'Slow Church' — a third way of mission and evangelism

"When the Church moves out of the fast lane... and begins to follow in the footsteps of Christ, it really has to be one step at a time," says Bishop Stephen Pickard.

By Muriel Porter

March 4 2016A “slow Church”, like the slow food movement “local, fresh and organic”, might be the “clue to a more authentic mission and evangelism”, according to the Rt Revd Professor Stephen Pickard. “Slow Church” is a “third way beyond the moribund and/or the over-functioning Church”, he explained.

Bishop Pickard, the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, and Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, was the keynote speaker at Trinity College Theological School’s 2016 conference, Life in Abundance: An Anglican Conference on Mission and Evangelism last month. He gave three major addresses exploring various aspects of mission and evangelism.

The “moribund” Church, principally in the West, appeared at times to be in a deep sleep, he said, no longer reading the signs of the times and locked in a steady-state condition. “For the most part, we inhabit a Church culture which appears at times wilfully blind to the precariousness of its situation and apparently content to remain on the well-worn paths of yesterday”, he said.

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The over-functioning Church reacted in the opposite direction: “In this scenario, the Church and especially its leaders furtively begin the search for the program or action plan that will arrest decline, turn the ship around, and rebuild the Church. They slip into over-functioning and become exhausted or exhaust others.”

 The response to a dying Church, he said, was “anxiety and an overreaction that easily succumbs to the values of the host culture. The consumer, fast-lane management approach, results and outcomes driven strategic plans operating within a competitive market driven culture, is the environment in which we live and move and have our being. It infiltrates the Church’s often admirable attempts to recover the energy and vitality of the Gospel, engage people and be involved in mission for the sake of the kingdom.”

An alternative pace, rhythm and presence for the Church was needed, he said, and this third way, “slow Church coming”, echoed an earlier period in the Christian tradition, the monastic movement. The monastic movement was remarkably resilient, he added. And it echoed as well the “slow of Holy Saturday” that “becomes a paradigm for a culture in need of recovering its own humanity in the midst of our inhumanity to one another and the earth”.

Quoting from Michael Leunig’s The Prayer Tree 1991, Professor Pickard said that it is “a truism that ‘nothing can be loved at speed’”. He continued: “This is how a true and lasting praise of God emerges in the brokenness and challenges of our world. This is how God’s abundant life in Christ oozes out into a needy world. What we need is slow release protein rich spirit for the long haul.” The things that are really worthwhile “are things that require commitment, energy, resilience and time”.

A major task for a travelling Church, he continued, is to find “the optimal pace for the journey” as any long-distance runner knows. “When the Church moves out of the fast lane, leaves the motorways for the B roads, looks beyond the quick-fix consumer and entertainment models for religion, and begins to follow in the footsteps of Christ, it really has to be one step at a time”.

Jesus, he noted, walked. Although walking as a means of travelling was quite normal for his time, it nevertheless “provided the space and rhythm for his ministry of saving presence”. The significance of Jesus walking, he continued, “is beautifully captured in the Emmaus road story of Luke’s Gospel. The scene of companions on the road in conversation; gathering at the table, touched so deeply by Christ’s presence that the only response they can imagine is to set off again on a return journey to Jerusalem to share the story. From the seedbed of such journeys with companions, Christian pilgrimage has gone to the ends of the earth.” “Jesus slow”, he said, “indicates a particular kind of pace and presence that enables healing and transformation”.

The “slow” of Jesus, he continued, is remembered and celebrated in the Eucharist. “In terms of our reflections on slowness, the Eucharist may be understood as slow release energy giving rise to gratitude and praise. This is sufficient to carry the pilgrim through ‘the long day’s journey of the Saturday’ in faith and hope and love.”

“Slow Church”, he said, not only attends to the issue of ecclesial pace: “It also is a code for the way in which ecclesial presence might be reconceived. Pace and presence are co-related.”

 The Church, he said, “has to travel at a pace that makes for the optimal instantiation of ecclesial presence. It takes time and a cultivated rhythm in order to achieve a rich ecclesial presence for the sake of the Gospel; to secure a grip and strength for the journey.”

When Christianity operates in the fast lane as in the frenetic church model, “there is little prospect of it taking root and developing a genuine enculturated presence. On the other hand, the Church that is trapped within its own walls, sealed from the contemporary host culture and to this extent disengaged, embodies an ecclesial presence which is essentially irrelevant to its host culture. In this latter case, the Church is out of step with the times, most probably dead slow and certainly unable to mediate a genuine ecclesial presence.”

The “slow Church”, he continued, “attends to its incarnate and living Lord at a pace that enables genuine recognition and discipleship to occur. This takes time and attention and hence it is a slow unfolding work (Mark 4.26–9).”

Such a church will have time to gather the seekers of God, he said. “In the ‘slow Church coming’, such people are not so easily missed, and in a slow Church, there is time for friendships to grow, and justice and peace can find a place in the ecology of discipleship. The slow Church coming will be a Church which is always discovering a pace that enables the presence of God and life with others to be optimized. The seekers of God are more often those seeking a genuine life together, where people are honoured within the ecology of praise to God. The pace and presence of the coming Church has to be such a community, where such an honouring and praise is possible and can expand.”

There are many seekers in the contemporary world, he said, even if they do not normally come by way of the Church. How well the Anglican Church, and other mainline churches, will be able to connect with them is an important issue, given that younger generations are increasingly jettisoning the traditional institutional embodiments of religious instincts.

“Perhaps in the secular west the sacred has not been lost or abandoned so much as migrated,” he said. “In this context, the Church has to rediscover its significant resources to make it possible for the people of the world to encounter a radical otherness beyond the ‘sacralization of the self’ and ‘self-religion’.”

 It would require “a significant reorientation”, the “different pace, rhythm and presence” of “slow Church”. “Slow Church” might turn out to be “a prophetic response to an anxious quick-fix, solution-driven culture, where people become quickly worn out and fall by the wayside as unproductive units”.

The Church, he said, is “a natural companion” for post-modern types because it comprises “a travelling people”. “Moreover, the secret of its own life, its deepest mystery is neither owned nor can be claimed by anyone. Rather, the secret of its life is the attractive love of God; a divine lure, which draws people to each other and at the same time to the God in whose image we have been made.”

This Church “moves at a pace that gives time for wisdom to be found, take root and expand among people. It is the pace and presence of the ‘slow Church coming’ that carries in its corporate memory the faithful of the past. The Church at any time is always travelling with the saints and sages of past time and space. In such an ecclesial environment, organisational structures and ministrations of ancient lineage can take on a new significance as enablers for deeper freedom and peace. The remarkable thing about such an ecclesia is the presence of a surplus of renewable energy, which is continually released through attentive listening to God and one another; to re-membering and celebrating and to care, service and joyful telling of the story of Jesus. This is the unfinished Church of Emmaus Road companions; the slow Church coming on a journey with the peoples of the world.”