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When we get impatient, we try to control change and force change. The result is the church sinking to another level of stuckness even worse than before.

Editor’s note: This article is the final one in a three-part series on the missional church based on the authors’ book Joining Jesus: Ordinary People at the Edges of the Church.

From its start in 2011, The Table has been a nontraditional Christian Reformed Church ministry community. It calls itself an urban farm, and its focus has been on gathering people from the Platte Park neighborhood and nearby areas in southwestern Denver, Colo., who want to help plant and harvest food, mostly in front- and side-yard garden plots offered by local residents.

People who have been drawn to The Table are generally not regular churchgoers or even believers. Rather, they have been attracted by the chance to help plant and harvest vegetables and fruit for the local community and to spend time together. Evangelism for this community means personal, heart-to-heart transactions; it is about God being made real in the life of the group. Only recently has The Table obtained a building in which to gather and do its work.

Jeanine Kopaska Broek, who pastors The Table along with her husband, Craig, sees the words “small” and “slow”—words we have been discussing in this series of articles for The Banner—as important descriptors of their efforts. In essence, The Table has stayed small and evolved slowly, and Kopaska Broek believes being patient has been crucial.

“Initiating a faith community in the context of a farm has presented every opportunity to practice patience,” Jeanine wrote in an email. “In our efforts at The Table, the practice of patience has looked like showing up, sitting alongside, facilitating opportunities, and repeatedly telling ourselves that God has to make the seed grow. … We leave the truly hard work in God's hands. We pray for the power to be patient and the willingness to be ready.”

In this third and final article of our series, we want to touch again on the words “small” and “slow”—words that help define our thinking about the shape and pace a church could take when reimagining how to be a church joining God’s mission in the world. But, building on The Table’s approach, we also want to look at one other word—“patient”—and how patience is a virtue crucial for the growth and survival of our church communities.

Patience Can Help Get Us Unstuck

As I (Moses) travel across the U.S. and Canada and see the conditions of congregations, I have come to grasp why so many churches feel stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck. Beyond the typical statistical reasons, such as aging congregants, young people leaving the church, lack of evangelism growth, and the pervasive culture of secularism, consumerism, and hyperindividualism at work in our society and in our churches, I wonder about other, perhaps more profound challenges at work that blur our focus on Jesus and his mission.

When there are problems and challenges for our churches—and there are many today—it is natural to try to fix those problems. But we get frustrated and discouraged when the plans we make don’t go as we intended. Impatience grabs us. When we get impatient, we try to control change and force change. The result is the church sinking to another level of stuckness even worse than before.

I believe there is another way. It’s the way of patience. In thinking small and slow, your church can grow in patience by focusing on God’s patience, by developing practices such as discernment of the Holy Spirit and prayers of submission, and going after relationships rather than quick results.

Alan Kreider wrote the insightful book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, a telling, deeply chronicled history of the role of patience in early Christianity. He writes, “(Early) Christians believed that God is patient and that Jesus visibly embodied patience. And they concluded that they, trusting in God, should be patient—not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve their ends.” In addition, “the early Christians believed that God was in charge of events; they knew they were not.”

What Is Patience About?

Patience is about discovering, discerning, and joining God’s initiatives and graces. We can relax from our anxiousness, slow down from our hurried pace, and release ourselves from control because, at the end of the day, God’s got our church, and we do not. At the same time, God’s invitation to us is not to inaction and idleness, but to active participation in the Spirit’s work through our waiting prayers, obedience to the Spirit’s promptings, and trusting God’s presence among our church community even through hard times.

Let’s look at the dynamic effect of being patient and how, with the Spirit’s leading, it can help to offer real hope to your church.

Think of what a small, slow, and patient church means. It means a change of mind, approach, and perspective. It means a church that moves from being a host to seeing itself as a guest or even a servant. It means moving from a focus on outcomes to a focus on faithful obedience, from being driven by our agendas to discovering where God is at work and how we can join God's mission.

Embracing patience and waiting for God to lead the way also means moving from simply offering institutional programs to embracing incarnational presence, from “come to church” to “be the church.” It means moving the church from an emphasis on seating capacity to a seeking and sending capacity, from being consumers to being missionaries, and from results to relationships.

How Do We Move Into This Process?

