Beyond religion: church!

2 Jun

I am so excited by Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity for the rest of us: how the neighbourhood church is transforming the faith.

Bass has examined a wide variety of ‘mainline’ churches in the USA, with the one feature in common that they are all growing, often after decades of decline. She has particularly challenged the often-made claim that only conservative or pentecostal churches are growing, while churches of a more expansive kind of theology are inevitably in decline. She has found and documented many counter-instances to this claim.

The book begins with a personal account of what she describes as the ‘village’ church, and indeed village culture in which she grew up, in mainstream America. But that ‘village’, a culture in which the political and the religious were inter-twined, without most people realizing it, is lost. Americans, Bass says, are nomads, in search of some new sense of ‘home’, or community. The move towards ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’ is an expression of this. This is surely true in Australia as well.
But, in common with a number of scholars, Bass notes that in fact this quest for spirituality cannot ultimately be made alone. It is a search for belonging. Indeed, importantly, it is much more a quest for belonging that for ‘belief’. ‘Americans want to combine their concern with personal spirituality with more traditional forms of religion’ (p.44).

This is where she finds the special opportunity for main-stream or even ‘liberal’ Christianity to find new life in its own traditions. Whereas more conservative forms of Christianity have focussed on exclusivity, by defining specific beliefs which must be maintained by those who are ‘in’, the theology of grace which has shaped the broader Protestant traditions is more open to a range of perspectives and more tolerant of dissent. Such churches need to re-discover their history and to engage afresh in the spirituality which gave them life and strength for centuries.
This is exactly what Bass has found in these growing churches. Three inter-woven features: tradition, not traditionalism; practice, not purity; and wisdom, not certainty.
The book explores ten ‘practices’ of these transformed and transforming churches. The critical factor here is that these are all ‘traditional’ activities of the church through the centuries, but they are now given new expression and fresh intentionality, shaping these local communities in new ways. Critical to them all is leadership: usually pastors or ministers, but also other leaders who are both encouraged and permitted to lead by the ‘official’ leadership.
Inherent in this re-discovery of ‘church’, though, are several critical theological ideas. One is a crucial insight about Jesus. The nub of the issue here is whether Christianity is about arriving at a destination—perhaps ‘salvation’ or ‘heaven’, or whether it is about the journey of life with Jesus. Bass puts this quite bluntly: In one view: ‘And Christianity is a kind of vacation destination, a place you wind up in to escape hell. Such Christians claim that God has a plan for your life, a route you must follow or you will be lost in this life—and damned in the next.’ By contrast, she takes quite literally the ancient idea of ‘The Way’ and Jesus’ own description of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6). ‘Jesus is not the way to get somewhere. Jesus is the Christian journey itself, a pilgrimage that culminates in the wayfarer’s arrival in God. When Jesus said, “Follow me,”, he did not say, “Follow the map.” Rather, he invited people to follow him, to walk with him on a pilgrimage toward God.’ (p.72)
So here we have a Christological heart to this new communal spirituality. It is about constant journeying with Jesus: a daily and continual conversion to ‘the Way’.

A second crucial aspect of this rediscovered sense of Christian community is about what God is doing in the world. It is not, as traditional forms of ‘mainline Christianity had wrongly assumed’, defined by the dominant culture of ‘success’. Rather, it is a culture defined by the empire of God: the shalom of God’s reign, God’s will for healing, justice and peace for all the world. Thus Bass goes on to describe the re-discovery of the Spirit’s life and work in the world as central to these new communities. ‘The church’, here, is not the heart of it all. It is not about drawing people into the church. It is not about the success of the church, nor about the church over against the world. It is about what God is doing in the world, including the lives of Christians. So the journey of theological leadership must begin with discerning what God is doing, in the world, in individuals’ lives and in collective situations — often situations of challenge, struggle, discrimination or deep need. But it is precisely there that the Way appears and indeed offers hope and new community. That is the testimony unfolding in these stories.

This is very exciting and challenging. I will make more of this, both in blogging and in teaching, and I suspect it has a lot to offer my own life as well.

Next, the ten ‘practices’ giving new life to these churches.

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