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Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith Hardcover – September 19, 2006
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Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith by Diana Butler Bass. Harper,2006
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I wish I could say this book is worthwhile. Unfortunately it fails on very many levels. I wish I could use it in our pastor's development course. I cannot even put it on the suggested reading list, much less use it as a main source book.
The first problem is rather trivial. The subtitle for the book is How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. That would be a wonderful study if indeed it is happening. But this is not a study of neighborhood churches. And many of these congregations are simply not transforming the faith. Many of them continue in their gradual decline toward closing the doors. If you are looking for book that will show you how to grow a neighborhood church, this book is not for you. Now on to the important issues.
The research behind this book is not a designed study by any academic or scientific standard. It is a collection of anecdotes from participants of carefully selected, perhaps cherry picked, congregations, assembled to support a particular predetermined premise. All the congregations shared an ethos and catalogue of best practices. Well and good. BB declares them therefore to be vital churches. However there is no investigation of other churches with similar ethos and best practices and whether or not they too are vital. That is to say, after reading the book, I have no idea whether or not implementing these ten sign post practices will turn around a declining congregation to spiritual and numeric growth. A similar subject was undertaken by Thom Rainer in Breakout Churches. Rainer sets criteria for health, identifies congregations that meet the criteria, and then studied their histories, ethos, and best practices. BB finds churches with a certain profile of ethos and best practices and declares them vital. The problem with this approach is that it becomes a celebration of her particular prejudices. And she has many prejudices.
During the course of the book she insults Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and southern Christians in general.
"I heard quite a few stories from smart, well-educated - and clearly not Pentecostal - churchgoers about supernatural healings." P. 113.
" Memphis, Tennessee, conjures visions of southern religion. These two words, southern religion, evoke images of folks hootin' and hollerin' about God. Eternal damnation and hell. Sweating preachers thundering on about sex, drinking, and Democrats. Southern religion is all heart and fire, the blinding light of Jesus converting sinners to saints in a flash. This is what more reasonable Christians used to ridicule as "enthusiasm."
In Memphis, the Church of the Holy Communion, an Episcopal parish, stands in stark contrast to the fulminations of southern evangelical religion." P. 115.
Far and away the most frequent target of the vinegar is evangelicals generally and evangelical megachurches in particular.
"I immediately think of evangelical megachurches, with their huge congregations complete with doctrinal statements and Republican voting guides. Big yields, yes. But where is wisdom?" P. 147.
"Unlike in evangelical churches - where doctrinal uniformity is considered nonnegotiable - theological diversity shapes the daily life of most mainline churches." P. 146.
"Unlike conservative evangelicals who read the Bible literally, seeking out proof-texts for narrow moral or ethical readings of scripture, the Episcopalians at Redeemer approach the Bible "seriously, but not Literally." P. 188.
"However, there is still a rift in the ways that Christians view art. Some, usually those in evangelical churches, understand art instrumentally. Art is important because it proclaims a message, usually intended to convert people to the faith. ... Other Christian, however, engage art for the sake of mystery instead of a message." P. 213.
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and its viewers receive special attention. "Unlike the evangelical Christians who flocked to the film, mainline Protestants more thoughtfully engaged The Passion in its theology and as a spiritual product." P. 230. Anyone who dared to view "The Passion of the Christ" incurs her judgment. She comes close to saying that anyone who went to see "The Passion of the Christ" is an anti-Semite and a consumerist, a willing participant in economic sin.
"That is, of course, what happened with The Passion of the Christ: the primary symbol of Christianity, the cross, was turned into a marketing event." P. 233.
She was unnecessarily insulting to several individuals and their readers. For example she belittled Forty Days of Purpose (twice) and Purpose Driven Church, although several of her congregations described implementing Purpose Driven action items. If these two resources are so counterproductive why have they had such an impact on the lives of so many individuals and congregations. BB spent a whole chapter on the practice of discernment. So what is wrong with asking the purpose of a life or of a congregation? She came close to insulting Billy Graham. One wonders why an author of her talent feels a need do insult people. It may be true that Purpose Driven, etc., are the basics. But she comes off as a university mathematics professor belittling an elementary school teacher for teaching arithmetic to first graders. What purpose does this serve?
People who have a perspective different from hers and dare to speak it with conviction are thundering partisans. See page 238 and the southern religion quote above for examples.
I am very concerned as well over the makeup of the study group. Of the ten primary congregations eight were all white, one was Latino, and one was multiethnic. The multiethnic congregation had three African American staff members, two of whom are sextons. Do the math. Is this a prejudice or a coincidence? I honestly do not know. But either way I cannot recommend this book to any of our African American pastors.
