In Defense of Slow Church

With trepidation, I went to a party with old high school friends last week. “Friends,” as a term, should not be taken too seriously. While I attended with a few of my closest and dearest friends with whom I have cultivated great relationships in adulthood, I remember the majority of people there with some ambivalence that verges on antagonism.

In that room, memories swirled: Out-and-out rejection from best friends. Breakups with beloved boyfriends. Shunning a guy who had a crush on me. Crying while practicing cello because of what the neighbor boys said. Minutely managed stratification on the basis of intelligence or social rank or attractiveness or talent or perceived ability.

I also remember it as fast-paced, wildly stimulating, incredibly fun, pride-producing, and emotion-saturated. A week or month could spark a best-friendship; a month in a romantic relationship or unrequited crush felt eternal.

Acute. Dramatic.

Thinking back to these relationships, and especially the childish romanticism that drove so much of my experience as an adolescent, I revel in the present chapter of my adulthood. Drama so rarely enters it. I’ve known all my best friends for five years or longer; most for over 10. I can count on these people. They know me – my child self, my adult self, my childish-attemptdly-adult self. And they love me, crazily, inexplicably, consistently. My fiancé and I are tying the knot after five wonderful, fun, and joy-filled years together. It’s not without challenges. But it’s largely, usually without drama that festers into trauma.

Peaceful. Enduring.

So, church.

I’ve studied Mars Hill Church for my doctoral dissertation project. It’s a project still in infancy, but which I marginally began around 2011 as a Master’s student. In case you haven’t followed, the church grew wildly, dramatically, entrepreneurially for nearly 18 years. A rarity, especially in Seattle, the church attracted young people, most between ages 18-35, appealing to aesthetics of alt-indie subculture. It grew to 15 campuses across 5 states, 14,000 alleged members, and gave rise to innumerable church plants and New Calvinist leaders through its networks, books, podcasts, and on and on.

Its founding pastor, Mark Driscoll, started the church at age 25; now, at 43, with five children and a greying beard, his bright star has burned out in a flash. Between June and October, a cascade of allegations of abuse and misuse of power arose against Driscoll and his tribe of male, largely white, leaders. In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a short list of the many issues leveled against Driscoll this year:

  • Plagarism in best-selling books.
  • Use of church donations to fund NYTimes bestseller campaign for book.
  • Diversion of donations allegedly earmarked for international missions to local projects, including capital investments and salaries.
  • Claims of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment.
  • Sketchy procedures in disciplining and removing pastors and members accused of “sinning.”

Acute. Dramatic.

And oh, how the list goes on and on and on.

Driscoll resigned, or quit, or something, in October and the church just held their last services this week. Perhaps Driscoll will persist, perhaps formerly-Mars Hill churches will survive in new form. But ultimately, that church is done, dead.

The Thing About Slow Church

I’m a long time churchgoer and staff member at tiny Mainline churches, most of the Presbyterian or Lutheran persuasion. We’re flaming out, too. It seems the age of relative “youth” at such churches steadily creeps upward: My parents, now in their 60s, remain in the youngish demographic at their Montana church.

These seemingly-eternal little churches are quite dry to the average onlooker. Exciting news at First Presbyterian in Bozeman this year includes:

  • New carpet in the sanctuary! Some people didn’t think it needed new carpet.
  • New parking lot across the street! Some people didn’t think they needed a new lot.
  • Changes at the church camp! Some people didn’t really think it needed changes.

I won’t risk erring specific grievances – certainly, my parents see it through their own lens – but the grumblings and frustrations that dominate conversation are downright petty and boring. And seem so inconsequential sometimes.

The thing about these churches is that their grace and beauty take an awfully long time to unearth and celebrate. Surely, if you’ve attended one of these churches – especially if you’re not ordinarily a part of them – their oddities are evident. Perhaps it’s dry ritual, or bad jokes, or a poorly delivered sermon. Maybe it’s a sub-par choir, or a weirdly needy staff member, or hymns played too slowly. It could be all those things. These churches are odd little ducks sometimes, strung together by a cadre of amateur passion-driven volunteers and pastors expected to be jacks-of-all-trade-masters-of-none types.

But here’s the thing: At this one time in my life where I was lonely and poor and doing something I genuinely hated with my days, I worked at one of these comely small churches in Seattle.

It occurred to me, in watching one of the dads show up early with his kids, fill in when needed, help elderly folks to his seats – that his gentleness and patience, his willingness to invest in these random, smelly, obnoxious, ordinary people all around – his heart was carbon-copied all over that little church. People there went almost exclusively because they just wanted to be better people in the world.

And, I’ve noticed this trend in these little churches. If there’s a homeless program anywhere in the city, you’ll probably run into someone you know there. If there’s a need in the community, they’ll donate above expectation. They’re probably on the board of the most effective non-profits. They’re probably invested in kids, in their neighborhoods, in the neighborhood across town.

I’ve noticed, too, in my little churches that I’ve been profoundly loved and empowered in them. After all, I’m a comely little smelly human, too. And on the days when I wear that on my sleeve too evidently, I’ve had people surround me to pick me up, dust me off, remind me of my talent, value, and inherent worth. They give me another try. They love me beyond reason.

Have I encountered God there? Good Lord, the people I’ve known have convinced me beyond doubt that God somehow works miracles in people. As a sum total, I don’t know better ones.

Better than that, my silly little slow church has challenged my narrow white upper-class perspective as a matter of course throughout my upbringing. It was church where I first met prostitutes, undocumented immigrants, unwed mothers, and drug addicts – church did not treat these people as spectacle, as nuisance, or as projects. Church treated them as family, as teachers, as members, and as leaders. Through church I traveled domestically and internationally to work on projects where I met people whose realities I had no frame for comprehending. It was church that introduced me to radical feminism, to queer politics, to critical race theory, to courageous environmentalism and conservationism, to post-colonialism. It was church that cultivated in me a sense of transcendent compassion that drives my priorities daily. Church gave a shit. 

The problem in these wonderful slow churches is – it’s awfully boring. No one in the church is boasting about about meteoric growth, or exceptionally articulate theological arguments (though the theology is often outstanding), or nationally-recognized pastors, or outstanding professional music (though it often is), or a host of other admittedly great and beautiful and captivating things that made Mars Hill so compelling. Slow church is just not like that – it’s a little awkward and unpracticed, or overpracticed or stodgy or whatever. The pastors do just what they should – make sure it belongs to the community, even if it turns out a little misshapen.

Peaceful. Enduring.

You’ve got to find the right one. They’re not all the same as I’ve experienced. Or maybe you’d experience them differently. But, to me, it’s really worth it, this slow church thing. And I guess I wish we could have a better veneer, or that it was more fun to show up on Sunday (it’s not usually). But I’m so thankful that we’ve got the heart. Because we know what it’s about. It’s that we’re smelly and awkward and weird and misshapen and slow to figure it out – and God loves us dearly. Every one of us. Beyond our wildest expectation. And, week after week, I am in a community where I practice that along with a host of people, ages 2-92 (give or take).

Anyway. If you’re coming from a faster church… our slow church is better than alright. For all its faults, I assure you – there is nothing else in the world like it. You may not notice that it’s there, because it does its good work in earnest.

But if it’s gone… it may take some time… the world will ache in its absence.

Maren Haynes is a doctoral candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. She is currently working with the Be|Art|Now conference at Pacific School of Religion. This post originally appeared on her blog, jealouscellist and is reposted here with permission.

Image Credit: Cropped from “Slow Church” by Derek Bruff via Flickr.

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