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Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith

Image of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
May 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Diana Butler Bass
Total Pages: 
Harper One

Diana Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Duke. She became a full-time writer, independent researcher, educator, and consultant. She tells here her experience in a journey to 50 growing mainline churches to find out what practices work well today. (For her books I’ve read, click on her name).

Although I bought the paperback edition, I give here the website for Kindle edition because it skips no pages:

The home page has a good review (click on ‘Read more”). I also recommend the ‘Starred Review’ by Publishers Weekly which is also on the home page. Then use Amazon’s option to 'Look inside.' The contents shows organization of this book into three Parts with a 17-pp Appendix.. The important 11-pp Introduction is given in full in the Kindle edition, but it ends in the middle of the 11-pp Chapter One – The Vanished Village. I provide next some of the missing last half of Ch. One. [I put my comments in square brackets.]

The Kindle preview ends with the question “What about the old Protestant traditions?” Her answer is given in detail. It begins with “I first encountered God through the rainbow prisms cast by Saint John’s stained-glass windows. I was baptized at the church in the spring of 1959.” …”Saint John’s United Methodist church of Hamilton embodies the struggle of the old Protestant religion, that which is called ‘mainline’ or liberal Protestantism.” …”Of course, staying at Saint John’s did not happen. We left the village. … We became spiritual nomads.

“It is not easy being a spiritual nomad, but it is a widespread phenomenon, part of the cultural condition loosely referred to as ‘postmodern.’ Many people, like me, were born in traditional religions and still carry vague memories of how the world was before everything changed.” [I include here the part of her ‘spiritual growth’ that is very similar to what I, and many others I know, experienced.] …”Nomadic spirituality, that sense of being alien, strangers in a strange land, is almost a given of contemporary life.” [Her journey would wind her through fundamentalism, the charismatic movement, and classical evangelism (I did not take such a journey, thank heaven) before she returned to mainline Protestantism as a changed person – still a pilgrim in numerous churches before she found some “where spiritual nomads could practice the Christian faith as pilgrims.” [After a few more paragraphs, she summarizes her nomadic experiences.]

“There seem to be different sorts of Christians today, those who prefer to build walled villages and do want to see, and those who take risks in the wilderness and are willing to open their eyes. For nearly two decades, scholars have identified risk-taking spiritual types as ‘seekers,’ those individuals on a journey of faith that moves beyond the faith traditions they inherited into new religious territory. In religion, the seeker story is old news.” [My ‘pilgrim’ journey involved very much reading and talking with others of different religions – but then I found my place here where I live and I have stayed here as it grew in more spiritual ways. To grow spiritually I have been and will always remain a 'seeker'.] Back to her story: “For those I met, change was not always easy, and their churches were not perfect. But they embodied courage, creativity and imagination. And risk. In reaching toward a new kind of Christianity (which is, as I hope will become obvious, actually an old kind of Christianity), they serve as a living guidebook for spiritual nomads seeking to find wisdom’s way.” [I love her phrase 'to find wisdom's way' – a great ending for Ch. One.]

Above I focused on her nomadic spiritual journey (or pilgrimage) because it was her experience that led her to begin a nearly three-year study of fifty successful mainline Protestant churches, with the goal of trying to determine what they did, and were doing, to become successful churches that were growing – growing congregations by changing their traditions in ways that attracted people from their old (closed minds and static practices) ways that were unable or unwilling to adapt to a changed and changing ‘postmodern’ world. And to cherish the revitalized group of seekers for having open eyes, open ears, and open minds that led them back to the Way of Christ.

This book, told in first person, has the reader following ‘as if by her side’ on her nomadic journey by telling stories of the many people and leaders she met along the way. Part I – What happened to the neighborhood Church – in four chapters, sets you up for what she has done. Part II – Ten Signposts of Renewal – in ten chapters, discuss the things she found to be most important. Part III – From Tourists to Pilgrims – in four chapters, focuses on the various transformations she discerned on this fifty-church journey. Her more recent books discuss, with greater spirituality, her crucial transformations in living with greater wisdom. These three books (with book numbers, titles, and date of publication) are 371 – A Peoples History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story (2010), 681 – Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (2016), and 703 – Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution (2017).

But there is a book behind book 707 - her story of the time (about 2003 to 2005) of the fifty-church journey. The Appendix of book 707 is a condensed version of the interpretation of the psychology and sociology of this 50-church journey into tables of results. The Appendix – Research Methodology and Findings – is by Diana Butler Bass and J. Steweart-Sicking. The book’s title is ‘From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations,’ published in 2005. From what I saw online at Amazon for this book, it seems somewhat similar in content, but with different chapter titles. I don’t plan to get it.

Many of the stories from people in the fifty churches were enjoyable to read, for the stories Diana Butler Bass includes reveal somewhat different ways that Christians found their way into the successful churches. She talks mostly about the ten ‘core’ churches she spent more time in (and/or had more visits with) them. The core ten were four Episcopal, two Presbyterian, two Lutheran, one Methodist, and one United Church of Christ. The remaining forty churches were called the ‘Validation Group.’ I have mixed feelings about the table in the Appendix showing rows of the Ten Signposts of Renewal and columns of the ten core churches, with percentages each church was given for the ten signposts. I feel that there was inadequate (actually little) discussion of how these signposts were assigned numbers.

The Appendix also had a second table that replaced the ten rows of the ten signposts with twelve rows of twelve ‘Key Worship Practices,' also with inadequate discussion of how these worship practices were assigned percentages. The twelve Key Worship Practices are: Using ritual in worship; Quality of music; Quality preaching that is practical; Balancing worship styles; Contemplative worship; Focus on baptism liturgies; Ecstatic/Pentecostal influences; (Re)design of liturgical space; Worship and service complementary; Frequent Lord’s supper; Focus on calendar, esp. Holy Week; Using the visual arts in worship. There was even less discussion of this choice of twelve Key Worship Practices.

For me this lack of discussion in the Appendix cost book 707 at least one star. But, overall, I decided to rate this book at four stars.

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