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Monday, April 23, 2007

Monday Book Review: Christianity For The Rest of Us by Diana Butler Bass

Every town has 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.


  1. It gave me hope too- even in my across the pond culture! The fact that it isn't perfect is what gives me hope, for a too perfect presentation would leave you feeling that this could never happen here!

    Looking forward to watching the discussion expand out a bit mere

  2. Sally, You're right! I'm glad this book translates even across the pond.

  3. I am sad to say I haven't finished reading, but I will leap in later with some favorite passages. Right now, must work...

  4. I really enjoyed this book. I actually read Part II twice. it really helped me begin brainstorming some things we might be able to do in our congregation, since people are clamoring for "spiritual practices/growth/groups/disciplines" and I am in charge of "nurture" (as though any one person can be "in charge" of that!).

    I don't have my book in front of me right now (it's in my office and I'm on vacation!) but I remember thinking it was very courageous for a preacher to have the congregation practice testimony in worship in a mainline church...and I remember thinking that the kind of in-depth Bible study (where the people had serious theology books with them in the pastor's study!) would be very cool (and do-able), and I remember taking note of the church that does "The WAY" formation process for new members. Those are the things that stuck out to me enough to be remembered even on vacation!

    Also, however, I remember being frustrated by what felt like jabs at the "right"--even though I sometimes make those myself, and even though I locate myself pretty squarely in the progressive camp, I just thought the barbs were unnecessary and even a little jarring.

    that's my 1/2 cent from the land of holidaying...
    Thanks friends for doing this book!

  5. It's been a few months-- at least-- since I've read this, so take my input with a grain of salt.

    Having given that caveat, I felt like the book sort of skimmed the surface of churches, and I wanted a little more depth of study. I appreciate that someone finally acknowledged that those of us in mainlines aren't necessarily going the way of the dodo. (I knew an EVFree pastor who used to openly say in the pulpit that mainline churches were all "spiritually dead." There's respect for you!)

  6. if I start swimming now will somebody collect me- a wet bedraggled specimin from the shore and transport me to the conference????

  7. Teri, props to you for blogging this while on vacay! I hope you are having a restful time away from church. (Psst: are you at home? I'm thinking meet-up!)

    Mrs M: I hear your depth critique, and yet I think this is a book that would be helpful on the shelves of many non-clergy church leaders, who might get bogged down in a book that reads more like a scholarly work.

    Sally: my, that's ambition!

  8. hey all, any of you who preach regularly considering doing a sermon series on this book - like a week for every practice in section 2 or something? it seems so perfect for a summer series - I'm putting it on the long long long long list for when I have a Church of My Own.

    I got this in the winter, read it, and then gave it away, so I'm not good on specifics either. But remember that I was surprised and delighted to discover that the church where my son goes to preschool is featured (!!) and can report that, from the preschool side, at least, Phinney Ridge Lutheran really is that cool. A great thing that they did this year was the family ash wednesday service, which really invited the kids into the seriousness of the day in a really accessible way. And if you think I didnt cry when the pastor put the ashes on my little ones head with the words, "you are dust and to dust you return," then you dont know what a big old weeper I am.

    Mostly, here was the message of the book to me - that we dont have to water down our faith or experience in order to be accessible and welcoming - in fact it's better if we don't.

    Politically, I think the book is quite even handed. I was kind of looking for jabs at conservatives and didnt find them. In fact, I foudn the term "purple people" pretty helpful in my somewhat-conservative-in-liberal-SEattle congregation.

    And DBB, if you're still reading, thanks!

  9. This book has been giving me so much hope!!!!! I finished reading (for the first time) last week and I've blogged twice, though sort of on the fly both times. After I read everyone else's comments, I hope to blog about the book at least one more time. So far:

    blog 1

    blog 2

  10. I'd so hoped to go to the conference in DC (a friend gave me the flyer, thinking I'd spring for it, which I did; after all, it said generous scholarships) but it was full by the time I got online! :(((

  11. Okay, this book just got onto my "really should order" list. It sounds great!

  12. About the conference at the National Cathedral next month:

    I don't know about scholarships or accomodations, but there's still plenty of room for those who want to attend the conference--the cathedral is a big place! Hope some of you can make it.

  13. As an employee of the Cathedral College of Washington National Cathedral I can assure you that the Church for the 21st Century conference is not at all full, we still have lots of space. You can find more information and registration at Questions can be directed to

  14. Speaking as a layperson, I agree with Cheese that this book is accessible to church leaders who would bog down with an overly academic approach. But I do think there is a lot of rigorous thought here and that it isn't just surface level.

    I really appreciated the anecdotal reports which I think will inspire others to creative ways of ministry and mission.

  15. hey dc gang, should we do a meetup for the rest of us the weekend that ms. bass plugs? i've got some plans on my new house that weekend, but i'm sure i can set a few hours aside...

  16. I've been using this book w/my Session. One "sign-post" per meeting. I do a quick and dirty summary of the chapter, then invite discussion about how that particular signpost is present, (or not) in our congregation. I like the idea of a sermon series.

  17. I wanna go!!
    But it's just days before graduation. Do I dare??

  18. I'll be at the conference!

    So will Jan from Church for Starving Artists.

