Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Christianity for the Rest of Us 1

From RevGalBookPals.

Because the March date for the first discussion came so abruptly, I didn't participate (the book didn't interest me much, either); however, the next book will be Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, by Diana Butler Bass. This subject is close to my heart and central to the needs of most of us in the protestant mainline, so this time I'm reading, thinking and blogging. This book gives me so much hope!

Each RevGals book discussion formally will begin on the fourth Monday of every month, with an option to post a little in the comments section or link directly to a longer blog post about the book. I am delighted to get blog fodder, and in my characteristic style, I'll do several actual blogs. So far I've read about half of Christianity for the Rest of Us, highlighting and making comments as I went along, but for this introductory blog, I'm writing from memory and plan to blog specifics later.

You can go to the author's site or the Amazon page to find out more, but basically the study included ten core study churches plus forty correlated validation churches. Spread across the continental United States, all were what used to be generically referred to as mainline protestant, though these days that old once predictably socially, theologically and politically mainline has become sideline or spurline: United Methodist; Evangelical Lutheran Church In America; United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA); Episcopal Church, and Disciples of Christ. The project combined participant observation, personal reflections from the book's author, from congregation leaders (both pastoral and lay) and from rank and file members with relatively hard data collection and crunching. The Practicing Congregations site didn't work any of the times I tried it, but maybe it'll be live later on.

Christianity for the Rest of UsThe prose is easygoing, flowing, readable, and non-annoying, which I very much appreciate. But to get it out of the way, I'll start with a single complaint—so far my only reservation! Several of the study congregations are in the United Church of Christ, a denomination half a century old this year; many UCC churches originally were Congregational in name and in polity, but many weren't. Typically, a UCC church gathered prior to 1957 retains its former affiliation, like "Congregational" or "Evangelical and Reformed" in its name, and when I lived in New England, UCC folks sometimes would call themselves "Congregationalists," but that isn't even the polity any more! DBB incorrectly refers to study participants as congregationalists rather than correctly as UCC-ers. 'Nuff said...

As I read about amazing, hospitable, creative and faithful churches in this book I had trouble putting down (though finally I did, in order to go to bed and hopefully to sleep), I kept asking myself why I hadn't found, or serendipitously happened upon anything remotely like them! There are such places where a person truly can belong, can grow, change and be transformed in every aspect of being in Jesus Christ.

The "Rest of Us" means protestant (but definitely could include many Roman Catholics, too) Christians who don't affiliate or consider themselves fundamentalist or evangelical in the recently popular sense of evangelical; the book jacket features a black and white sketch of a high-steepled, white wood frame church that's probably not the big downtown First or Central Church, but the drawing is similar to enough small town, suburban and small city meetinghouses that a lot of readers probably can identify. In my blog a couple months ago about the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship book I called the ELW's cover "Reformation Red" and got corrected in the comments that the color officially is "Cranberry!!" In the dust jacket of Christianity for the Rest of Us the subtitle and author's name are encased in a red dye strike rectangle, but I won't venture the name of the color...

Over the past decade there's been a lot about the resurgence of spirituality, with countless people telling the rest of us(!), "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." DBB distinguishes between ecstasy, which she calls "spiritual" and religion, or "order," a distinction I'd never considered!

From the Introduction:
...[in the study] were solid, healthy churches that exhibited Christian authenticity, expressed a coherent faith, and offered members ways of living with passion and purpose. They exuded a renewed sense of mission and identity, often having emerged from dire circumstances...they were their own best selves—creative and traditional, risktaking and grounded, confidence and humble, open and orthodox. They were often in tension with local fundamentalist Christians or, surprisingly, their own denominations. And sometimes both.
Disclaimer, again: I'm in the puter lab without the book but I do have a few notes. Despite my including a few page numbers, when you check your copy of the book I may have them wrong, so please don't fret.

Chapter One is about "The Vanished Village," that seemingly self-contained community where everyone knew everyone else, together with most of their comings and goings; the village space that held and held together an individual's and a family's entire life of workplace, school, house of worship, residence, markets, and other services, so no one ever needed to go physically outside the perimeter. As the author points out, in this U.S.A. that kind of village went away just a few decades ago, within most of our lifetimes. Among everything else, the village was a uniculture, too—homogeneous in most aspects. Chapter Five, "Finding Home," is about returnees, exiles, immigrants, converts and villagers. I love the emphasis on pilgrims on a pilgrimage that threads throughout what I've read thus far. And the clarifying observation on page 86, "...as a pilgrim of Christ, you will sometimes be the host and sometimes the guest." This book gives me so much hope—but I already said it did!

Goleta, California, Presbyterian Church! As DBB observes on page 144, "Despite its small-town agrarian roots, [the city of] Goleta is now pure California; it is ethnically, socially and culturally diverse—and completely post-Christian." She quotes Pastor Steve Jacobsen: "For centuries congregations were formed around ethnic identities..."

Seem as if everyone knows that, and a few decades away from the Vanished Village (at least for most of us in the continental United States), as a country we now are not only a geographically diverse landscape; as a political people, we have become ethnically, linguistically, racially and culturally diverse beyond anyone's anticipation, many of us claiming more than one of each category. I love this relatively late passage from 2 Peter, where the epistle's author uses three different Greek words with three different implications for the English word people:

1 Peter 2:9-10

But you are a chosen, elect people (birthed, descended), a royal priesthood, a holy nation (ethnic), a people (folk) belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people (folk), but now you are the people (folk) of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

We know the Galatian Church identified as the first of what these days we'd call an distinctively ethnic congregation, one gathered on the basis of genetic and cultural inheritance. Something to think and blog about?! I hope to finish reading and blog at least one more time before the official RevGals discussion begins next Monday; I also expect I'll get lots of ideas from other bloggers.

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