Group 4 Notes

The Practicing Congregation

This is a scholarly sort of book written for someone at least at the senior level of college who will be attending seminary in the future. Therefore, several members of the class found this book a bit difficult to become engaged with. However, it would be good for our local mainline clergy to use in a discussion and planning group.

Week 1

Chapter One -- A New Old Church

It is possible to bring life back to a church. New ways need to be found to reach out and change such as the Church of the Epiphany in Washington D.C.

American mainline Protestantism is changing whether it is realized or not.

Many churches that have changed---revitalized--- fall into three types that have been studied well by other authors: conservative-evangelical type, the new-paradigm type, and the diagnostic type. These types emerged in the '70s.

The author of our book will cover a fourth type of revitalization called an intentional and practicing congregation. This type began in the 1990s. This type draws from the traditions of ancient times when Christianity was not the dominant or state religion just as the Christian faith is now not the dominant religion in our post-modern world today. The change that is going on is theological and spiritual instead of just "changing the wrapping" as a number of mega-churches have done.

Churches can change spiritually and theologically as Church of the Epiphany without losing their mainline heritage.

The author shares information from historian E. Brooks Holifield about chronology of congregational history: 1607-1789: comprehensive congregations; 1789-1870: devotional congregations; 1870-1950: social congregations; and 1950-present: participatory congregations. Our author adds another period: 1990-present: intentional congregations.

Participatory congregations have a muted denominationalism or are non-denominational; suburban, reach the churched and unchurched, returnees, and switchers. People enter these congregations through niche marketing, "full service" attraction, evangelism, and personal conversion. Their primary orientations: experiential, programs, group of groups, decentralized & democratized, shopping mall or "box store". Individuals or interest groups engage civic arena through policy, politics, or system change.

Intentional congregations are post-traditional; "retraditioned denominationalism" or "traditioned nondenominationalism" (terms explained in later chapters), reach the churched, switchers, unchurched, post-churched, and "tourists". People enter these congregations through hospitality, open sacraments, multiportal. Their primary orientations: worship, way of life, practices, spirituality, and formation. They have a theological critique of culture, hands-on service, social action, justics.

Intentional practicing churches are struggling to be authentically Christian in a post-Protestant, post-traditional, post-everything age.

The group agreed with the chapter and believed it to be a good consciousness raising chapter.

Consensus was that Wesley is a mixture of intentional and participatory churches. We have sparks of good things in our church.

Week 2

Chapter Two -- Just the Way It Is

Many times the conflict inside a church is the result of social changes outside the church---no one inside the church is to be blamed. It is just the way it is. In this chapter, Butler Bass stresses that Christian churches must consciously discern what the core of Christianity is about. A church must also be open to the world we live in and the needs of the world.

Today, the church has lost its position as the central authority regarding the moral life. Most people today do not look to the church for guidance on what should be done in the own lives or in society at large. There are so many choices. The individual is king/queen. Customs passed down from the previous generation are no longer viewed as important or meaningful.

The church must find a way to respond to the realities of the current world while remaining true to its core beliefs and allowing individuals to respond with their "moral compass". On the positive side: those who go to church today are more committed to that choice because they don't feel a pressure from society that they have to go. It is a conscious choice to participate in a church. Because our culture has shifted from a single source of meaning and authority to many competing ones, individuals must choose the beliefs and authorities that will frame their lives.

There is an anxiety over the choices we now have to make. Since the responsibility for making the choice is now all up to the individual, people now worry about what if we make the wrong choice---no "safety net" in this "tyranny of choice". There are a variety of responses to the challenges to "old ways"---some static and intransigent, some militant and violent, some weary, resigned, or accepting, and some creative and highly innovative.

Butler Bass is optimistic that churches can respond (and some have) by rediscovering traditions from early Christianity or inventing new ones to bring meaning back to people's lives---so that Christian faith can be authentic.

We have seen change at Wesley and our surrounding community. Wesley has been moderately flexible and will continue to try new things since we do care about this place and we have a strong desire to help our community.

Week 3

Chapter Three -- Tradition, Tradition!

Butler Bass started off with the example of a church was in the midst of a generational conflict: fighting between preferring the past vs. facing the future. Another church example was about a conflict over the location of a Christmas sale. A new advent program needed to done in a location that by church custom had been used for an annual Christmas sale and party at the beginning of advent. It reminded the class members of Wesley's custom of the annual Bazaar and some of the feelings generated when another event was planned too close to it.

