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The spot for the good news, the good word, the quick reports of the many, many wonderful news items I hear all the time and want to share with the rest of you. Expect to find the good news when you come to check out "what’s the good word?"

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Review


Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (The Alban Institute, 2004)


For the last nearly fifty years we have been hearing a regular stream of reports concerning the death of Mainline Protestant churches. Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that many are in decline or closing while others are embroiled in controversy of one kind or another. Congregational attendance is down, finances are declining, and congregants are getting older. It all paints a discouraging picture. There is some truth to these reports, of course, but there are also other trends which seldom get reported in the popular press.

Diana Butler Bass, in this very readable book, begins to chronicle churches that do not follow this pattern. She opens with the story of Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal congregation three blocks from the White House in downtown Washington, D.C. This storied old church has seen a lot of history come and go, from the antebellum period to the present, however by its 150th Anniversary in 1992, it had fallen on hard times. Not many people remained in attendance, the old building was decaying, the endowment that paid the bills was dwindling, and there was talk of closure.

Yet 10 years later, by its 160th Anniversary, Epiphany bustled with new vitality. The congregation no longer attracts Washington’s political elite, rather…
“a congregation of incredible diversity with multiple races, ethnicities, classes, generations, and sexual orientation now inhabits its pews. The bills are paid through surprisingly generous congregational stewardship (the typical pledge at Epiphany is nearly twice the national average). They sing their songs to God guide by TaizĂ© music, gospel songs and spirituals, Bach cantatas, Native American and African chants, and Anglican hymns.” (P.8)
It sounds just like a church I would enjoy.

An accomplished historian and researcher, Bass brings to light many of the reasons why Christian churches are in such transition, and seems to suggest that, in part at least, it is because we have lost our way. When Christianity was dominant and practicing religion was expected, churches could get by quite nicely because they were in the political and economic driver’s seat. Now, however, that has all changed and we need to rediscover the practices to which Christ has called us. In that sense, the book is reminiscent of Steve Veazey’s 2011 call for the Community of Christ to embrace the five Mission Initiatives.

The good news is there is hope; decline and closure does not have to be the inevitable end for congregations. Bass points to research that makes a connection between personal spiritual practices and congregational vitality. She quotes David Roozen, a researcher who states,
“The study does confirm that the more emphasis a congregation gives to the values of home and personal religious practices the higher the congregation’s vitality and the more likely it is to be growing in membership.” (P.67)

While Bass’s book does not promise easy transitions to church health and growth, it does offer hope. The Practicing Congregation should be required reading for anyone searching out the path to congregational renewal.

Posted by Carman

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