Wednesday, November 22, 2006

If I could co-mingle two books, audiences...

Here are two new books who are reporting about new vitality and forms taking shape in the "ecclesia", coming from two different places in the religious landscape of Christianity, and taken together both have much to teach about transforming or revolutionizing what it means to be church today, with good lessons for church planting. "Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the neighborhood church is transforming the faith" (Harper SanFrancisco) by Diana Butler Bass, and "Inside the organic church: learning from 12 emerging congregations" by Bob Whitesel.

Both books discuss specific churches, either doing new things or new churches. Bass' book looks at ways mainline and moderate to liberal Protestant churches are or can tap into ancient practices of Christian communities to bring a revival to the lives of their members and the churches. She has a guiding trinity of touchstones called tradition, practice, and wisdom. Her ten signposts of renewal cover new focuses and intentionality on hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. Whitesel looks at more recent and emerging churches, church plants, and finds a few key themes at work--his "four melodies" are orthodoxy, authenticity, social and spiritual engagement, and mission. Each of the churches he looks at are like prism views or strains of these four main melodies: multi-site planting, incarnation in otherness, house churches and large church, micro-cultures, sacred spaces and art and nesting plant, cross-cultural communication, liturgy, stations and non-ministerial leadership, hardcore postmodernists, morphing into organic, interactivity and with nature, improvisation.

You will note that outside of worship and service to others there is very little overlap in these major phrases and emphases in these two books. You might find yourself gravitating toward one or the other of these lists of words. I think that is natural. I would encourage you to spend more time with the book whose phrases are most strange to you.

Both books in their different ways are chronicling a movement of churches seeking renewed spirit in the continuing wake of the mega-church and church growth movement. Bass' book is arguing that Christianity is alive and well outside the mega-church the media loves so well. There is a sense that the Christian faith emerging within the mostly established churches surveyed by her is happening as people take their faith more seriously than what might be perceived is happening in mega-churches. I get a whiff of Puritanism here (and those that know me know that it isn't necessarily a bad thing) that in the mainline Protestant churches here there is a deeper, realer, more serious Christianity, the real church. This comes through in Whitesell's book, too, and I have blogged on this aspect of the emergent church before. In his book too there is the understanding that the emergent, or rather organic churches are taking root because their leaders are rebelling against the mega-churches of their parent's generation. Of course, the mega-churches seem to be doing just fine from my point of view, but they are no longer per se on the cutting edge of church and culture. These two books point to where some of the new vitality is happening.

What is helpful from Bass' book:
First, let me say that I have briefly mentioned the book before, and somewhat faulted it (though I understand that its focus shaped its reportage) for helpfully emphasizing ancient practices of Christianity that are or will lead to renewal of our churches but without putting much attention on the ancient practice of church planting itself, and how it can lead to a renewal in many other areas since it automatically connects the church with God's revealing spirit outside the church and in the community. It is true that her book does mention one church in her focused survey that is described as a new congregation, and so is thought of as still a church plant, Cornerstone UMC in Naples, founded in 1996. The style of their church as she describes it is very much in the "emergent mode." It is reclaiming tradition and is one of the few places in the book where a deep sense of missional growth comes through. The pastor is quoted as saying "we're more interested in forming disciples than recruiting members." But from a look at the church through its web site, it still seems to be after ten years a single church growing in a single place rather than having church-planting especially in an organic way in its DNA. Nothing wrong with this; it is doing what it is doing well and touching lives and transforming them and the world. However, it is just not in the same ecclesia field as the organic movements and groups in more evangelical settings as depicted in Whitesell's book and the Bolger and Gibbs book, Emerging Churches, for example, or others that survey the emergent world (see the book section of this blog).

