11.15.2005

Vital mainline congregations

This morning at the PA Pastor's Conference we heard from Diana Butler Bass, a sociologist heading up a Lilly Foundation research project on "congregations of intentional practice," who offered the study's findings on vital mainline congregations. She told of complaining to a friend about her frustration with some meetings in her denominational structure; "I'm sick of trying to turn around the Titanic," she said. As she tells it, the friend -- Brian McLaren -- said, "Better to turn around the Titanic than 15,000 people in lifeboats." The church that is emerging and "re-emerging" mainline churches are both responding to the same cultural trends, she said, "bit it's going to look a little different."

Bass set out several years ago on a journey across the mainline church, looking for signs of life. The journey did not take her where she expected. She discovered that others -- progressive evangelicals, emergent churches, segments of Judaism, for example -- are also on the road. These churches are isolated, feeling lonely, but they're there. "My journey is ending at a surprising place... a beginning. A new kind of biblical faith is being born."

She calls this "Christianity for the rest of us," a vital force beyond fundamentalism and liberalism that is drawing people on a spiritual journey. "I discovered mainline churches that were deepening spiritually and sometimes growing numerically." The churches exhibited "a deep sense of authenticity" and offered people a way to engage important questions and form a meaningful way of life. They bridged the gap between social justice and spirituality. "They were their own best selves... innovative and traditional, risk-taking and confident, humble and bold."

She quoted one Lutheran pastor summing up her findings: "Mainline renewal is not rocket science," it's about preaching the gospel, offering hospitality, paying attention to worship and caring for people's spiritual lives -- in short, "taking Christianity seriously as a way of life."

The churches embraced the mysteries of the faith and people in them saw themselves as on a journey to "find home" and an "authentic faith." They were trying to do this in community, not through isolated, individualistic spiritual experiences. "The 90s were about individual spiritual quests, now we are seeing people gathering and renewing institutions on the basis of prayer and spiritual practices."

In every congregation, whether mainline, evangelical, or emerging, the details are specific to local communities. In the mainline, the girders are a three-point (of course) Architecture of Vitality. Congregations that are vital display three characteristics: they care about tradition, empahsize faithfulness, and crave wisdom. Because many in the mainline lack language for talking about spirituality, those terms need careful explanation, she said. Respondents to the survey drew the following comparisons:

Tradition vs. Traditionalism. There is some worry about reviving tradition, since there are traditions -- of slavery, racism, discrimination against women -- that they don't want to turn back to. But there is a sense that these congregations want to reclaim the value of the ancient without setting it in stone, recovering the practices of the early church in a way that produces meaning today.

Faithfulness but not fundamentalism. There was "steady criticism" of fundamentalism and the "Religious right." And, she said, "equal criticism of liberalism." People in these vital congregations want to distance themselves from "more narrow forms of religion." They seek to be theological without being dogmatic. One respondent noted that Fundamentalism has been co-opted by success and political power. They are where we were 50 years ago, this person said.

Wisdom, not certainty. "Religion is about going somewhere, not ad hoc spiritual experiences. Religion is structured as a pilgrimage." She noted that the words "personal salvation" turned up exactly 0 times in hundreds of interviews. The quest people are on is not for eternal life or clear answers, but for "wisdom," she says. Questions are more important than answers.

It is interesting to me how similar these mainline practices are to what I have heard in emerging conversations. Mainline congregations that take seriously the cultural shift we are in -- whatever they call it -- are coming to some of the same conclusions: that faith has to be real, lived into, and more about the journey than the destination.

The challenge for the mainline is chronological. Emergent churches tend to be clusters of younger people; nearly 70% of the people in the congregations Bass studied were aged 45-65. She didn't mention this, but in the ELCA and other mainline denominations, a majority of the youth in the church are gone by the time they finish college, which highlights the graying of these congregations. While revitalizing within the existing paradigm works for the people who are there, it may take incorporating more of the emergent paradigm shift to engage the younger people who will be needed for these vital mainline churches to make it another generation.

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