Sunday, March 25, 2007

And Now, Mainline Protestantism

I’ve just finished reading Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I enjoyed it a lot more than her The Practicing Congregation, which I read last fall because of a reference to it in one of my D.Min. classes. Christianity for the Rest of Us is based on Bass’ three year study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, of mainline Protestant church congregations. For the study, Bass traveled the U.S. (especially the Midwest and the South) checking out 50 congregations from 6 mainline denominations that she’d heard were “spiritually vital”. She and her research colleagues then got to know 10 of them in more depth, spending the equivalent of two to three weeks with each over a period of several months. Christianity for the Rest of Us is a report of the learnings and insights from those field visits.

Bass’ book is upbeat, pointing out that there are lots of different forms of “emerging” mainline Protestant churches that are growing and thriving. She picks out ten “signposts” (i.e. individual and community practices) that she found many of the “new village” congregations practicing and discusses each of them briefly, illustrating each practice with stories and examples from one or more of the ten congregations. Among the signposts are hospitality, contemplation and silence, healing practiced at many different levels (emotions, physical, interpersonal, and cosmic), sharing stories of personal transformation (testimony), justice, and an appreciation for the connection between beauty, art, and mystery. Along the way Bass debunks many contemporary myths--evangelicals don’t have the only thriving congregations; progressive churches have not lost a positive connection to tradition; and it’s not all about having the right kind of music in worship. She also discusses many of the common characteristics of emerging churches, mainline or not: the hands on, experiential focus; the flattening of the community from “top down communities of authority toward more participatory forms of church”; and the rediscovery of ancient practices.

Some of Bass’ observations about thriving mainliners are new to me, but ring so true. Politics in these vital congregations is understood, not as partisan policy platforms that can be divisive, but as hands-on personal politics, where people go out to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, work on issues of global warming, or set up a homeless shelter and where such work clearly grows out of both the desire to embody the ways in which the teaching of Jesus has important social consequences and a transformative Christian hope. Also intriguing is the idea that these congregations are post-postdenominational, finding ways to remix “new old" tradition and heritage, practice, and wisdom so that it speaks to contemporary nomads who are hungry for a home place.

My one complaint with the book is that often, when Bass tells stories about a congregation, she uses the same background descriptions several times, which becomes repetitive and boring. I want to say to her ‘Can’t you tell me anything else interesting about this congregation rather than what you’ve already written (in some cases, several times)?” And my fear reading Christianity for the Rest of Us is that, rather than seeing these congregations as a challenge for more mainline Protestant congregations to move in a spiritually vital direction, folks may see Bass’ study as a reassurance that the mainline denominational crisis is not as dire as other studies suggest. All in all, though, I’d say that Christianity For the Rest of Us offers an interesting analysis of the way emerging church practices are playing out in mainline Protestant denominations across the country.

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