Tradition vs. custom: often a confusion between the two. Traditions are forms of belief and practice that are understood to have longer historical grounding linked to some more ancient and universal source of authority and meaning. Custom refers to what people do that go along with what they've done in the past. A custom makes people feel comfortable.

The class wished for more concrete examples distinguishing between tradition and custom. One example we came up with are hymns. New hymns need to be sung more than once, say three to four times, and should be bracketed with familiar hymn.

We need to look at the value of a custom and why it could be changed. The distinction between tradition and custom matters because in order for vitality to continue, core teachings must be preserved while generating innovative adaptations of form.

Butler Bass notes from scripture how traditions were changed to fit the new reality around the community in the Bible. Things prohibited by one part of scripture are practiced by other believers at a later time. Jewish practice adapted. Christians appropriated the old tradition of the Jewish Passover by inventing a new tradition, the Eucharist (communion). Christianity is a dynamic tradition.

"Invented tradition"---much of what we think of as tradition falls in this area: modern developments of a practice created to link people with the past. For instance, there can be different ways of doing communion but the tradition of believers gathering around a meal to remember the life and way of Christ has not changed.

Modern society is disconnected & fragmented with no memory of the past (today's complaint is that everything is so "five minutes ago"). The church's task is to embody robust traditions that connect people to God, each other, the and a hopeful future, regardless of the specific form the tradition takes.

How do we pass on the tradition? How do we make new customs to pass on ancient traditions? We need to be more hands and heart than mouth all week long (need to practice all week what we preach on Sunday morning). Also need to realize that if things are done in the right spirit, even if a person does not come back right away, the Spirit will move in the visitor.

Congregations can be seens as "culturally restless" places, where, if leaders are wise, "new forms" of tradition can arise. The conflicts could be a sign of the creative and "potentially invigorating" work of God's Spirit among us.

The book is making us more aware of the larger cultural changes going on in the world around us. We know there's change and Butler Bass has clarified that change and how it can affect what's happening in the church. People bring their anxieties of the social change to church with them.

Week 4

Chapter 4 -- Practice Makes Pilgrims

Butler Bass starts off with her reaction to Bonhoeffer's "The Cost of Discipleship" and "Life Together". Too often in mainline churches there is head knowledge with life transformation. There is a real hunger in today's world for a meaningful way of life. Because of the moral fragmentation in the world today without a religious/spiritual authority, people long for a center to their lives. People today live as tourists in their communities. Fundamentalism is a backlash against the uncertainty of today's world.

The vocation of congregations today is to turn tourists into pilgrims---those who no longer journey aimlessly, but, rather, those who journey in God and whose lives are mapped by grace of Christian practices. A Christian congregation as a pilgrim community provides spiritual ballast in a radically fragmented world. The church can offer a true analog alternative to the digital on-off world. Butler Bass gives the example of someone who found this happening in a mainline Protestant congregation in the 1990s.

Mainline congregations that are vitalized today are presenting faith as a "way of life" instead of a Christian "life style". It is something that transforms lives so people live it out 24/7/365. When congregations pay attention to Christianity and its constituent practices as a way of life, only then are they acting as open "monastic communities"---places of spiritual practices, hospitality, worship, and justice. A fault the author finds in most evangelical churches is that while they have practices galor, they lack any sense of connection to the historic church or Christian traditions outside of their own particular subculture.

Her book focuses on the transformation in mainline congregations. These congregations are tapping into the ancient past with intentionality and creating practices that are both individual and corporate. They are understanding why they do the things they do and making conscious choices. They walk the talk in all areas of their life.

This is beginning at Wesley too. We have people who are active in the community because of their faith---they see their jobs in the health/education/helping services and outreach as a ministry. The contemplative group and the Taize service are examples of setting a time and place for recentering ourselves.

Week 5

Chapter Five -- Seeing the Mainline Again

This was a long chapter so the last part was finished in week 6.

Butler Bass started off with the view of religion by today's postmodern media. Religion journalists are only interested in religious pluralism or Christian fundamentalism. The Protestant mainline doesn't exist except when there's clergy sex scandals, arguments over homosexuality or women in leadership or abortion, and mainline decline. The mainline conflicts occur at the national level. Most people in a congregation have learned (or are learning) to navigate their differences that can span the political and theological spectrum. This is true at Wesley. Congregations stick together. When local churches in our district disagreed with the Annual Conference's stance on things, they left as a congregation. We did have strong differing opinions during the Vietnam War at Wesley. Some members left the congregation. By and large today, Wesley folks remain as friends even though there is a continuum of beliefs.