Butler Bass also seems to misunderstand the place of evangelicals in mainline churches. Generally speaking she does not acknowledge that there are very many evangelical mainline congregations and even more evangelicals in congregations that are not totally evangelical.
"The most troubling division comes from the tensions within the Presbyterian denomination between the church's traditionally more liberal theological constituency and its vocal evangelical minority." P. 146.
One need look only at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the upcoming exodus of evangelical congregations in the Presbyterian Church USA to see Butler Bass' misconception of mainline evangelicals. In one PCUSA presbytery 60% of the Sunday morning attendance was in Confessing Churches. Currently the PCUSA has entire presbyteries who wish to leave the denomination as a whole presbytery. The EPC is setting up a provisional presbytery to receive the congregations leaving the PC USA. Some projections estimate that the provisional presbytery will be as large or larger than the original EPC. Similar phenomena are occuring in the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran tradition, and the Methodist tradition. Indeed within a few years the PC USA will cease to be the majority Presbyterian voice in the United States given the current rate of change. That is to say there will be more Presbyterians who are not members of the PCUSA than those who are.
On page 2 BB writes, "Rather, I journeyed with a surprising group of contemporary pilgrims - those folks who gather in mainline Protestant congregations, communities that describe themselves as theologically centrist to liberal-progressive and are part of denominations that trace their lineage back to colonial America. I hung out with brand-name Christians - Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians, ..." Does BB mean that only centrist to liberal-progressive Christians are mainline? What about centrist to evangelical, those just right of center but still in the center? What about those who are just plain centrist, for whom the evangelical/progressive divide is irrelevant. In the Presbyterian Church, USA I know many a minister who is just plain Presbyterian. Are they not mainline because they do not at least lean towards the progressive side?
On the other hand if mainline is defined as tracing their lineage back to colonial America, and centrist to progressive is a subset of mainline, why exclude the other subsets? One cannot read Presbyterian history in North America without seeing that there has always been tension in our antecedent denominations over this very issue. We have had Old School/New School, Old Light/New Light, Modernist/Fundamentalist, Liberal/Conservative, and now finally evangelical/progressive controversies. What is important to note about these controversies is that despite the formation of some splinter groups the majority of both sides remained in the denomination. Both sides remained mainline. In our current context there will be some splintering, with many congregations leaving the PCUSA and moving to the EPC. There remain many evangelicals who wish to remain in the PCUSA and to work through the difficulties. The Constitutional Presbyterians is such a group. And while many New Wineskins congregations will go to the EPC, many other NWAC congregations will remain in the denomination. Why then exclude such a large and healthy, and historically significant cohort, from the study? If this is progressive inclusiveness we need a different inclusiveness.
BB never addresses the fundamental question regarding mainline churches. Until the 70's American culture required church attendance. To be a good American one also had to be a churchgoer, if not a genuine Christian. Protestant was preferred over Catholic and Orthodox was a genuine peculiarity. Mainline denomination (meaning successor to a northwestern European tradition) was culturally more desirable than Southern Baptist or Pentecostal. Little League was never scheduled on Sunday morning. Mainline churches did not have to go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in. We relied on our culture to do that for us. That has changed. Now our culture is not only not supportive of Christianity it is at best suspicious of and at times hostile to Christianity. Which means that for the churches to thrive they have to go to the world and interrupt people's lives with the Gospel. Her list of best practices is quite good. But it is not the main issue. If the congregations do not create their own new participants they will all die. Of all the personal anecdotes I read I was struck by how many quotes were from people who had been churched as children. I counted only two people who were adult converts, and one of those came to Christ through an evangelical Bible study, then moved on to one of the cohort congregations. BB rails against evangelicals. But were it not for an evangelical Bible study this young woman would not have become Christian. The study church certainly was not doing any evangelism. And this is the biggest problem with BB's book. It is all about baby boomers who were churched as children, left the church, and now are back. The issue we face now is how to reach people who were never churched. Yes, by all means, the depth discipleship described in the ten signposts is great. But it is almost, though not completely, inner focused. Even the testimony section is not about bearing witness to Christ to non-Christians. She has changed it to bearing testimony within the congregation for the benefit of the congregation.
The result of this Boomer propensity for navel gazing is a steep decline in worship attendance across the board. I had hoped that this book would help us see ways in which mainline congregations can address this very issue. Unfortunately this is not the case. Of the four Presbyterian congregations in her cohort three were stagnant or in decline. I say this not to pick on Presbyterians. Rather they are the easiest to get data from. So the long term question remains. If I am not replacing my losses in participation how will this congregation's ministry continue? If our ministry is good, but dies, who will take over the needed ministry? Who will host the tent cities?
