling us to slower lives around tables
and conversations that nourish and interweave
gratefulness, listening, work, hospitality,
justice and the biblical trajectory
toward the reconciliation of all things.
Less of McDonalds; more of Sabbath feasts.”
(Mark Lau Branson, Homer L. Goddard Professor of the Ministry of the Laity, Fuller Seminary)

There is much more I could say.
And I will say a bit more
in some worship reflections tomorrow morning.
But let me just invite us all, for these couple days of retreat,
to play with this idea together.
Let us imagine what it would mean for us, as a church,
to give our highest priority, and our greatest time and energy
to conversation with each other,
to sharing our lives more deeply,
to connecting more organically to our neighbors,
to noticing God’s movement, and following it,
and become less worried and anxious about 
having a successful church program,
or fine-tuning the church structure,
or expanding the church institution.

In our group activities this morning,
which you’ll find out about in a minute,
we are going to exercise our skills of doing “slow church.”
We will need to practice things like listening, noticing, being patient,
accepting each other’s mistakes and extending grace,
taking more time than you think necessary,
and treasuring the gifts that everyone brings to the community.
If you thrive on efficiency, control, perfection, and predictability,
then you might find this activity a challenge.
But consider it a healthy challenge,
think of it as a work out,
a chance to exercise some spiritual muscles 
that maybe are underused, and a little bit flabby.
But mostly, let’s relax and enjoy our extended time together,
a time to build and deepen relationships,
to allow yourself to have lingering conversations,
without an agenda, other than to be in community.



When Jesus wanted to give people a picture of the kingdom of God,
he talked about farming.
Not many of us are farmers,
but I think most of us get it, anyway,
when Jesus uses metaphors about seeds, and being patient,
and paying attention to the context and environment,
like the rocks, and thorns, and weeds, and birds,
and then adjusting our responses accordingly.

The kingdom parables were not strategic plans
to maximize speed and efficiency.
They were stories that told about patience,
about not worrying overly much
about some of the seed that went to waste,
about letting weeds grow with the wheat for now,
and letting God sort things out in the end,
about knowing it doesn’t depend on us,
that alone, we can’t make a whole tree,
from a tiny mustard seed, but God can,
about being willing to wait for the dough to rise,
and not forcing it before it’s time,
about yielding ourselves and our efforts to God.

When Paul the Apostle wanted to teach the believers in Ephesus
about how to live and work together as the church of Jesus,
he did not tell them to work harder and faster and smarter.
Rather, he said, “Be completely humble and gentle;
be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit 
through the bond of peace.”

And when the Old Testament psalm writer
saw that his people were in great distress,
he did not write a set of instructions and strategies to overcome it all.
He wrote them a song, to comfort them,
to calm them, to slow their collective racing heartbeat.
He wrote, “God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
God says to you,
‘Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.’
The Lord Almighty is with us.
the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Those were the scriptures we heard this morning.
There is more of the same, from beginning to end of the Bible.
We are invited into a place of trust in God’s sovereignty.
We are invited to cease trying to manufacture goodness,
or earn God’s favor,
or sell faith like a commodity.

Slow down. Breathe. Trust.
God is at work here and now, in this world.
We can count on that.
We can rest in that assurance.
Our part is to sit still and notice our surroundings,
to be attentive and discerning . . . and then responsive.

As a church, we live in a culture that is anything but
trusting, and attentive, and thoughtful, and relational, and settled.
We inhabit a culture of fear and mistrust,
of anxious striving,
of worry and hurry,
of hyper-mobility [moving around all the time]
of accumulation,
of power moves,
and of violence.

And it is into this kind of world,
that God invites us to be real church . . . “Slow Church.”
The opposite of what sociologist George Ritzer called
a “McDonald-ized culture” that values, above all,
speed, efficiency, predictability, control.

Scenario 1.
A 3-minute race through the drive-through,
eating cheap food imported from half-way around the world,
alone in my car,
while driving over the speed limit to our next appointment.
Scenario 2.
A leisurely evening sitting around a table 
visiting with friends and neighbors,
while eating dishes prepared mostly from our garden ingredients,
that we personally labored over,
during a period of months,
planting, growing, weeding, harvesting, and cooking.
The difference between those scenarios is incalculable—
in terms of nutrition, taste, relationships, and pure joy.
I know, because I’ve had both those experiences, precisely.

The difference between fast food and slow food,
is about the same as,
the difference between fast church and slow church.