In most churches, conflict will arise over new worship music, moving the pews, changing the liturgy, and children in church! At Wesley we saw this with the early service (not a serious conflict but there were differences in the music). There is resistance to bringing in video technology into the worship service.

Some members of the class were disturbed by her seeming to disparage FOX News in her discussion of the Left vs. Right view in the media. Others saw her use of FOX News as an example of how all the modern media treats Christianity today---the modern media puts people into a "left" (liberal) box and a "right" (conservative) box and sets the boxes as far apart from each other as possible with the boxes lobbing verbal bombs at each other. Unfortunately, with the media's concentration on the debates between those at the far ends, it ignores the vast middle continuum of beliefs and practices. The media is interested more in sensationalization instead of education.

Some members thought the author painted with too broad a brush when she talked about how the theological liberals view salvation vs. how the theological conservatives view salvation. Liberals can choose the conservative ideals. It is not one or the other. It was hard to see if she was using the media's view of the left-right poles or her views on the differences between the two poles.

We do agree with the author when she says that there is a continuum of theology in a single congregation. That is true of Wesley. Outside the world of national politics, American Protestants tend to get along on a local level even around the most divisive of issues. They do, that is, until something is codified into law.

Butler Bass defines being church is about being a community of practice, a place where people learn the art of a way of life through discernment, prayer, and the Christian story as it unfolds through the grace of the church year. She contrasts the "established" churchgoing with the "intentional" churchgoing (and she obviously favors the "intentional" one).

Established churchgoing is something one does by virtue of being born in a particular family. Church is about the comfort of the familiar, not the challenge of the foreign. In the established churchgoing, religious practice has a "chapel orientation": church is where you go for the minister performs certain spiritual tasks for the congregants; where you go for comfort. There is denominational loyalty. This was the case across much of American Protestanism through the 1950s and mid-1960s. Some in our congregation whose formative years were during that time may still operate in that way.

In the intentional churchgoing, nothing is taken for granted. Faith is a purposeful relationship. Life is an encounters with others, with our truest selves, and with God---encounters to which we must pay attention and engage purposefully. Intentional churchgoing is a corporate journey, not an individualized religion. Intentional congregations think about what they do and why they do it in relation to their own history, their cultural context, the larger Christian story found in scripture and liturgy, and in line with the longer traditions of Christian faith. In addition to thinking about their practices, they reflexively engage practices that best foster their sense of identity of identity and mission---they act upon, live out, their faith.

In intentional congregations, churchgoing does cost something in terms of choice, commitment, and involvement. In the United Methodist membership vows, we do promise to faithfully participate in the ministries of the congregation by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. We need to be kept reminded of this more frequently!

Week 6

Last section of Chapter Five -- Seeing the Mainline Again and Chapter Six -- I Love to Tell the Story.

Butler Bass looks at the continuums of congregations. Protestantism is better understood as a 2-D grid with four points of reference: two along the theological continuum of liberal and conservative and two along the practice pole of established and intentional.

Butler Bass then goes on to talk about a 3-D grid---one that moves beyond the liberal/conservative poles. Congregations that have moved toward an intentional stance on the practice continuum---whether "liberal" or "conservative"---have much in common. She discusses postliberalism and postevangelicalism.

In postliberalism, theologians are giving revisiting Christian doctrines to see how those doctrines can illuminate current views of things. It combines the openness of liberalism with a commitment to Christian particularity. Rediscovering our ancient roots. In postevangelicalism, theologians are shifting to relational and experiential forms of authority---thus opening the door to doubts, questions, and ambiguity as legitimate parts of the spiritual life. In the process of critiquing their own cultures, each side of the Protestant divide have discovered a convergence of views---ones that make traditional liberals and traditionals conservatives nervous and suspicious.

In the 3-D grid, postliberalism and postevangelicalism move above the liberal-conservative line. Besides protesting against the old-style liberalism + evangelicalism, they are rejecting the traditional mainline and evangelical ways of defining and being the church.