Butler Bass' real issue is how can a liberal/progressive church survive, and maybe possibly grow numerically as an unanticipated but welcome side effect. If you think that the answer lies along the axis of "it is possible to have our old, traditional worship with a hymnbook and an organ prelude, with a cerebral Enlightenment/Modernist confessional approach to faith," you will be sorely disappointed. The congregations she studied have abandoned those things for the most part. Her ten signposts are all things that were not practiced in mainline Protestant congregations in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in North America, as she very ably demonstrates. Her answer instead is that to survive as a mainline Protestant congregation you have to start doing the very things that her mainline village church never did. That is to say, to survive as a mainline congregation one must stop being traditionally mainline, or change one's definition of mainline, both of which violate her premise.
On p. 174 BB describes a "mainline" church that is not at all traditional mainline. "Combining elements of jazz, performance art, film clips and video, multimedia reflection, live-camera feed, testimony, readings, silence, contemplative prayer, and journaling, they christened this service The Studio." How is this traditional mainline? Simply because they still put Congregationalist on the marquis? BB never addresses this question. The congregations she describes are no longer "mainline" in practice, only in name and judicatory membership. That is exactly the issue.
Her study congregations are post-modern experientialists who are PC USA or UMC or UCC or Episcopal or Lutheran in name only. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But let's be honest about it. The Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran ministers of the study congregations may be able to describe Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran theology respectively. But she gives no evidence that the members understand or even care about it. And of course, denominational identity was a hallmark of mainline Protestantism. The congregations she worked with are not traditional mainline churches any more. The answer she arrives at is exactly the same answer the "evangelicals" arrived at. Traditional mainline Protestantism, based on northwestern European culture beginning in the early Sixteenth Century and founded on Enlightenment rationalism, no longer is a viable model for Church in post-modern North America.
Butler Bass spent many years as an evangelical, and an eloquent one. She has left that behind and moved into the progressive fold. Well and good. But in leaving the evangelical fold she feels the need to castigate her former colleagues. Martin Luther ultimately affirmed, "I am not!" Perhaps this book is her "I am not" to her evangelical sisters and brothers. I hope that as her service to the church continues the evangelical stage will be her thesis, the progressive phase will be her antithesis, and that she will find somewhere and somehow the peace of a synthesis.
I still have hope. Tonight I start reading Dr. Butler Bass' The Practicing Church.
I came to "Christianity For The Rest Of Us" expecting a book that would pit "us" against "them" - whoever "us" and "them" were. I was not disappointed. Actually, I was very disappointed, but the book did what I expected it to do. The title suggested, and the book proved, that the author had an agenda. Her frequent attacks on "them" left me wondering whether she had solid research or a carefully crafted agenda.
On the second page, Diana Butler Bass, shows her disdain for "the rest of us" as she proclaims her three years of research did not find her stepping inside "suburban megachurches or revivalist congregations" ignoring their growth for "brand-name Christians" - and with that statement dismissed the phenomenal growth of Church of the Resurrection and the work of Adam Hamilton. DBB is obviously displeased that "evangelical voices have grown louder." Argumentatively, she suggests that evangelicals are not "open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just." Well, to be fair, she doesn't actually say that - shame on me - but she does identify those quantities as belonging exclusively to the group she declares to be "the rest of us." She graciously included Methodists among those who "trace their lineage back to colonial America".
DBB announces that she does "have the appropriate academic credentials to conduct [this] study." But if there is a methodology here, I could not see it. Instead the whole discussion in what seems to be the core of the book - the ten signposts of renewal (hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversify, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty) - are based only on anecdotal reporting. If there were any negative aspects to these ten, they did not seem to be included in the book. The churches she cataloged were all full of Christianity for the rest of us. I would like to have seen her research include stories where one of her core churches was unsuccessful in one of the signpost areas and how they worked to overcome it. The churches DBB surveys certainly exhibit these areas, but did anybody - the rest of Christianity which falls outside of those she favors - turn around a dying church by following the ten sign posts. We will never know because the churches DBB profiles fit her criteria and her prejudices (we all have them - that is not a blanket criticism), and she therefore deems them successful, transforming the faith.
I did find a rose here and there among the thorns. The only chapter I came close to applauding was on "Contemplation," but a much better job was done by Kathleen Norris in her 1998 book "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith," or her book of the previous year, "The Cloister Walk."
