Christianity for the Rest of Us
Christianity For the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith
by Diana Butler Bass
This book contains the results of a study about mainline Protestant congregations that are thriving, not dying: mostly Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Congregationalists. A side point is to disprove the theory that only conservative, fundamentalist churches are growing in America today.
What are the practices that characterize a thriving mainline congregation? Officially what their study looked at was the coherence of spiritual practice in a congregation, the authenticity of their practices, and the degree of transformation through their practices. The main things they found that these churches had in common were shared tradition, practice and wisdom. And a commitment to a transformative form of Christianity. And humility. These were not churches that claimed to know all the answers, but who were working through the questions together.
If you want academic sounding explanations, there is a chapter at the back called “Research Methodology & Findings” but most of the book is a collection of stories – stories about the spiritual journey of the authors of the study and stories collected from the participants. Narrative theology, yes! Way more interesting to read.
One thing that is missing for me is a focus on children in the life of the church, although Butler Bass acknowledges the “Emma-test” at the end. This was her seven year old daughter’s thumbs up/thumbs down opinion of the various churches and Sunday Schools that she attended with her mother.
Here is the list of the 10 Signposts of Renewal :
(For more details, get the book; in addition to the stories, the queries are fabulous!!!)
So of course, as I’m reading the book, I keep asking myself, “How many of these is my meeting practicing?” The answer is all of them, a little bit. I kept crying as I read it – recognizing God at work – recognizing myself and recognizing my meeting – at the very least our aspirations to be like that – not just an obligation on Sunday mornings but a transformative element in people’s lives.
If the keys to a thriving congregation are shared tradition, practice, and wisdom – how are we sharing these with each other, especially newcomers?
My meeting is in a growing phase right now. Can we step into the opportunities that God is showing us? How will we take advantage of the light and life that is blowing in among us? How do we provide formation and use the gifts people already bring? How do we help people as they cycle through our meeting?
One metaphor that came to me: How can we be the Spiritual Service Station that God is calling us to be? As needed, we can offer repairs for some, refueling for some and a chance to join the crew…
Another image: Maybe our meeting is more like a spiritual adult school – there are always new students, many of us are staying on to become faculty, but we are still engaged in our own research and learning. Some of our newest members are taking on a kind of grad student/t.a. role. Like a school, we don’t freak out that a large proportion of the population will move on after a class or two or a year or two. We have to make sure that we have remedial, introductory and advanced level educational opportunities.
I believe this is a big part of our vocation as a meeting: to offer the spiritual formation we can while folks are with us and then to release them out into the world with our blessing. San Francisco is a transient place for many people, especially young adults. We aren't going to change that fact. We can try to accept it with serenity and grace and courage. The school metaphor is really helpful to me.
I would really like to give the list of the signposts of renewal to our whole meeting and ask them “where do you see each of these in our meeting?” “Where do you think we need to grow?” I think this would be an amazing adult religious education session, following on from our visioning sessions five years or so ago. Another important question would be “where do you see that we have grown in the last five years?”
I know that the Religious Society of Friends is not generally considered a mainline Protestant denomination by either Friends or other Protestants. But we have enough in common that this book feels relevant to our condition. We have the same historical sort of tradition; we are experiencing a decline in numbers; we have folks wondering whether we are headed into a period of renewal or a slow agonizing death of our denomination.
The real problem I think will be figuring out how to translate “Christian” into “Quaker”. Just because I’ve come to see them as easily synonymous doesn’t mean my whole meeting has, or even the whole M&O committee. (or all the readers of this blog, for that matter. That’s okay too.)
How can we all read something like this together? Bass writes about contemplation and discernment and hospitality as Christian practices. I know these also to be Quaker practices. Bass even quotes Quakers J. Brent Bill and Parker Palmer to explain discernment and contemplative practices.
But what about Jesus’s inclusive table practices, for example, which in some thriving congregations have been reintegrated into their enactment of the Lord’s supper. They are clear examples of practices of diversity & hospitality which lead to a concern for and the practice of social justice. Is the example of Jesus an inspiration or in any way authoritative for us?
If I were “in charge,” I would buy nine copies of the book and make the whole thing required reading for the Ministry and Oversight committee. But that ain’t gonna happen, so why dream?
I think I will actually copy the chapters on Transforming Lives and Transforming Congregations plus the list of signposts to give to the clerk and asst. clerk of our M&O committee. I expect both of them will be able to read this Christian language without flinching.
At the very least, I will encourage them to move forward on having an M&O retreat and giving themselves time to read and reflect on these chapters
I also put Diana Butler Bass on my list of people I wish I knew.
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