Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Imagining a New Old Church

I’m attending a clergy conference at which the we are hearing a series of presentations by Diana Butler Bass, author of The Practicing Congregation and Christianity for the Rest of Us. The dust jacket of the latter book offers a good summation of her work:

For decades the accepted wisdom has been that America’s mainline Protestant churches are in decline, eclipsed by evangelical mega-churches. Church and religion expert Diana Butler Bass wondered if this was true, and this book is the result of her extensive, three-year study of centrist and progressive churches across the country. Her surprising findings reveal just the opposite – that many of the churches are flourishing, and they are doing so without resorting to mimicking the mega-church, evangelical style.

Christianity for the Rest of Us describes this phenomenon and offers a how-to approach for Protestants eager to remain faithful to their tradition while becoming a vital spiritual community. As Butler Bass delved into the rich spiritual life of various Episcopal, United Church of Christ and Lutheran churches, certain consistent practices - such as hospitality, contemplation, diversity, justice, discernment and worship – emerged as core expressions of congregations seeking to rediscover authentic Christian faith and witness today.
It appears that there are not just a few “mutant” mainline churches discovering a new vitality. There are enough of them to suggest that something new is going on among the mainlines that the media, who are stuck on emphasizing our “conservative/liberal” divisions, have yet to notice.

Three things that Butler Bass found that was drawing folks to these churches were;
1. A renewal of interest in tradition.
2. A desire to be intentionally engaged in Christian practices.
3. The desire to be on a quest to put into action ancient wisdom.

Tradition, practice and wisdom are emerging as the longings of a new generation of Christians. The conservative vs. liberal arguments are of little or no interest to them.

Butler Bass suggests that the liberal/conservative axis needs to be supplemented by another new axis; established/intentional. The 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." As congregations move more towards being "intentional," the conservative/liberal divisions begin to fade away.

If you haven’t guessed by now, yes, what we are talking about here is Postmodern Christianity. Butler Bass refers to the Traditional/Evangelical Conservatives who have moved from “established” to “intentional” as the “Emergent Church.” Old-style Mainline Liberals who have moved to being “intentional” are referred to as “Practicing Congregations.”

Much of this is new to me, but it rings true, not only of the dynamics I have observed within the congregations in which I have served, but also in describing my own personal internal struggles. Raised in an era when most questions had a simple right or wrong answer, yet holding degrees in literature and preferring art to science, while feeling obligated to support an establishment that I sometimes feel misses the whole point, has been cause for more than a few internal paradoxes.

I need to study this, and then let it sink in, before saying more. But my initial response has been a sense of relief, that finally someone has called our attention to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

For further reading, here's an interview of Diana Butler Bass, and here is an article she recently wrote for the Christian Century on the topic of contemplative worship.


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