Wednesday, September 10, 2008

21st Century Church: the Vital Mainline Church

Key questions:
  1. Why are some mainline churches succeeding?
  2. How are those churches finding new life in a time of religious change?
  3. What can those of us seeking a meaningful Christianity learn from them?
  4. What does their vitality mean for the rest of us?
Over the course of 10 weeks this past summer, we explored those questions at our church using Diana Butler Bass' paradigm challenging book "Christianity for the Rest of Us."
Bass's achievement is to debunk the myth that only conservative, evangelical, or mega-churches are growing!

Early on in her book, Bass comments that "the religious right seems to have hijacked American Christianity by creating a kind of 'one-party' Christianity for this country." Give that some thought and ask yourself this question: When people hear the word Christianity, what image comes to mind first in the public media?

So, this summer I designed with our church's worship planning committee a 10 week adventure in "Back to the Future" Christian spirituality and worship. This was our approach. I would plan a 10 week sermon series on 10 vital faith practices that Diana Butler Bass describes in growing and vital mainline churches all across America. Each week on Wednesday evenings, I would also lead small group book discussions of Bass' book as preparation for the coming Sunday.

Over the course of these 10 weeks, a creative team assisted me in designing some visual settings to illustrate each of the spiritual practices portrayed by Bass. That was especially fun to do.
Week by week, a new visual setting was added to the sanctuary to match the faith practice that I would preach about. As the weeks unfolded, the worship space began to come alive with these creative elements. "What will they do next?" was a comment I often heard. Take just one example. For hospitality, we placed a table in the chancel area across from the pulpit, covered by a cloth and on the table a beautiful pitcher with two earthen cups. Imagine weary travelers who are thirsty for a cup of cold water, and the image of Christian hospitality was vividly conveyed.

An added dimension proved especially exciting. With each of the 10 practices of faith, we would also offer opportunities for our small group and for the worshipping congregation to engage the practice, and not just read or talk about it. This was the "praxis" or practice side of our learning.
What a grand adventure we had!

Here are the 10 practices that Bass writes about and describes in churches she has involved in her Lilly Endowment Research Project about Vital Mainline Churches:

  1. Hospitality
  2. Discernment- discovering the will and intention of God for our personal and shared life in community
  3. Healing
  4. Contemplation- It's a rare word for Protestants, but one growing in appeal as congregations are re-learning the ancient spiritual practice of being invited into the presence of God through guided meditation, silence, and use of bible reading known as "lectio divina"
  5. Testimony- learning to speak about our personal faith in confident and engaging ways
  6. Diversity- welcoming people of varied racial/ethnic/socio-economic backgrounds into our faith communities. During the course of our 10 week experiment we helped launch a Sudanese fellowship in the church and invited our Sudanese brothers and sisters to sing with us and for us in joint worship. Awesome!
  7. Justice- reflecting on God's compassion and passion for the poor and mistreated among us and asking us to consider what our call might be as justice lovers
  8. Worship- How can our worship reflect God's invitation to worship with joy and creativity and with a call to transformed lives?
  9. Reflection- learning how to use our minds in growing spiritually so that we become more "thoughtful Christians
  10. Beauty- Finding ways to appreciate beauty as a gift from God in all aspects of our faith and living
I'll follow up this post with a couple of more entries on how all of this progressed over the course of 10 weeks. One key learning along the way. We began to ask how each spiritual practice was related to the others. An example: When you think about hospitality, which is more than mere friendliness, how does that impact our view of becoming a more diverse congregation, because Diversity is one of the spiritual practices. That's just the first example of how we began to gain energy and insight into how the varied spiritual practices were inter-connected not just in our understanding and reading, but also in our practice.


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