Growing and dynamic churches demand more of their members than struggling and declining churches. While much has been written of the growing "conservative"/sectarian churches, Butler Bass gives examples of the growing "liberal"/mainline churches in her part of the country. These churches have re-engaged Christian tradition and practice in ways that provide meaning, make demands on congregants, and strengthen commitment to living as God's people in the world. The demands are not in terms of doctrinal assent, but in terms of stewardship, spiritual growth, ministry, mission, and practice. No Sunday-morning Christians but 24/7 Christians who live out their faith.

Chapter Six -- I Love to Tell the Story

While the media concentrates on the old story of mainline decline, Butler Bass has been studying a number of mainline congregations that have re-vitalized and re-invented themselves so that they are growing and energetic.

We humans naturally combine creative imaginations with analytical, logical thinking to see beyond the ordinary surface to the deeper meaning of things. Many mainline churches are trapped in how the external world views them so that they cannot see beyond the world's expectations of us. The external world has by-and-large "written off" the mainline denominations (at least that is what the media reports), so the declining, dying congregations have done the same to themselves. The creative, life-filled congregations are no longer bound by the world's imagination and are tapping into the imagination given to them by God. They have found new life in a revitalized sense of identity through Christian practices, social justice, and shared leadership. They refuse to be "flattened" by the story of mainline decline.

The world's view of how things are, the system (the "Matrix"), is like a hazy smog choking the people on the ground. Most church leaders, clergy, theologians, and other church professionals, like most laypeople, stay down in the smog and think it's just the way it is and there is no way to reproduce or repeat what the creative churches have done. (It is like the fable Loren Mead relates in the first chapter of the book the Wednesday night group was reading in which he talks about clericalism.)

When Butler Bass relates the story of a church that turned itself around by using its imagination to create something new to laypeople in non-professional settings, people cry. By listening to that church's story, they are enabled to see past the surface. The story lifts them above the thick level of cultural haze and helps them imagine a better, different way of being church. People want to soar above the smog (escape the "Matrix"). They want to see. They want to find an enchanted world.

Our God-given creative imagination enables us to go beyond the mundane acceptable way of doing things according to the world and to create a sacred place of doing and being church that embodies the enchantment of the Christian story in the practices of faith. The pastor's imagination and the congregational imagination must work together to make the vision a reality.

This is not a fantasy, pie-in-the-sky thinking. There are mainline congregations that are doing the imaginative work and are growing---they are seeing beyond the haze. Butler Bass is writing about what is already going on at the congregational level at these churches and she is trying to understand what's going on.

In narrative theology, people make the stories of the Bible their own. Our true story is our authentic identity given to us by God. We use our imagination to engage with the story to make it a reality. However, most theologians (and other church professionals) forget that it is in congregations that Christian community happens and where the ideas become reality; where the ideas are shaped into reality.

Each congregation has its own unique story. It is not cookie-cutter stuff! A congregation's story is essential---the more intentional a congregation is about its story (and the more honest, authentic, and coherent as well), the more likely it is to be a place of vital traditioning and practice. Listening to stories and telling stories helped us to be human (to tap into the infinite as Huston Smith would say).

Those who have traveled above the haze need to tell the story to their congregations. A sort of spiritual death occurs---a letting go of the familiar but obsolete and stagnant so that a resurrection can transform us. Some congregations are doing this. Wesley is ready to do this too. Those who have traveled above the haze and can show how the story transformed them will be our new church leaders. In relating stories, leaders enable others to see beyond the everyday so that the whole group is enabled to move forward and change.

Some mainline congregations have brought back the use of testimonials to deepen their spiritual life in the church. It is important for congregations to know their stories, to get them straight, to communicate them effectively, particularly to those who are partial to rival stories, and, above all, to embody in their lives the stories that they tell.

Butler Bass relates how one mainline Episcopal congregation's story in California spurred them on to do what others thought was impossible.The difference between a stagnant, dying church and a growing, intentional church is that after a large money and membership drive, the stagnant church will say "Whew. That's over we did it." The intentional church will say, "Whew. That's over. What's next?"

It is not all spiritual busywork. The California Episcopal congregation has learned to emphasize the practices of discernment and Sabbath-keeping. They take the time to rest and discern what the Holy Spirit is calling them to do. They are pilgrims who understand that, in the contemporary world, the gospel means that one never finally arrives. You just keep telling stories along the way.

The class felt that the book has helped us imagine what's possible. Now we need to find ways to make things happen. We are part of the broad story of the body of Christ. Each of us in on a different page/chapter which we take as our own and we write the story together.

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Wesley United Methodist Church -- Bakersfield, CA