Interview: Chris Smith on Slow Church

C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris blogs at the Patheos site Slow Church.

When Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 2014) came to my attention, the theme resonated with me both “on” and “off” campus. So I dropped C. Christopher Smith an email to see if he would be open to an interview and a visit to South Central Pennsylvania. Chris responded with a resounding, “Yes!” Enjoy the conversation — even join in by making comments 🙂

Note: As with previous interviews, I take full responsibility for the related links and pictures. In this case the pictures highlight the off-campus offerings of the Christian Scholar Series, in partnership with the local congregation of which I am a member. With regard to Chris’ visit I’m currently exploring coffee shop venues. Some information available at the end of the post.

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (InterVarsity Press, 2014).

Tom: Once again Chris, “Thank-you!” for your excellent work with The Englewood Review of Books. I’m so excited to have had the opportunity to sit with Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Please share with Emerging Scholars the story behind the new InterVarsity Press (IVP) publication and a little bit about your own story of “slow church: cultivating community in the patient way of Jesus”.

Chris: Tom, my mother grew up in a conservative Mennonite community, only a few generations removed from Amish ancestors. From a very young age, I was fascinated by the world of the Amish and Mennonites that my mom’s family lived in and among, and especially the ways in which they shared life in tight-knit community centered around their Christian faith, a vastly different sort of life than the individualistic suburban culture in which I grew up.

For over a decade now, I have been exploring how Christian community is cultivated in our world in which fragmentation and isolation prevail. I lived in an intentional community for the better part of a year, and now am part of a traditional church that is very much community-oriented. I wrote a book on community in the early Church and one on how the practice of conversation is vital to healthy communities. Slow Church is, for me, the latest in this series of efforts to imagine how ordinary Christians can start to experience deeper community life together. This new book is very much connected with my own experiences and those of Englewood Christian Church (my church), as well as other churches that are moving in a similar direction.

Tom: Chris, please give us a peek into how you and your co-author John Pattison settled on the material to be addressed in this publication, its organization/format, and how you anticipate the material to be best used by individuals, campus fellowships, and local congregations as they seek to “cultivate community in the patient way of Jesus”.

Chris: Since the idea of Slow Church was inspired by the Slow Food movement, which reacted against the ways our eating habits have been formed by fast food, we took the 3 cardinal virtues of Slow Food – a preference for food that is good, clean and fair – and reinterpreted these in language more familiar to Christian theology, as Ethics, Ecology and Economy. These three facets, we believe, lie at the heart of cultivating deeper community in our churches, and the bulk of the book is oriented to making a case for why we need to be attentive to these areas, and for describing specific practices that will help us grow deeper.

The final chapter of the book, which offers an image we hope will stick in readers’ heads long after they put the book on the shelf, is on reimagining Church as Dinner Table Conversation. Not only is sharing food together essential to Christian community, but the ways in which we share our hopes, our dreams, our stories and our lives together around the table, are essential to discerning the shape and mission of our local congregations. We believe that the greatest gift God has given us is people, the sisters and brothers in our congregations, as well as our neighbors. Eating together is an important way to get to know these gifts of God, and to imagine together how God desires to use us to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus in our particular neighborhoods.

Since conversation is the foremost practice we offer in the book, we hope Slow Church will be read and discussed in churches, small groups, and on university campuses. And through conversation about the book, we hope people will begin to have their imaginations sparked in a multitude of ways: about what church is and what it could be and about who God is and what God is up to in the world and how we engage with that in our churches and neighborhoods.

Scot McKnight shares over a meal at the Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church as part of the Christian Scholar Series. What a joy to share such significant times of Dinner Table Conversation. I long for many more opportunities. In Slow Church, Chris is hitting on a very significant point regarding Dinner Table Conversation being lost in the fast lane. Let’s listen as he shares the Slow Church take aways.

Tom: In addition to reimagining Church as Dinner Table Conversation (or maybe unpacking this image further), what three or four points do you desire every reader to take away from Slow Church? What points do consider particularly important to focus upon and develop during the academic journey?

Chris: First of all, we want people to understand that church, the community of God’s people, is at the heart of what God is doing in the world. Secondly, we want to emphasize that everyone – and not just pastors, worship leaders and Sunday School teachers – has gifts and skills beneficial to God’s reconciling work. And this is a point essential for academics: whatever your area of expertise, business, science, arts, anything, there are ways your skills can be used in the healing work God desires to do through the church, and furthermore, many of you will be teaching these skills to a generation of students who can likewise use these skills in conjunction with their churches. And finally, and this is the point I emphasized earlier, we need spaces for eating and talking intentionally together in our churches.

Tom: To wrap up, please share with Emerging Scholars an encouragement regarding the value of their role in the Kingdom God and next steps in being “little Christs” not only on campus but as they graduate and steward the gifts/training they have been given. What three or four posts on The Englewood Review of Books do you consider of particular value for Emerging Scholars as they take next steps in growing more and more into the image of Christ Jesus?

Chris: My advice to Emerging Scholars would be: always read at least a little theology in addition to the research you do in your particular discipline, and be seeking to understand your discipline theologically and how your unique gifts as an academic can contribute a deeper shared life in your church and your neighborhood.

One of Tom’s girls exploring Kingdom Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2011) as he developed a series for the ESN Blog 🙂

For a broader vision of Christian vocation like I have just described, in which everyone has gifts to offer to the work of the church, I recommend Amy Sherman’s book Kingdom Calling, of which you can read a review on our website. One other book that does a great job of reflecting theologically on the sort of inquisitiveness that drives most academics, is David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, our 2009 book of the year, reviewed here. One book that is very important to our Slow Church project is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability (Stability is the virtue of committing oneself to a particular community of people and place). It’s very difficult to cultivate community when we’re moving from place to place every couple of years. You can read my review here. One final book that will be of interest to Emerging Scholars is Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, which challenges us to live actively creatively in our faith, using the gifts and skills we have been given. We interviewed Andy about the book, and you can read that interview here.

Tom: Chris, Thank-you for sharing your time, gifts, and insights with us! May God continue to bless your labors on behalf of the Kingdom of God—in particular bringing “salt, light, leaven and life” through The Englewood Review of Books. I look forward to having you join us in South Central Pennsylvania in the fall for several speaking engagements, including one with Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books*. In the mean time I’ll be sure to give more attention to the excellent pieces offered by The Englewood Review of Books on the ESN Facebook Wall. To God be the glory!

Note to those who follow the Emerging Scholars Network: Over the summer I encourage you to dedicate time to Dinner Table Conversations, create habits to continue/expand upon such a way of life during the academic year, consider exploring Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus with a small group, and keep an eye on posts by The Englewood Review of Books. If you desire to review Slow Church or The Englewood Review of Books, please let me know.

Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books managing another incredible (and much appreciated) book table at a Christian Scholar Series lunch. I look forward to Byron’s hosting of Chris in the fall. I can’t wait to participate! ~ Tom

*If you’re in South Central PA (or not very far away), please tentatively place a hold on the evening of Friday, November 7. I hope to have another event in the Elizabethtown area on the evening of Sunday, November 9. Stay tuned. Details tba.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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