Scenario 1.
Going to worship in a huge, cavernous, darkened auditorium,
with spotlights on a stage production,
mostly listening to the music, because I can’t hear myself sing,
a receiving a spell-binding message 
from a showman of a preacher,
who runs that church like a corporation,
who on his first day on the job as senior pastor (I kid you not)
walked into the offices of the other 14 pastors,
with a letter asking for their resignation,
because he wanted to build his own team from scratch.
Scenario 2.
Going to worship with a church family who knows each other well,
that spends time together through the week,
who are patient with each other’s failings and idiosyncrasies,
who linger long in conversations at potlucks and coffee breaks,
who sing all together, all voices joining heartily,
who know, and are engaged with their neighbors,
who love, and are patient with,
their less-than-perfect pastors,
because the pastors are just like the rest of their imperfect family,
The difference between those scenarios is incalculable—
in terms of what really matters in God’s kingdom.
I know, because I’ve had both those experiences, precisely.

The first one was a few years ago,
and the second one describes, mostly,
my daily experience as a pastor of, 
and more importantly, a member of, 
this community of believers on mission with God,
who call themselves Park View Mennonite.
I love you, church! I seriously love you!
And never more than when we get to spend
a whole weekend together like this.

But I say this “mostly” describes my experience at PVMC,
because as a relatively large, and well-established church,
we often get tempted by fast-church values of
speed, size, efficiency, profitability, predictability,
growth, institutional security, and such like.
And sometimes we might give more attention to those values 
than we ought to as a living, organic, body of Christ,
described in scripture with farming metaphors.

This weekend, we have celebrated our call to be “Slow Church.”
That doesn’t always mean moving slowly.
It doesn’t necessarily mean just chilling and relaxing,
like we are this weekend.
Although that’s all good, and we need to do it more often.

But Slow Church is more than that.
It’s a theological undergirding for who we are as a church.

Slow Church is a way of life, supported by intentional practices
(like our current worship series is working at).
Slow Church is a choice to live joyfully and gratefully 
in an anxious and broken world.
Slow Church is a holy resistance 
against the speed and industrialization of Western culture, 
and its captivation with efficiency, predictability, and individualism.
Slow Church is a call to patient cultivation of the kingdom, 
in the deeply relational way of Jesus.
Slow Church is a steadfast and stubborn commitment 
to real, honest, loving, respectful, and extended conversation 
with each other in the body of Christ, 
and with our neighbors (whom we love as ourselves).
Slow Church is always local and contextual,
even as it engages the world far beyond itself.

Even Pope Francis,
the head of the most hierarchical and institutional 
church body in the world,
admits that the heart of the church is not speed and efficiency.

In an address to the bishops in Brazil, he said,
“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.
Further, Pope Francis said,
“[In the church] we see a desperate need for calmness, 
I would even say slowness.
Is the Church still able to move slowly:
to take the time to listen,
to have the patience to mend and reassemble?
Or is the Church herself caught up
in the frantic pursuit of efficiency?
Without mercy we have little chance nowadays
of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons
in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.”

In highlighting “Slow Church”—
this weekend, and maybe in other ways throughout the year—
we are calling for intentionality,
for participating in the practices of the church,
for deeper, longer, and richer conversations
with each other,
for a greater investment in our place, our neighborhood,
taking our context seriously,
in short, for a more profound attentiveness
to what God is doing in and around us,
in people, systems, and in creation itself.

God is at work in the world,
in God’s way and in God’s time.
Our work is join together as a church
that co-labors with God.

With that in mind,
I invite us now, in Slow-Church mode,
to a slow soup communion,
a sharing soup and bread among us all.
This is not a traditional communion,
but rather, 
a demonstration of our connectedness with each other and God,
by eating together,
slowly, all together, with joy and freedom.

So here’s the suggested way of doing this . . .
There will be persons here serving up the soup and bread.
This is a symbolic meal only.
A mere appetizer,
for the banquet that awaits us at noon.
But in celebration of the community we experience at the table,
all are welcome, young and old,
whoever can hold a little cup of soup and piece of bread,
please come and join in.

There will be some quiet music playing
as we enjoy this little meal together.
Form spontaneous little groups
from the people who are close to you right now.
It doesn’t matter how many.
A group of two or four or more, as you wish.
Just group together, stand and form a little circle
and face each other.
Go ahead and take a minute to do that now,
while the servers and musicians come to front and get ready.

Please note that we have a gluten-free option for the bread.
The soup is vegetarian, but contains a bit of yoghurt.
So if you can’t have dairy, we also have a vegan option.
If you need either one, just ask for it when you come up.

Now, as the music begins,
your group can come together whenever you are ready.
The groups near the front should come first.
After you get your soup and bread,
carry it back to where your group is standing now,
and then eat it together as a group.
All the while,
whether you are waiting for your group to go up 
and get your soup,
or whether you already have it and are eating,
engage each other in conversation.
I suggest you reflect generally on the question in the bulletin,
as to where you have noticed God at work, in the church,
or in the neighborhood,
but feel free to vary from that as the Spirit leads.
The point here is to practice a little bit of slow church,
be attentive to each other,
savor the present moment,
listen for the Spirit,
be joyful in what God is doing among us.

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