But the book is helpful and hopeful for progressive church planters. It may not be an explicit guide (we are still waiting on that one) as others find in more conservative theologically oriented churches. But church planters I think can use the 10 signposts of renewals as audits of a sort on how they are helping grow disciples that will grow other disciples, especially if you take the 10 windows and move what is chronicled here as happening "within" the church organization and see how it can be incarnated organically without. For us progressive, we should take the ten signs and merge them with the lessons from the evangelicals. One other thing I like about the Bass book is that it focuses on reclaiming the neighborhood church, the new village church. This is in keeping with what Sally Morganthaler and many other new emergent leaders talk about in terms of looking right around you to the lives nearest you and moving away from the "regional" church that so marked the mega-church peak. (I have recently read in the latest Net Results issue Lyle Schaller still cautioning against churches putting their eggs in the neighborhood basket, and will take a closer look at this in a bit). I also like Bass' built in at the back study guide with questions from each of the sections. Good conversation starters that can keep many a small group going, can be used in building leadership teams and I think discovering where particular leaders' gifts might be (we can't all be great ambassadors for all 10 signs of renewal) that would help in starting new church plants. I intend to use them.

She writes: "I do not deny that mainline Protestantism is in trouble. Some of its institutions, unresponsive to change, are probably beyond hope of recovery or repair. I also believe, however, that livey faith is not located in buildings, programs, organizations, and structures. Rather, spiritual vitality lives in human beings; it is located in the heart of God's people and the communities they form." What I take away not only from the book, but from my own experiences and observations in churches similar to the ones surveyed here is that the Spirit is moving in places where many evangelical emergents can't see it, won't see it, but that even in these places the Spirit struggles to find expressions beyond the box called church.

It is also interesting to read Bass' book again after having read Gary Dorrien's book of liberal theology in 1950-2005. The "third way" of liberal theology he has delved into in his three volumes (see posts below) is reflected in what Bass calls the "creative third way" churches, those that are not evangelical in conservative theology and not culture-bound comfortable liberal social clubs.

What is helpful from Whitesel's book:
Bass' book looked at 50 churches in six mainline denominations (UCC, ELCA, ECUSA, UMC, PCUSA, and DoC) with 10 core research sites (1 UCC, 2 PCUSA, 1 UMC, 2 ELCA, and 4 Episcopal from her own denomination now). There is no overlap with Whitesel's 12 emerging congregations in the organic church: see my post below "meanwhile in the organic church". I want to lift up here the lessons from his four "melodies" and then highlight the variety of focuses and lessons that stood out for me from the examinations of the individual churches.

1. orthodoxy. He was somewhat surprised to find that the organic churches were not as heterodox as he had heard or feared they might be. I might say: give them time :), only half jesting. Actually there is an old dynamic at work here. The more others fear you might stray from the path, the more you are apt to stick right down the middle of it, until it becomes a rut even. I think of Luther, moving along reformation path church-wise, confronted with questions about whether a rethinking of the Trinity was at hand along with other "foundational" issues, and the answer was no, not so much because the Trinity was per se off-limits for reformation, but because the Princes, and the people, were believed to be able to withstand only so much change all at once. Of course the rethinking went on, as it does today, within and without orthodox churches, as it always has, but a major re-theological statement couldn't be had. orthodoxy won out. The same thing happened in the Cambridge Platform in Puritanism; they were continuing the reformation as they saw it within ecclesiology, but they were very clear that they weren't touching the Winchester Creeds. Of course, again, reformation in one area aided and abetted reformation eventually in other areas. Same may be true for organic churches. BUT, the lesson here that is helpful for progressive church planters is in Whitesel's words: "the theological milieu in which an organic church is birthed persists as a powerful predicator and guide to future theological behavior." Be clear about your theology, and how it is leading you to the church plant. If you aren't, one way or another, it will come back to bite you. Been there. Done that.

2. authenticity or unashamed spirituality. This is the generational thing, the connecting with post-boomers. There isn't one way to be authentic, not only within the more orthodox organic churches or between them and the churches Bass chronicles where there is also movements to be more authentic and unashamed of spiritual needs and expressions. If I had one area i might suggest boomer-concentrated churches focus on for transformation and explosion, it might be in getting over the reticence for this, as it will be the doorway to your future generations of leaders needed right now. Maybe it is easier for more pentecostal rich folks to do this, than for those in the more Enlightenment rich churches, but it is possible. I think of how at one large progessive church I know some of the worship services that people of all ages talk the most about and remember the most about are the annual youth services where authentic testimony is paramount.

