Sunday, January 14, 2007

Reading Christianity for the Rest of Us

Well, the new year of reading is off to a fast start. I am already on book #5! (how is that possible?) I am planning to start an online Reading Log for 2007 in which I can trace all the books I read for the year…you should notice it on the sidebar some time soon…hopefully…

Anyways, I just finished reading Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, by Diana Butler Bass. In a lot of ways this is a strange book for me to have read – however, I really enjoyed it. I actually checked it out of the library but half-way through I knew I needed to own it. So although I have already finished reading the book, Amazon is shipping it to me as we speak (I know, I’m strange).

Christianity for the Rest of Us is the result of a three year study of emerging mainline churches in the United States. If you are like me, then you probably need “mainline” defined for you. Mainline churches are the “brand-name” churches you see across the country – Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. These churches are often more liberal and progressive than their evangelical counterparts (although they may not like these labels). These churches have also been perceived (with some reality behind the perception) to be declining while more conservative and evangelical churches have been growing. The purpose of Bass’ study was to visit and explore growing and vital moderate-to-liberal mainline churches. The study included 50 participating congregations but focused on ten.

These churches are filled with people who do not fit into the new evangelical Christian majority in the United States. They are desiring to know God and follow Jesus in our world but are not interested in embracing the evangelical culture of political and religious conservatism and/or fundamentalism. On the other hand, these churches are also not interested in the largely secular religion indicative of many declining mainline churches. For the most part, these churches include a diverse group of people from all ideologies and backgrounds – including some conservatives.

So, like I said earlier, this is a strange book for me to read. I am not part of a mainline church (or any institutional church for that matter). I have never even attended a mainline church. I know very few people who attend mainline churches. And I grew up in very conservative evangelical churches, in which mainline churches were largely discredited. Yet it is because of all of these statements that I felt the need and desire to read this book. I wanted to see what God is doing in an area I am very unfamiliar with. And in short, I was very excited about what I read – God is certainly doing a lot.

Throughout reading this book, I was struck by how well it complements Gibbs’ and Bolger’s Emerging Churches (read some of my comments on this book here). Whereas Emerging Churches focuses on a new breed of churches that have largely come out of the evangelical movement, Christianity for the Rest of Us looks at a new type of church coming from the old mainline of Christianity. What is so interesting is that these stories overlap in so many ways! Emerging Churches deals with a reaction against the sometimes dead religion that results from fundamental evangelicalism and Christianity for the Rest of Us looks at how churches are emerging from the liberal secularism found in some mainline religion. However, both of these “emerging churches” are heading in the same direction. They are both looking to follow Jesus without the trappings of the liberal/conservative divide, apart from the modern focus on reasoned certainty or skepticism, and in a way that is relevant to a new post-Christian culture. Many of the findings of these books are very similar. They even identify some very similar traits in the churches they studied. Emerging Churches found churches encompassing nine “practices”: (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, (3) live highly communal lives, (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities. In a very similar way, Christianity for the Rest of Us discussed “ten signposts of renewal”: (1) hospitality, (2) discernment, (3) healing, (4) contemplation, (5) testimony, (6) diversity, (7), justice, (8) worship, (9) reflection, and (10) beauty. The similarities are unmistakable! Is this really one movement of Christians that is being observed? Just in different environments and from different backgrounds? At least in some ways, I think so.

I’m sorry for this long post, I’m sure only a few of you made it this far. The fact is, I just find this very intriguing and encouraging. God is working in a lot of different places. This is good news. God is not confined to any particular “movement” or perspective. He is busy using people to transform others and to influence the world. All are welcome to play a part.


mary said...

"They are both looking to follow Jesus without the trappings of the liberal/conservative divide, apart from the modern focus on reasoned certainty or skepticism, and in a way that is relevant to a new post-Christian culture."

That's so encouraging. I really, REALLY like the part about getting away from total certainty OR skepticism. There's something in me that is becoming increasingly OK with paradoxes, and living in easy tension with them in certain cases. I felt bad about this at first, but more and more I'm feeling this is a good thing.

angela said...

I just wanted to say that this blog is such a delightful surprise everytime I read it.

But what I want to know is why these authors aren't well-known. Why do people generally only see the Pat Robinson's, and Jerry Falwell's of the world?

Adam said...

Mary, I'm right with you. I think much of faith is about holding these seeming-paradoxes in tension. I don't think we're supposed to be afraid of this - perhaps we can embrace it?

Angela - thanks for the compliment. It really does mean a lot.

As far as why these kinds of authors (or even these kinds of Christians) are unknown...I'm not sure...I'm going to be thinking about that one...maybe it will end up as a blog post - a very good question.

Mark said...

This is exciting. It is almost impossible to get a big picture view of what God is doing - even in our country - much less the world. I am too focused on what is going on with me.
Thanks for pointing out the similarities in these movements. What's next?

april. said...

oh, she writes some good articles on the gods politics blog....