Every town has one...at least every town in which I've ever lived. The tall white steeple somewhere near the middle of town--the one that's recognizable for miles away. It signifies the old mainline Protestant church. It may not be the biggest church in town, but I'll bet you know somebody who goes there. Or used to go there.
That's what the cover photo on Diana Butler Bass' book reminds me of--my grandmother's church in small town southern Indiana. But inside the pages, Bass describes a church that is, well... not your grandmother's church, exactly.
Bass could have written this book to read like a research paper, or like a text book. Instead it reads more like a collection of short stories, each one (in Part II) plot-driven by a particular "Signpost of Renewal" which she found in her three-year study of mainline protestant churches that are thriving in spite of (or perhaps because of) the current resurgence in non-denominational/post-denominational Christianity in North America.
Part I of the book gives us back ground on Diana Butler Bass' church "resume", about the journey that led her from her neighborhood United Methodist church in Baltimore, Maryland, to the Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara California she calls her church home today. In this journey,anyone who has made a similar spiritual journey will recognize many of the twists and turns along the way. How we end up in the church we end up in is often complicated by geography, heritage, culture, grace, and timing.
Next the author introduces us to the churches which participated in her study. Varied in geography, denomination, and size, it appears the one characteristic they have in common is a "progressive theology" which the author very openly expresses is a commonality, in her opinion,among mainline churches that will thrive in the future.
Part II is my favorite part. Reading about these signposts of renewal made me excited to be a mainline Protestant, and gave me ideas that I felt I could try to translate to my own ministry setting. I have already been tossing around some of the terms with the ruling board (session) of St. Stoic, to get them used to some of the ideas in this book.
Part III looks to the future. How do those of us in the mainline maintain this momentum (or build it where it does not yet exist?).
This book excited me. I read until far too far into the night for a handful of successive nights. I kept it with me in the doctor's office waiting room, and read from it when I arrived early for one Presbytery meeting. It was and is to me, a book of hope. But it's not perfect. The churches in this book seem by and large, devoid of many of the little nagging day-to-day problems that bog down some churches, and also some of the macro conflicts that are effecting several of the mainline Protestant denominations today. That seems unrealistic to me, that some of that would not be explored. I do understand, however, that the overall thrust of the book is positivity, what churches are doing right. The book is, in my opinion, very successful at describing that.
This is a book, and an author, which will occupy an important place on my study book shelf. What about you?
Edited to add a note from Diana Butler Bass:
Thought those of you who live in the Mid-Atlantic (and others with a
travel budget) might like to know that both Barbara Brown Taylor and I
will be at a conference at the Washington National Cathedral on May
10-12. Since you're reading both our books, it would be great to meet
some of you! Please come!
Other very cool people--like Phyllis Tickle, Marcus Borg and Tony
Jones--will be there, too.
Here's a link FYI:
And thanks for choosing to read "Christianity for the Rest of Us".
There's nothing give a writer a greater sense of gratitude than people
who take time considering her words. I hope they are challenging,
meaningful, and hopeful to you.