A new breed of mainline Protestant congregations are growing by taking a countercultural stance in American society. That is the provocative plot-line running through the new book Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper SanFrancisco $23.95) by Diana Butler Bass.
The book is the result of a three-year study of what Bass calls “intentional” or “practicing” churches in moderate and liberal Protestant denominations which, she asserts, are confounding forecasts of inevitable mainline decline by showing growth and vitality. Although Bass makes no attempt to show that the 50 churches studied are representative of this movement, she maintains that they are models of an important trend in the mainline.
In interviewing members of the churches she studied, Bass finds that many were not brought up in these churches; many are ex-Catholics and ex-evangelicals. The theme of finding an “authentic” faith for oneself rather than one inherited by birth is common in members’ accounts, as is the concept of being on a spiritual quest and yet finding a communal “home.” The cultivation of spiritual practices also sets these congregations apart from others. Such practices as contemplation, hospitality and worship–often of a liturgical mode–are valued for the spiritual experiences and community they generate.
Likewise, the call for social justice is often seen as a communal practice with a spiritual component. Bass writes that in the congregations she studied, there is a “nearly wholesale rejection of the definition of politics as systemic change and policy platforms” in favor of “personal politics” and volunteerism. These churches clearly portray themselves as politically and socially marginal and criticize the Christian right for becoming the new establishment in American society.
Bass agrees that mainline denominations are in decline, but argues that this is the case because bureaucratic institutions cannot embody the communal and spiritual practices that are the driving forces of intentional congregations. These congregations appear to value the broad traditions (for instance, the Reformed tradition for Presbyterians) of their denominations but not the denominations themselves (making them “post-denominational”).
Bass doesn’t explore how the younger “second generation” members of these intentional mainline churches are faring; are they keeping younger members who are raised in these churches? As with the “emerging church” movement (which shows many similarities to intentional mainline churches), it remains to be seen how well these new style mainline congregations can socialize the young and embed their innovations in new structures and networks.