Christianity for the Rest of Us

[Fourth and last in a short series of highly subjective mini book reviews.]

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!!!)
  • Hospitality
  • Discernment
  • Healing
  • Contemplation
  • Testimony
  • Diversity
  • Justice
  • Worship
  • Reflection
  • Beauty
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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real problem I think will be figuring out how to translate “Christian” into “Quaker”.

Perhaps we don't have to go for either "Christianity" or "Quakerism." I think the word we should all be meditating on is Friendship. What is friendship? And what do we do that gives it the big F? We need to reclaim Friendship for what it really is. Accepting everyone as they are and loving them.

I think it's important to ask people what Christian means to them. I was raised Christian, and yet I don't consider myself one because the word is empty to me. If someone wants to say that I follow Jesus, I'm cool with that. The author of the book The Politics of Jesus had to specifically call his philosophy "Jesusian" to separate what people now perceive as Christian versus Jesus' real message.

And some people won't like this, but Jesus wasn't lobbying Congress. Of course we have to do that work as a unit. But really he was roaming the streets with the poor. I forget the quote you put into the newsletter that I liked, but I think primitive is a good word for authentic Christianity and Quakerism. Primitive, dirty, real. We must not be afraid of the "suchness" that is arround us.

1/25/2008 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh another query that's been popping up in my head a lot. What's the difference between an ally and a friend? I think Quakers are functioning now more as allies.

1/25/2008 3:03 PM  
Blogger Brent Bill said...

Diana's work is really interesting. She's a good friend of mine -- very thoughtful researcher and writer. I also enjoyed her "Strength for the Journey," "Broken We Kneel" (about Christian citizenship), and "From Nomads to Pilgrims."

1/26/2008 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a public letter I sent to
a leader of a major Quaker org.

I shared theses words about my
understanding of Quakerism,

"I was raised in the Lutheran Church and remember a time in confirmation school where Pastor Lund explained to us why the Lutheran Church did not have altar calls: “We don’t come to Christ; Christ comes to us!”
As John 15:16 states,
“You did not choose me,
but I chose you....”

I continue to affirm this belief as a Friend; the Christ is at work
in all people: whites, people of color, Christians, Universalists, and, yes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.

I conclude with these words,
"It is Christ who chooses and
works in us and his grace that is manifest in our relationship to each other"

I name the Holy,Christ and for me Quaker and Christian are interchangeably words.

I know many Friends particularly in the unprogrammed tradition do not share this particular experience of the Holy.

What we do share is the
experience and fruits
of that experience.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.

Experience grounded in worship
and lived out in outward actions (fruits)for me is the core
of our Quaker tradition.

As Friends we need to continue find ways to wrestle with this faith tradition and how that tradition shapes us today as a people of faith.
Paul R

1/26/2008 9:48 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

Hi Robin,
Lovely post! I was especially struck by your acknowledgement of SF as a place of transience. I think that's true of Berkeley, too, and it's probably wise to expect that not everyone is going to stay around a long time. I struggle with not taking it personally when people move on after a time. This gets conflated with my frustration at realizing how many people hang out for years at meeting without ever applying for membership (I'm serving on nominating for the first time, and the relatively small number of Friends we can call on for service is staring me in the face!). Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on this, and it looks like I have a new book to add to my to-be-read pile.

1/27/2008 9:04 PM  
Blogger Liz in the Mist said...

I think I am going to have to read this book!

Thanks for these revies!

1/27/2008 11:44 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...


Friendship is a good word too. But Jesusian, while I understand the intent, is a lousy word.

The quote in the SFMM newsletter was from John Punshon's "Testimony and Tradition". I think it's worth reproducing here:

"A religion that cannot understand and absorb the rowdy, dirty, and soiled side of life is not worth much. To be fastidious is faith is to withdraw from the game. It is to become a spectator again, and to lose the sense that religion is more about living the fact of death and the nearness of God than thinking about it, important though that can sometimes be."

Brent, this is the first of her works that I've read. I also recommended it to the pastor of a small but recovering Presbyterian church I know because it reminded me of them. He had also enjoyed some of her other works and said he would look for this one.

Paul, I like your articulation of your faith. I hope you comment here more often.

Linda, I've been wrestling with the transience issues for years, even before I came to SFMM, I was part of other groups that had the same problem. This helped me to not fret but to embrace this calling.

Liz, it's a book that would be well worth requesting through your local library if they don't already have it. Not because it's not worth owning for yourself, but because it ought to be available to a wider audience.

1/28/2008 3:08 PM  

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