The world seems to be getting faster. Everyone is busy. We talk about one day slowing down. We talk as if being too busy is a temporary state of life that needs to come to an end at some point. But life just seems to get faster.
There is some good evidence that things don’t just seem to be getting faster, they really are. In the early 1990’s a team of researchers measured the speed at which people walk in 31 different cities across the world. Just over a decade later another team of researchers repeated the experiment. They found that worldwide people were walking about 10% faster than they had been 10 years earlier. What is clear is that the more advanced and industrialised a city is the faster people walk. As cities adopt western capitalist values and culture people walk faster. Cities in China and the far east in particular rapidly caught up their western counterparts in terms of speed once they had developed along western lines.
The thirst for speed is evident in all sorts of ways. Remember those languid days when the post came once a day and you had a whole day to respond to it? No probably not. But even if emails and social media is all you’ve ever known the sheer volume of notifications and messages seems to go up all the time. But more than that the expectation of immediate response seems to go up with it. We feel we are being rude if we don’t respond quickly. Speed is making its own morals.
Speed not only has a moral value in our culture it also has a monetary value. In the world of high frequency trading (HFT) complex algorithms are used to analyse markets and make multiple trading in deals in a fraction of a second. In this world access to the fastest connections is everything, a few milliseconds difference is worth a lot of money. In 2008, Daniel Spivey was appointed by a hedge fund to find ways of exploiting price differences between the markets of New York and Chicago. His work was made difficult however because the connection was dominated by others firms. So his firm decided to invest in building a new one. By using existing rail networks to run the connection in as straight a line as possible, digging and blasting the route through any obstacles in the way, they were able to shave 4 milliseconds from the connection speed. Enough though, to ensure that any trader in the same business had to use the connection they had created, making them a lot of money in the process.
Speed is endemic part of our culture. And it has become endemic in the church. Church’s are very often busy places. Truth is we quite like the fact that they are often busy places. We like the fact there is plenty going on – ‘there’s a buzz about the place’. Yet there is growing sense that all this busyness is not good for us. More than that a growing sense that its not good for the church. The merry-go-round gets faster and faster and some of us want to get off.
The thing is though that the merry-go-round we are on does not stand alone. It exists in a bigger fairground of the culture we live in. One which is heavily addicted to speed. American writer Andrew Root argues that our mainline denominations are structured around a way of life that is arranged around a multigenerational congregation, a congregation for a lifetime. We aim to provide services and programmes for different age groups, drawing in people to these programmes and as a result resources to pay the staff and other overheads to make this possible. The problem is that the pace of life in the culture around us has sped up so fast that people no longer have the same amount of time to commit to such things. It’s as if people live multiple lives in one lifetime. Where they may have committed to church on a weekly basis as a family, now multiple possibilities compete for their time and church becomes a once-a-month commitment, or a Christmas and Easter visit. The demands of modern life simply do not give time for the kind of commitment congregational church needs.
This creates a double-bind for the congregation. To survive it must continually draw people into its services and programmes to resource its ongoing life. Growth becomes the main aim for congregations because without growth, without attracting new people, the basis of its life is cut off. To attract people living in the frenetic culture we will live in the congregation presents itself as busy and happening. That’s the appeal that our busy culture demands. But the reality is that people are time poor. There just isn’t enough time to go around. As a church we feel we have to compete for people’s time because to be busy is to be alive. But when we do we create busy churches that demand growth and wear people out.
In 2009 I started a missional community called Reconnect. We started with 10 adults most of whom had, until they joined us, been part of a congregation somewhere in the town where we all lived. None of them were however leaving church, though their absence at the congregations they were part of would have surely registered. But one thing that was clear from listening to people in those early days was that no-one wanted to repeat the experience of exhaustion they had experienced in the congregations they had come from. These were not people disillusioned with church, or faith. Rather they were people looking for an expression of Christian community that practices what it preaches about mission – and didn’t exhaust them!
Reflecting on our life over the years I think there are 3 principles that have kept us able to do our life together at a humanising pace;
- Keep in balance the relationship between worship, community and mission. This has meant having a rhythm of Sunday gatherings that, for example, involves freeing up a Sunday for people to invite their neighbours for lunch or do a community litter pick.
- Stop worrying about excellence. Excellence is a value of the consumer church which sometimes gets draped with some spurious theology. I don’t think Jesus was that bothered about excellence. He was most bothered about ordinary shabby people (often those at the messy margins) showing a desire to do business with God. Just be yourself and worship as you are and you’ll find there’s a lot more time to give to other things.
- Church growth is God’s business. Our task it to be witnesses of the Kingdom. So much of our busyness and enterprise is an anxious instrumentalising of mission in the service of the church – a worry for our own future expressed in activity to get people to come. Fundamentally we are called to witness to the Kingdom and call people to explore being disciples of Jesus – the church is what happens when we do that – its not the main focus.
A funny thing happened when the first lockdown happened. The world was forced to slow down. Overnight, for many, lockdown enrolled them on a busyness detox programme. And people in those days had time for the kind of self-awareness and reflection that opened up space for God to work. We saw incredible numbers of people engage in prayer and access online services in those days – party because of a sense of crisis no doubt, but partly also because stopping and slowing brought space for the soul to breathe and find its voice.
What if we the church held our nerve and modelled a different rhythm and pace to life. A slow church? A church at a humanising pace? A flourishing pace? Maybe speed is one element of our culture that we need to be in but not of.
 Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2021).
 Robert Colville, The Great Acceleration, How the World Is Getting Faster and Faster, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 1–3.
 Ibid., 235–36.