There are a few things we can do in our churches to shepherd a transformational change in outlook and the practice of patience. To start, we must look and discern deeply our habitus, inside ourselves, our congregations, and our neighborhoods. As we observe, assess, and adapt to our own sacred inclinations and to those of our community, we start to form new habits. Most of these will be instinctive and become second nature to your own walk of faith and to your church. Formed by repetition, we will do things—good things, holy things—over and over so they become habitual and reflexive. We concentrate on developing practices that contribute to a habitus that characterizes individual Christians and Christian communities.

But we don’t stop there. As the early church often did, we pay special attention to the notion of attraction instead of promotion in opening our community to others. We want people to see what we are doing and, being intrigued, to want to join. In welcoming people to our church, we find and use the right resources, fit to our context, for teaching newcomers about the ways, beliefs, and worship practices of our church. We are formed as God’s people as we share the Eucharist, God’s meal for us, as well as with sit-down dinners and other types of meals. Eating together brings us together.

Now to the Growth

All of this said, we come to the reality of ferment, a bubbling energy, a bottom-up inner life, a time—for however long—of letting things happen. By allowing the Spirit to slowly shape us and work on the world around us, we realize God is at work and will, when the time is right, open the next door, the next story of our life together.

I know this process sounds hard, but through its sheer simplicity it promises to upend your communal life. Truly, it is tough. But it works! We’ve seen it work. Many Christian Reformed congregations we found reflect those three words—small, slow, and patient—in different ways.

A Time with the Monks

Seeking patience and some solace, I (Chris) stood in the dim light of the church at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Mich., on a Friday this winter. It was late afternoon as the Episcopal Benedictine monks began chanting vespers, one of seven times of daily corporate prayer.

Soft voices filled the air as the monks chanted a few psalms. I closed my eyes and took in a deep, steadying breath, thinking that the handful of black-robed men singing in their stalls in front of the altar had hardly changed in all of the years I’d been coming here.

What hit me as the service unfolded is that these men exemplify the virtue of patience through their year-after-year, under-the-radar commitment to prayer and worship. To me, they embody the small, slow, and patient way of life we’ve been writing about.

After vespers and dinner, I sat in my room and got online to see what the Rule of Saint Benedict, the sixth-century document guiding the life of all Benedictine monks, has to say about patience. This is what I read: “In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two.”

Those words hit hard. In other words, patience is more than calmly waiting or enduring. Patience is alive and active. Practicing patience is a core way of living in the way of Jesus and being his church in the world.

A Small, Slow, and Steady Process

True, being patient is not easy, but there is a sustaining clarity to it. You choose the path of patience realizing you are not on a fast track. You accept the fact that all of this takes time. You slow down and face doubts and challenges. Whether you are a monk or a simple churchgoer, you lean into God to help you on this uncertain journey. Even as you go, this might seem like something you aren’t able to do. You might want to return to the get-it-done-now mindset. Still, there are so many stories out there—if you pay attention—that buck the trend of pell-mell fragmentation, of being gripped by a galloping fear of the future. For our book, we met and learned from people who are bearing witness to perseverant yet joyful participation in God’s activities in their local contexts, usually in small acts of obedience and with a slow pace of progress. They are “such a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) for Christian Reformed congregations and many others in abbeys, cathedrals, and storefront churches who need hopeful signs for churches in North America today.

We think of ourselves in the CRCNA in relation to Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The early Christian church knew what we are just starting to realize: that patience and persistence are paramount. Whether it’s two members or 20 or more, we believe churches across our denomination are stirring with a renewed life born of hope. In a world of so much woe, those of us who follow Jesus are starting to do exactly that—to fully fix our eyes on Christ. Even if Jesus takes us into places that confuse us, even if Christ requires us to wait, stay put, and move on at the same time, we are coming to know in small, slow, and patient ways that we can make it. Ferment has begun. Grace is flowing, and joy is not far behind. Truly, God has called his many witnesses to live lives bounded by love and defined, scary as it can be, by a willingness to change, even if that means having to wait for our questions to be answered.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where in your church do you see or experience “small and slow”? How do you feel about it?
  2. Do you think your church is currently patient or impatient? Why?
  3. What are some of your church community’s habits—the things it does repeatedly, without thinking, almost as second nature? What can you learn about your church from these habits?
  4. What new spiritual habits do you think should be introduced and patiently practiced in your church, or in your own personal life, to lean more into trusting Christ?

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