Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not Everyone Needs a Big Screen

Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith
by Diana Butler Bass

For mainline Protestants out there, especially clergy, Christianity for the Rest of Us is a hopeful read. For most of my life, I've been hearing that the mainline is on the wane, that liberal theology is dead, and that we may as well fold our tents and slink away. Theoretically, the only Protestant churches that can grow are the evangelical megachurches that provide every convenience imaginable and eschew traditional worship in favor of theater-style seating, jumbotron screens, and contemporary music. They usually are also characterized by an exclusivist, "my way or the highway" orthodox theology that makes my skin crawl.

Diana Butler Bass debunks the myth that the mainline is hopelessly out of touch and will be as extinct as the dodo bird within our lifetimes. She points out that there is more to growth than numbers, and champions the ministry of the neighborhood church. She does not deny that the mainline congregations need to make changes, but she points out that many already are. For those who have not, she offers suggestions to point the way.

As the pastor of a neighborhood church comparable in size to many of those that Butler studied, I found the book energizing and affirming. She uses the term "emerging church, " which is becoming increasingly familiar in ecclesial circles. It seems to me that smaller or mid-sized neighborhood churches have a better shot at gradually moving into an emergent model because it is easier to form the relationships needed to become a genuine community. She includes chapters on 10 characteristics of a vibrant, dynamic neighborhood church. Just a few of those signposts include hospitality, discernment, diversity, and beauty. Most of these "new" practices are really about returning to the New Testament church - a community of strugglers marked by relationship, accountability, joy and love.

The church I serve and love is engaging quite well in some of the practices Bass suggests. There are other areas for potential growth. Her book makes me want to continue the journey, because she helps us see that the "decline" of the mainline is really an opportunity to do a better job of being the people of God. If I can have even a teeny tiny part of that, my time and energy in this vocation will have been well spent.

Reading Rev

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