Thursday, September 28, 2006

Christianity for the Rest of Us

Have you ever thought that the media seems to have only one idea of what exists in our religious world? Here in the United States the media portrays Christianity and the church from a single perspective it often feels: the Christian Right or the mega-church movement. And often those two seem to be joined in the public mind.

This past Tuesday evening I heard a fresh and encouraging take on "Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Dr. Diana Butler Bass, who was reporting on her three year Lilly Endowment research project of vital, mainline churches. In a somewhat ironic and humorous remark, Dr. Bass commented that research grants have usually been directed toward how we mainline churches have failed. Her study, by contrast, focuses on how vital churches in the mainline are discovering renewed energy and purpose.

Her summary observation is as follows. "I can say with great confidence that something new is happening in American religion; all across the country, people with a similar vision of practicing faith in community, of re-engaging tradition, and seeking wisdom is coming into focus. This kind of Christianity stands outside that old "right-left" divide of American religion and is trying to create a new theological language, new structures of leadership and community, and a responsible, peace-filled, and just global Christian (and Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist, etc.) vision...."

Dr. Bass observes that three major themes seem to be emerging in this movement of vital mainline churches, alongside 10 practices of faith. The three major themes are:

1. Renewed interest in Tradition with a capital "T" and not lower case tradition, that often only goes back a generation or two. This hunger for a deeper Tradition goes back to the ancient faith and practices of the church, often abandoned in our modern world. It's fascinating Dr. Bass observes to learn that many younger generations are drawn to an ancient faith. Ironically, some churches who claim to be "traditional" just aren't "Traditional" enough says Bass.
Reclaiming practices of reading Scripture like lectio divina are an example of this hunger for the ancient roots and practices of faith.

2. A second theme of these vital mainline churches emerges in a growing attraction to "Practices of Faith". Often, said Dr. Bass, the church has been known only for negative practices, things we aren't supposed to do. She laughingly commented that as a young girl growing up in a conservative church, this meant not associating with boys who "chewed", danced, or drank. What's positive about that?

These positive practices include: Hospitality (a genuine welcoming of all into the faith community), Discernment (people wondering about how to make wise choices for their lives), Healing, Testimony (being able to speak about the impact of one's faith), Diversity, Justice (the realization that our world can be unfair and asking what can be done about that), Worship, Theological Reflection, and Beauty.

This emphasis on "Practices" stands in contrast and sometimes in tension with the typical focus on "Programs" in the church's ministry. Programs may or may not focus on practice or personal transformation. In her research study, Dr. Bass reports that the word "program" generally had a negative connotation for respondents. In a follow-up question, I stated that this appears to be a real paradigm shift, which Dr. Bass confirmed.

3) The third theme Dr. Bass and her research colleagues observed among these vital mainline churches was a desire to learn how to live "Wisely". As Dr. Bass commented, "There's almost no place for wisdom today to be found" in our culture. Faith communities are one of the few places where this hunger for wisdom in learning how to have a well-lived life can be pursued in an intentional way with others.

As Dr. Bass shared with us, this movement of vital mainline (moderate to liberal)
congregations doesn't really have a name yet- but it is for those who are tired, bored, dissatisfied with business-as-usual faith and are doing- or want to do- something about it. It's Christianity for the Rest of Us.

One possible term for these churches may be to speak of them as "Pilgrim" churches, who know that Christian faith is not an accomplished act, but a life-long journey."

I came away from Dr. Bass' presentation feeling hopeful about this fresh movement of
the Spirit. In my next blog, I'll do some reflection on contextual issues that are calling forth the "Practices" of faith that Dr. Bass has been studying.


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