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Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church Paperback – June 30, 2011
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I bought a copy for my daughter, who is active in her congregation; that congregation also wants to grow.
I recommend the book, and its author, to any church interested in growing the congregation.
They wrote in the Introduction to this 2011 book, “I believe that the dissemination of hope is an urgent priority that gives meaning to liberals living in exile. That is why we wrote the book, and I believe that is why you are reading it… we are left to ask, ‘Why are churches and denominations that advocate… progressive values dying?’… Libraries of books have been written hypothesizing about the reasons for this decline…. this book seeks to offer concrete and tangible words of hope that these trends may be slowed and even renewed… We believe there is hope for the progressive church because we have personally experienced progressive churches that have been planted and renewed in some of the most conservative places…. This book is a conspiracy to persuade you to join us as believers in the hope that the progressive church can be renewed.”
They point out, “While there is a fading perception that conservative churches are still growing… the Southern Baptist Church is now among the fastest declining denominations in the United States. All measurements of vitality in the Southern Baptist Churches are down, with the exception of a slight increase in baptisms in 2010. Even the Catholic Church is in trouble… those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin. It is tempting to conclude that the church is dying.” (Pg. 9)
They observe, “Our hope is progressive people is particularly strong because the shifts in the culture leave the progressive church more closely aligned with the values of young people who are playing a critical role in the reshaping of the church… This could be great news, if mainline churches could distinguish themselves as NOT most of these things, and if they could find ways to cease to be old-fashioned and boring. After decades of being told that our decline was the result of being too liberal, we now find ourselves not being liberal enough for the value system of the generation we must attract.” (Pg. 14-15)
They state, “What we do suggest is that, while the form of church is changing, the function of the church is not. The progressive church of the future is still in the business of transforming lives. How we do that is changing… but the core of who we are as a body always will remain the same.” (Pg. 27)
They note, “For the most part, our churches are communicating in the same way we did half a century ago. Oh, we may have a website, but most of the time it is essentially a static electronic version of the Yellow Pages ad… If you wish to build a church of sixty-year-olds then advertising on the religion page of the newspaper and sending out a monthly printed newsletter is the way to ensure that no longer people will ever know that you exist. However, if we are building … a church that has a future, we need to at least learn how to use the communication tools of the present and, hopefully, begin anticipating what opportunities the future offers.” (Pg. 74)
They suggest, “The earliest church attended worship in the temple or synagogue and then gathered together in homes for study, prayer, and the breaking of bread. Today vital churches still follow that model. Once a week, everyone gathers to celebrate and worship. It is a party, so the more the merrier. Study and connection and prayer happen in small groups that generally meet in people’s homes. Churches that try to force their weekly worship time to meet both needs generally do neither well.” (Pg. 88) They continue, “As progressives, we all value diversity, though few of our churches reflect that value very well. Small groups are often the places where homogeneity is appropriate. Although we must be careful of creating exclusive groups, congruent groups may be appropriate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks, or single mothers, or elderly widows… or people in a twelve-step program… A small group of people who share your life experience can offset feeling like an outsider or stranger in a congregation that is different and can’t fully understand your situation.” (Pg. 96)
They explain, “The multi-site approach is taken by a number of large urban churches. In its simplest form, the early service is offered on one side of town with Christian education to follow, and the later service is offered across town following their education program. The worship team simply commutes, and essentially the same service is offered in two locations… Some mega-churches operate multiple sites with simultaneous services. Staff may rotate, or the sermon may be presented via video or even a satellite downlink. Generally, worship is live, and only the sermon is not… The world has changed, and contemporary people are quite accustomed to listening to speakers or watching live concerts on large video screens. While those of us over fifty may find this experience passive and cold, this is not true for people who grew up dancing to music on video and seeing every major event of their lives on TV.” (Pg. 119)
They acknowledge, “It is also true that, in a postmodern world, it is crucial that leaders be vulnerable and authentic, willing to reveal that they are struggling with the same issues as their fellow pilgrims… Often, our leadership must be modeled by our faith, despite our doubts, and by our faithfulness without having all the answers… it is important that we model our willingness to live with life’s questions. The last thing our churches need is another expression of artificial certainty. If they want leadership that knows the answers and is willing to call them to conformity, there are probably several fundamentalist churches in town they could attend.” (Pg. 146)
They state, “a healthy growing church is the byproduct of a powerful externally focused mission. It is my conviction that if we can turn our churches inside out, we would give life to another great spiritual awakening. As churches decline, they inevitably seem to fall into a pattern of drawing inward, spending more and more of their energy and resources on management and self-care. Churches to often become little more than spiritual clubs whose principal mission is to meet the needs of their own members. Churches that act like a family or social group produce and manage community but little else.” (Pg. 158)
They observe, “Dying churches worship in a way that appeals to those who USED to fill the pews; thriving churches worship in a way that appeals to those who WILL fill the pews. Countless mainline churches languish because their worship is designed for a congregation that fled to the suburbs long ago or died of old age. Often they complain that ‘no one lives around here anymore,’ when what is true is that the neighborhood is teeming with people the church could be serving… our congregations need to shape worship to meet the needs of the people who live here now, or we will die. Perhaps we deserve to die.” (Pg. 177)
This is a very positive, thought-provoking book that will be of great interest to anyone concerned with the future of mainline denominations and churches.