Friday, June 29, 2007

Diana Butler Bass: "Longing for Sock Puppet Church"

Diana Butler Bass, author of The Practicing Congregation and Christianity for the Rest of Us, has spent many years studying mainline congregations that have discovered a new vitality without copying the mega-church, evangelical style. She discovered communities in which tradition, practice and wisdom have emerged as the deepest longings for a new generation of Christians. The conservative vs. liberal arguments are of little or no interest to them. These communities that are flourishing are not stuck in the established models of “doing church,” but see their faith as a corporate pilgrimage, “marked by mobility, choice, risk, reflexivity and reflection."

God's Politics, a blog hosted by Beliefnet and Soujourners, has published Diana's latest essay; Sock Puppet Church. She begins by describing her fond childhood memories of helping her mother prepare for Vacation Bible School. Here's part of it:

...We sat on the living room floor sorting through old socks, bits of yarn and fabric, old buttons, and pipe cleaners. From these scraps we would sew sock puppets of biblical characters. We made Moses and Pharaoh, David and Jonathan, and Mary and Jesus for our amateur productions in the church’s handmade puppet theater. We cut up old Christmas cards for shellac projects and paper-mache collages. We made Bible map stencils to mimeograph and color. And we built the Temple at Jerusalem from sugar cubes...

...My daughter is now nine. It has been a long time since I attended summer Bible school, and now it was her turn for the childhood ritual. As I investigated local programs, however, I was in for a big surprise: Vacation Bible School now comes in a can.

All the programs were pretty much the same. Christian publishing companies have developed Disney-quality VBS weeks bearing names like “The Plunge,” “Holy Land Adventure,” “Quest for Truth,” “Great Bible Reef,” and “SonForce Kids.” Prepackaged, these “complete Bible adventures” come in large cans (admittedly, one arrives in a woven basket) advertising that they contain “everything you need” for a successful Bible school, “just add kids”...

...Lately, I have been reading Bill McKibben’s fine new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. McKibben argues that growth—based on “hyper-individualism”—does not create human happiness, health, and wholeness. Rather, local community and close connections make us happy. We must shift away from a Wal-Mart economy to what he calls a “deep economy,” defined as “the economics of neighborliness.” Less stuff, he suggests, will create more connections by transforming the human economy and makes a “durable future” for the planet.

Although McKibben writes of economics, his argument carries over to faith. Successful American churches are Wal-Mart type congregations, built on the idea that bigger-is-better, hyper-individual faith, and entertaining programs meet an infinitely expanding religious market. That vision creates a culture of religious sameness across the country—indeed, across the globe—that subsumes local cultures in its wake. Want your church to grow? Attend the latest pastors conference offered by a celebrity minister. Do 40 days of purpose or seven steps toward mission. Put on a dazzling Christmas spectacular. Buy Vacation Bible School in a can. You, too, can have a successful church if you lay out the cash...

...I no longer want to belong to an efficient church, a big one, or even a successful one. I just want to be part of a good sock-puppet church. And, as I have traveled this year, and spoken to many thousands of Christians, I had heard them, too, longing for sock puppet church, a deeper congregation, a community that stitches memory from scraps, one that (as McKibben says) “rebalances the scales” of our religious economy—and, in the process, may well transform the world.
Make sure you go read the complete essay.

As someone who has invested quite a bit of time over the last couple of years attending workshops and reading books on "church growth," I find Diana's words resonating quite strongly with my own experience. There is much wisdom offered by the experts in this field, and I've learned many helpful things from them. But the reality is that there is no magical formula for building a community.

Every member of any group brings with them unique gifts. Over time, shared memories are created. It is through recognizing and empowering the gifts present in our midst, while honoring the shared memories, that a cohesive group is formed. Such a group will not feel threatened by someone new joining them, and will often welcome the new gifts that are offered. And out of this welcoming, new memories will emerge that will be cherished for generations to come.

The trick is to walk that fine line between the "one size fits all" approach to living out our faith, and the individualistic inclination that insists that "different" and "new" is always better.

We aren't called to be clones of Jesus, after all. It is our unique gifts, that often don't neatly fit in the box marked "traditional," that we offer to the greater glory of God. But at the same time, we recall that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses; all those who have gone before us proclaiming the Good News. It is not simply our unique group engaged in this mission. We walk with the saints of God. So we tell their stories as well as our own. Their stories are honored as they become part of our shared memories.

It is these shared memories that inform our search for the new thing that God may be doing in our midst. As each group expresses their longing to connect with God and one another, a community emerges. If the community is healthy, it will begin to transform the lives that it touches. Seeing such transformations is one of the most marvelous experiences we will ever witness.

Our previous discussions of the writing of Diana Butler Bass can be found here, here and here.


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