3. social and spiritual engagement. walking the balance between spiritual inreach and social outreach, seeing the connection and weaving of the two. This is an area where there is real energy below the surface arising. He says boomer churches usually focused on one or the other. Emerging organic churches can't separate the two, anymore than they can secular/sacred space.

4. missional. The key to organic identity. Seeing everyone as missionaries and everywhere as the new mission field. There is here, as Whitsel makes clear, a continuation of thought from Newbigin and Guder who talked about the disconnect from Christian established churches and the increasingly post- or anti-Christian culture changing around them. I agree and wouldn't challenge the assumption. But where it leads I might. I am beginning to wonder if there isn't a lesson that might be passed on to the evangelicals from what we have experienced in one of my other hats, at the UU Christian Fellowship. We often attract folks who have been burned by their UU churches for either post or anti Christian cultures, either neglecting their spiritual nurture as Christians within our churches or suggesting they go elsewhere. So when they come into our loop they are doing so from a position of disgruntlement or discontent. One of the challenges is to help them heal and reattach to a church, small group, etc. But in the process there is a focus, perhaps inevitable, on the "harmful other." Groups that stay there will not be responsive to the needs of the world today, much less the lives among them. Intentional encouragement to move through that into discipleship, deepended because of the experience perhaps, is what is needed. So, in these organic orthodox churches, where the culture (be it secular or mega-church) is seen as the "harmful other" (and who can really complain that it isn't?), there might be the similar tendency to become places or refuges of disgruntlement, and I wonder what that might do in the long run for these organic churches. It seems from Whitesel's books that the most active and vibrant of these groups see culture as revelatory and mediums of art and film, even dangerous ones, not as something to be in spiritual war against but as places where transformation, ala St. Paul, can take place. What this has to do with the sense of mission and field and what kind of missionaries are needed today? There is something afoot moving beyond images of the mission field as "harmful other" and more like transformative partners. This might be the biggest rift theologically between those who shaped the church growth and mega-church movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the organic folks of this decade.

Speaking of mission fields, all of the American churches depicted in Whitesel's book are located in urban or semi-urban areas, the Phoenix and Denver and Seattle and Santa Cruz and Los Angeles and Minneapolises of the U.S. This is, I guess, part of the increasing urbanization of America as portrayed recently by the special issue of Time magazine. Places of young people on the move. I am just curious and would love to encounter more organic movements underway in the Nazareths of the contemporary society, but I will explore this more when I bring in a future post the demographics in Hal Taussig's new book listing 1,000 progressive churches, and do some comparison between the churches mentioned in all three of these new books.

Anyway, in Whitesel's book Each of the little chapters about the specific organic churches in this book is helpful and it is easy to build up, as it was in Bass' book, a kind of audit of topics to think about for your own gifts, ideas, areas to explore, what is missing. I will highlight these in summary fashion from his book in a future post.

Final comment: I would love to have some "crossroads" experiences where it might be possible for congregations explored in these two books, where closest together, to have some interactions and hear the responses about their understandings of Christian faith and the purpose of the church. Out of a comparison between the 10 core sites in Bass' book and the 10 in the U.S. from Whitesel's book, only in Seattle would this be possible between Phinney Ridge UMC explored by Bass and Church of the Apostles explored by Whitesel. Bringing in the other 40 churches visited by Bass, this would be possible in Minneapolis between Westminister Presbyterian Church and either Bluer or Solomon's Porch, and with a few more in Seattle, and between Scottsdale UCC and The Bridge, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Ron said...
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Chad Payne said...
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Chad said...
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Ron said...
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Ron said...

The comments here strayed into the personal and away from the mission of this blog. The thread is now closed. Those who wish to make comments about an author should take them to another forum. And everyone else should avail themselves of these two books and get out of them all you can. Ron

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