Monday, June 20, 2005

Monday Book Reviews: The Practicing Congregation and Exodus

The Practicing Congregation by Diana Butler Bass and Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity by Dave Shiflett present contrasting views of mainline Protestant congregations, which is why I thought it would be interesting to read and review them together.

Diana Butler Bass holds a Phd in American religious history from Duke and a masters in theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A former evangelical of fundamentalist bent, she is now an Episcopalian with liberal/progressive views. Her book is part of a three year study of the role of Christian practices in fostering congregational vitality in historic mainline churches called The Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, located at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Dave Shiflett, on the other hand, characterizes himself as an "itinerant Presbyterian with the emphasis on itinerant" and journalist. He is the author of Christianity on Trial and has writeen about religious issues for many publications ranging from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal. His publisher suggested the topic of this current book.

The Practicing Congregation presents an optimistic alternative view of the condition of the Protestant mainline. Bass' thesis is that liberal or progressive Protestant congregations can become growing vital congregations when they foster and emphasize historic Christian spiritual practices such as healing prayer, hospitality, silence, discernment, stewardship and peacemaking. She focuses on the Church of the Ephiphay (ECUSA) in Washington, DC, as the primary example of this type of congregation.

In contrast, Shiflett predicts a continuing "exodus" of membership from the Protestant mainline to conservative denominations or non-denominational churches, fueled by the perceived rejection of traditional tenets of Christianity and liberal political positions of clergy and denominational spokesmen that alienate many in the pews.

Bass' book is academic in tone and more than a little tedious, despite its upbeat message. I have read many articles and books on related subjects and find that this one takes some discipline to finish. Interestingly, she and Shiflett agree that congregations that expect more commitment from their members tend to grow in numbers and vitality. Most other authors have tied this to conservative congregations, but she makes the case that this can occur in churches of liberal or progressive theology as well. The Practicing Congregation includes a brief study guide with suggestions for group discussion.

Exodus is a more readable book, written in a journalistic rather than an academic style. The title gives away the author's bias. Still, Shiflett intersperses his own research and observations with a number of interviews with clergy and laypeople from mainline and conservative churches. I found the questions he put to each thought-provoking. To the liberals: "Is everything negotiable these days? Is it even slightly possible that there could be significant eternal risks in tampering with what Christians through the ages have considered 'God's blueprint for salvation'?" And to the conservatives: If you can remain in a church whose bishops repeatedly reject the divinity and resurrection of Christ why can't you live with the ordination of gays?

I do pick a nit with Schiflett on one point. He seems to characterize the Presbyterian Lay Committee as a splinter denomination. Although there are those in the PCUSA who view that group as schismatic, to date it has not formed a breakaway church. It's a nit because he spends almost no time on the PCUSA and a lot of time on the ECUSA.

As a DCE, I would recommend The Practicing Congregation as a study for a small group of church officers, staff or clergy, providing they have had some previous experience with this type of academic analysis and an interest in it. Exodus would have broader appeal and could spark some lively discussions in an adult group or Sunday School class over such topics as "celebrity heretics", the "wee Deity" and the "train wreck that is the Episcopal Church USA" regardless of the theological preferences of the group.

1 comment:

John said...

Great reviews! I'll add them to my reading list.