Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Part 2: 21st Century Church-the Vital Mainline Church

"Thawing God's frozen chosen, one at a time!"

(poster in the youth room of a Presbyterian church, seen on a mission
trip to New Orleans post-Katrina)

In my last post, I wrote about a 10 week adventure of worship and learning about the 10 spiritual practices that Dorothy Butler Bass reports about in her important book "Christianity for the Rest of Us." I heard Bass in a lecture series not long ago, as she spoke about the 3 year Lilly Endowment research project that allowed her to study in depth some 50 mainline churches all across America. By way of introduction, Bass commented to us that "When I told people of my quest to study the practices of vital mainline churches across America they would often respond." "Vital mainline churches? Must have been a short journey!" People sometimes commented to Bass about the mainline: "Aren't they the frozen chosen?" And then another remark often made by people in her audiences: "Only conservative churches can grow." Bass then shared with us that some critics consider the old mainline denominations "culturally irrelevant and hopelessly confused."

How would you respond to the above comments?

There's something bubbling under the surface of many mainline churches that is now beginning to receive attention from students of church transformation and renewal like Bass. In Bass' study of 50 mainline congregations all across America, some new and exciting things are happening, and people are growing deeper in their faith and are experiencing a new sense of identity as people of faith.

For many people in churches, there seem to be only two current options that are receiving attention: You either try to join the Purpose Driven Movement of churches or you attempt to become a better Program Driven Church. Those are not the only options according to Diana Butler Bass.

How would you introduce change? a group of church leaders asked me recently.

Bass does not argue that mainline churches should change. Rather, she maintains that mainline churches are changing and have already changed. Many are moving beyond the Purpose Driven and Program Model Churches to embrace something different. Here's how Bass describes the change already taking place:

"... a new kind of mainline congregation--the practicing congregation--- has been born because of these changes. Practicing congregations weave together Christian practices---activities drawn from the long Christian tradition---into a pattern of being church that forms a intentional way of life in community."

Bass argues that these vital mainline churches are taking ancient and fundamental practice of faith "Out of the Historical Deep Freeze" and putting them back into the shared life of congregations. This movement of the Spirit goes far beyond the limited way many church folk describe their congregations, when they limit their comments to "We're a friendly church."

If discipleship means following the "Way of Christ" surely there's more to be said than calling ourselves a friendly, nice group of people. As Dorothy Butler Bass observes, "Jesus asks everyone to change. It is the heart of his message." Our is a not a faith frozen in some historical deep freeze, it is a living, breathing relationship with a God who claims us for purposes grander than we can imagine. We can no longer assume that people, even in our churches, understand what it means to live a vital faith. That's why we are called to teach and model the practices of faith that are a part of the ancient tradition of faith, come alive in a new day!


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