Another rose was the recovery of the ancient church's healing ministry at Calvin Presbyterian Church PCUSA in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Moving to it slowly, DBB writes that the ministry of healing is today central to the life of Calvin: "Prayer ministers visit and anoint the sick with oil; prayer groups meet weekly for intercessory prayer; healing prayer is offered after every Sunday service. A small anteroom off the sanctuary serves as a prayer chapel where candles can be lit for the sick ... Many of the prayer ministers knit prayer shawls, praying for those who will receive the shawls as a tangible sign of God's embrace."
DBB reports that Calvin "models the vision of the church as a hospital for sinners" - which model I heartily applaud - and "they understand the link between healing and salvation." But she says, the people of Calvin Church: "Do not focus on the idea of `personal salvation' in the way their evangelical neighbors do. Instead, for them God's salvation is a processing healing whereby they are transformed - and, in turn, they open themselves to transforming the world."
DBB, it would seem, identifies us as "evangelical neighbors." In the United Methodist service of healing, this point is made clear - the root of the word healing in the New Testament is the same as that of salvation and wholeness. However, in our Service of Healing, we participate in a liturgy of confession and pardon, wherein we acknowledge that "Christ died for us while we were yet sinners," and "In the name of Jesus Christ" we are forgiven. Glory to God! Amen!
DBB touts the healing ministries of Cornerstone UMC, Church of the Epiphany, Church of the Holy Communion, Goleta Presbyterian, Saint Mark Lutheran, and Redeemer United Church of Christ, but she cannot escape her prejudice and denominational (or maybe it is non-denominational) snobbery. She says, "I heard quite a few stories from smart, well-educated - and clearly not Pentecostal - church goers about supernatural healings" (emphasis mine). Her disdain is not reserved for Pentecostals alone. There is plenty to go around. She describes the communities of faithful evangelicals as "narrow and inhospitable." Almost any southern religion deserves her ire: "Southern religion is all heat and fire, the blinding light of Jesus converting sinners to saints in a flash. This is what more reasonable Christians used to ridicule as "enthusiasm" (emphasis mine)."
Literal truth from Scripture does not fit with DBB's mold of "Christianity for the rest of us." She criticizes Tamara, a Sunday school teacher who "takes the Bible fairly literally," and supports an unnamed parent who admonishes, "These are stories. Like a metaphor. Not literal truth." If it is not the purpose of a metaphor to proclaim literal truth, what is its purpose? Jesus seemed to believe that the story of Jonah and the great fish communicated a literal truth. For that matter, Jesus seems to believe that the story was not a metaphor, but an event which literally occurred, and uses it to communicate the truth of his future, but literal, resurrection.
She remarks, clearly believing that it is wrong for "evangelical churches" - or anyone else, I would suppose - to support the belief that "doctrinal uniformity ... [is] non-negotiable." What part of doctrine would she argue away: the virgin birth, the resurrection, shoot, why not the death of Christ on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins?
While praising Church of the Redeemer and their approach of being "deeply schooled in scripture," DBB continues to belittle people for whom scripture is not "pitting the mind against the heart": "Redeemer's practice of scripture is "not [emphasis and quotes in original] a Holy-Roller" sort of thing. Unlike conservative evangelicals who read the Bible literally, seeking out proof-texts for narrow moral or ethical readings of scripture, the Episcopalians at Redeemer approach the Bible "seriously, but not literally" [quotes in original]."
It is my guess that DBB and the good folks at Redeemer read the morning newspaper literally. I am amazed at folks who require less for the Word of God! Do I believe that John the Revelator was talking about a literal creature with seven heads, ten crowns, ten horns, etc? No, but I do believe there was a literally meaning there - not merely something spiritual to look at and say, "Oh, that's nice," and then go on without it affecting the way we live. That was the religion of the Romans - light a candle, drop a few drachmas in the box in front of Nero's statue, and then continue to live like hell. The literal message of the Bible demands a change of life. If it isn't literal, it can't demand a change. Metaphors are nice to reflect on, but nothing to base your life on when facing lions, or a firing squad, or a gas chamber.
Well, I could go on. DBB rips "Forty Days of Purpose," which, while not my favorite book or course of study, has benefitted many, many churches. She takes low shots at Billy Graham. "Them" Christians "fear cultural change, opting instead to make pronouncements about a God who is `the same yesterday, today and forever." "Them" Christians are "loud," "aggressive," narrow and inhospitable." "Us" Christians are "well-educated and articulate." They have "a faith that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just." And all the while she decries stereotypes. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
DBB summed up my reaction to this book perfectly when she wrote, "If you like the kind of Christianity that offers certainty and order in a world of change ... this book is not for you." It certainly is not, because I certainly do!