As you might remember, I moved up here in 2010 from Napa, CA where I had been the Associate Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. My husband was born and raised in Napa. Napa, CA is all about the food and the wine. When we first moved back there, I think we thought that some of what we heard when we were ordering food to be a little silly. I remember on one occasion at a restaurant called Ubuntu being informed by the waiter that the vegetables on the menu had been raised in beds surrounded by crystals so that when the moon shined on the garden, the vegetables received and radiated a special energy.
There were a number of wine makers that were part of the church family. A game that wine makers like to play is tasting wine in a blind taste test, and identifying its vintage, its grape or grapes and even its appellation, the actual geographical location where the grapes were growing. These wine makers could apparently taste different types of dirt.
In 1986 a McDonald’s franchise was coming to Rome and Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was outraged. He wondered what the fast food industry would do to the food culture of Rome. Would it threaten the local trattorias and osterias, the local dining establishments of the working class? So, Petrini rallied his friends and community to take a stand against this global industrialization of food, and the social and culinary costs of homogenized eating. Instead of picketing with signs, he armed the protestors with bowls of penne. Defiantly they declared, “We don’t want fast food… we want slow food!” And the idea of Slow Food was born.
Slow food stands in opposition to fast food. Fast food is about efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Slow food is about sensual pleasure and slow long lasting enjoyment. Slow food is about sustainability, health, and fairness for all the people that bring the food to our tables. Slow food is about relationship, connecting with each other and the shared experience.
Inspired by the Slow Food Movement, Christopher Smith and John Pattison wrote a book called Slow Church inviting us to ask ourselves questions about how we as the church have given in to the culture of speed. How have we industrialized or McDonaldized the call to be Christ’s disciples? The call to be community? How do we as church measure our success?
I’ve been a pastor for a good long time, and when I started working for the church we were at the height of the church as a business model. Churches were like little corporations with pastors as the CEO’s. We were expected to be spiritual leaders of course, but were also supposed to be able to run the business and boss the staff. We learned how to write financial and personnel policies, read spread sheets, assess building plans and raise funds. We had denominational offices that provided published curricula for all areas of church life and church professionals to provide trainings. In this way, all of the churches in a denomination would receive the exact same education. We went to additional workshops on how to “grow” our churches, put on by experts from places like the Alban Institute. This included parking assessments, training the greeters, newcomer brunches, and targeted visitor follow-up. The Rev. Rick Warren suggests that we pastors should start thinking of ourselves as Ranchers instead of shepherds. As a Rancher, I would be overseeing “under-shepherds.” If I’m not ready to be a rancher, then perhaps I’m not ready for my church to grow. McDonaldization of church measures success by the numbers: How many members do we have? How many people have joined? How many baptisms? How many children in Faith Formation? How many teens are in the youth group? How much money is pledged?
Is this how we want to define success? You can find absolutely no record of Jesus worrying about the number of followers he had, nor can you find any stories about his plans to grow and finance the group. Jesus’ work was centered on calling together and working with a community of disciples. The number 12 is symbolic of the nation of Israel. In the ever-widening circles of the gospel, we see that the ministry of Jesus included everyone. The group wasn’t a gathering of like-minded folks either. For instance, Jesus called Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot. These two disciples are from backgrounds that could not have been more difficult to reconcile. “In a tax collector and a zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined with in a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while the zealots utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.”
Jesus demonstrated community through tending to relationships. The disciples spent time together, travelled together, shared experiences together. In our current culture of speed our relationships have been reduced to texts and Facebook posts. I think that texting and posting on Facebook or Instagram have a place in our relationships, but they shouldn’t take the place of being together, of sharing our lives with one another and building community, and more than a steady diet of Big Macs could keep us healthy.
How can we possibly slow down and inhabit this space that we are in? Let’s again compare slow church to slow food. With slow food, you use local ingredients, sustainably sourced, mindful of the farmers and of others who have processed the food. You take time to prepare the food, perhaps involving family members. You sit at the table with one another and check in about your day, sharing your highs and your lows, in effect, listening to one another’s joys and concerns. You savor your food together with gratitude that you have food to eat. Then you clean up together, taking time with one another.
With slow church, we do worship as it fits for us in this place, on this corner of Capitol and 11th avenue, with the resources that we have in hand. We take time to have coffee and goodies with one another afterwards, checking in about something that we might have heard during prayer time. We take the time to learn one another’s names and something about our children. We attend church potlucks, we make time to learn together and to protest together. We visit each other when one of us is sick, and we take food, and we sit with each other in our grief. This takes time. It takes intention. It takes commitment.
Paul, in his admonitions to the Romans invites them into this kind of community. This is Paul’s measure of success: are we loving one another in a genuine way with mutual affection? Are we serving God? Are we rejoicing in hope? Are we patient in suffering? Filled with the Spirit? Contributing to one another’s needs? Are we being hospitable to strangers?
This is how we measure success. If we have 900 members, 300 of them millennials, and 100 children in faith formation, and yet are not caring for one another as a community, then we are not successful. If you cannot be yourself, share with each other what scares you and what gives you joy, then we are not successful. If you feel alone and can’t find someone in our church community to call, then we are not successful.
Today we celebrate communion together. The very elements of communion, the bread and the cup are symbols of Christ being poured out on our behalf – they imply the grinding and baking of the wheat and the stomping and patient fermentation of grapes. In our consumer culture, we are constantly being bombarded with messages urging us to seek happiness, usually by pulling out our wallets. Jesus said something very different: Those that want to save their life will lose it, and those that lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25) This is how we are going to measure success. How are we doing community? Are we slowing down? Being present? Reaching out? Being vulnerable with each other? Are we taking time?
May it be so. Amen.