    But I haven't read this particular book (yet). I read The Practicing Congregation and liked it; this one sounds like it goes more step by step through practices and... signposts, is it?

  19. I have only read a wee little bit of the book, but I am really enjoying the bit of dialogue I am seeing here.

    The conference sounds wonderful. Too bad it's during my busiest times of the year as a school teacher.

    Look forward to delving into the book more and it might even show up as a book club read at our church!

  20. Juniper - I'd love to hear more about that Ash Wednesday service. I am discovering that a critical part of my call into the ministry is just that - making sure that we are engaging and teaching our youngest worshippers.

    I wrote a "Jr Tenebrae" for our K-5 group this year, which we did concurrent with the Tenebrae on Good Friday.

    It's shorter and I used the CEV or NLT for most of the readings, and then I added some experiential elements (like hammering a cross, passing around a crown of thorns, pouring out vinegar, etc).

    It was so beautiful to watch the little light bulbs coming on as as the candles went out. Those sweet children totall "got" it.

    Hopefully, we'll add it as a full-fledged family service next year, rather than as a Children's church.

    This looks like another book to add to my ever-growing list of must-reads.

  21. Elbee, I didnt take notes on the Ash Weds service (Cheese, we are veering far from the book now, sorry...) but as I remember it was something like this:

    1. Everyone gathers out front around a brazier with a big pile of old palms in it. Pastor talks about how the palms heard all the bad stuff from the year, God doesnt want us to hang on to that, and then he lit the palms on fire which the kids LOVED.

    2. Everyone sang something repetetive(cant remember now) and moved inside to the kind of chapel-y room.

    3. imposition of ashes (hmm, not the hot ones i'm assuming...) and then everyone sat on floor

    3. Scripture (something from the gospels, something from Job - not sure what the lectionary is but I'm betting they followed it...)

    4. A little talk from the pastor about how sometimes God changes God's mind (this was my favorite part!)

    5. Communion by intinction with more singing.

    whole thing took about 25 minutes, and was scheduled just before an "adult" service. My 4 year old was attentive the whole time and especially loved the fire and was very proud of the ashes. Hope this helps. and would love to see your Maundy Thursday service if you're willing to pass it around - would you email it to me? rev dot brownell at gmail dot com

  22. It's a different, but similar event (with BBT) that is sold out.

  23. I am just re-entering the world after a glorious 8 day, I need to remember this book. I have read the previous two, Practicing Congregations and Nomads to Pilgrims. And I was blessed to hear Bass speak last fall on her "theory" and experience with these churches. Her presentation literally changed by understanding of what we are experiencing in churches today. I had struggled for years to have a language to articulate what I knew was going on, and she gave it to me.

    Her presentation includes, and I assume those of you who will hear her speak next month will get it: unpacking the progression of liberal-conservative polarity (again not in a pejorative way, but from a sociologists perspective of what's been going on). She also unpacks the "established church of authority" and the development of "practicing congregations." Then she talks about the modern world view and the post modern world view and clearly articulates where Christianity is today in all of that.

    I bought and read this book based on that presentation. Members of my congregation are reading this book and finding is useful to unpack what they too are experiencing. As small church this book is giving us some useful language to define who we are and help us claim an authentic expression of self through developing our practices.

    For me, this book has been a real gift.

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  25. Chiming in late, so maybe no onw will see this, but (speaking as a relative conservative who is not from a mainline church)I holler booooo at the E Free (or whatever pastor) and I rejoice in anything that stops the polarity and brings the Body together. It seems to my limited vision that those churches who are going to be effective in the long run (not just have a big crowd) are not afraid to take from each "camp." We have differing strengths, and can't we learn from one another? I find my life greatly enriched by interactions with fellow-believers who may do things differently than I do. Thus, I love the Rev Gals, who are mostly mainline (I think). I hope you all feel the same. :-)

  26. Like Songbird and others, I'm still in the process of reading this book. But your comments --and the creative ways you all have contributed to utilizing this book in your churches-- encourage me to finish.

  27. I am trying so hard to finish the paper I have to write so I can start this book late tonight!

  28. Well, Singing Owl, I for one love you right back. As you know I was not raised mainline--anything but--however, I bring with me what I hope are the best parts of my unbringing in the church universal.

    Sometimes we mainliners can focus on the fact that we are taking a beating some places in the membership game, but I hope we can also see how we can all benefit from growing alongside each other.

    I'm so glad that RGBP is diverse!

  29. I hope someone still wants to discuss this book.
    I decided to start with the chapter on contemplation. Silence, prayer-as-listening, contemplation, retreat have become significant parts of my life in the past few years, but I find it challenging to bring them into my PC(USA) environment. A (very)few of us meet to do lectio on Sunday evenings, using a passage from the next week's lectionary, and I know there are folks around doing centering prayer a la Keating, and there are a few of us in regular spiritual direction. But on the whole, folks are reluctant to pursue the basic Christian endeavors of prayer and silence and contemplation. We packed 75 people in for each week of an adult class Sunday morning series on other religions, but the next month's series on prayer averaged 25. I would love to hear other experiences.

  30. Blog 3 on the book...Leah, ready to begin reading Velvet Elvis.

  31. Yes - let's have a meet-up in DC at Cathedral.

    And . . . Velvet Elvis is one of my favorites.


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