For decades the accepted wisdom has been that America's mainline Protestant churches are in decline, eclipsed by evangelical mega-churches. Church and religion expert Diana Butler Bass wondered if this was true, and this book is the result of her extensive, three-year study of centrist and progressive churches across the country. Her surprising findings reveal just the opposite--that many of the churches are flourishing, and they are doing so without resorting to mimicking the mega-church, evangelical style. Christianity for the Rest of Us describes this phenomenon and offers a how-to approach for Protestants eager to remain faithful to their tradition while becoming a vital spiritual community. As Butler Bass delved into the rich spiritual life of various Episcopal, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Lutheran churches, certain consistent practices--such as hospitality, contemplation, diversity, justice, discernment, and worship--emerged as core expressions of congregations seeking to rediscover authentic Christian faith and witness today. This hopeful book, which includes a study guide for groups and individuals, reveals the practical steps that leaders and laypeople alike are taking to proclaim an alternative message about an emerging Christianity that strives for greater spiritual depth and proactively engages the needs of the world.
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In particular, Butler Bass writes about twelve specific faith practices that growing mainline churches have embraced. Many of them seem to be rediscoveries of ancient spiritual disciplines, like contemplation. Others are more modern, like diversity and justice.
Despite the books self-described scope, Butler Bass offers a very anecdotal finished product. While her work suggests that she was working as a type of religious anthropologist, the book lacks the context that such studies need to be comprehensible. Without this context, this book is mostly a collection of anecdotes.
In fairness, Butler Bass intends this book for interested church-goers looking for a mainline alternative to conservative churches. Perhaps the lack of context is an attempt to tell stories that will create insight and stimulate discussion in churches without offering too much confusing information. However, while the research interested me, I found the book rather disappointing without such context.
To be sure, there is value here for mainline churches and their members -- ideas for renewal that don't involve audio visual equipment or TV advertising. The spiritual disciplines mentioned would be good guides for congregations looking to grow in their lives of faith. But more context would make these sections even better.
Her approach to political diversity was very centrist, a sort of "good church people can be either Republican or Democratic" view - and, in the end, leans toward advocating a political centrism that I find empty and spineless. I agree with her that linking Christian faithfulness to a party platform is wrongheaded, but centrism is not the better way.
And finally, there is an offhanded comment midway through the book where she derisively mentions an Episcopal priest who brought some kind of paganism or earth spirituality into his congregation. I found her dismissal of that as obviously too far - openness run amuck - to be evidence of her own shallowness and prejudice.
That casual dismissal runs alongside wholehearted praise of all of her study congregations - she doesn't mention any of those churches' flaws or dysfunctions. I'm sure that approach makes it easier to find churches to study - knowing that if you invite her in, she'll only say nice things and tell you how cool your church is. But it leaves me feeling a bit deceived - especially since I've heard that one of her ideal "purple" churches is actually totally run by the Republicans in the congregational leadership, and attempts to squash organizing by the liberals in the church.