For The Someday Book

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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.

Beyond ResistanceDon’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.

Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.

Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.

John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.

What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”

Disbelief in universal truth

Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)

Distrust of institutional authority

Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However,  active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”

Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”

This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)

The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.

However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)

The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.

As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.

The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)

In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.

Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.

Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.

Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.

The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)

He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.

As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.

 

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Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley, Upper Room Books, 2010, 140 pp.

Lose Love LiveI am using this book to start a Grief & Loss Support Group at my church, and this resource came highly recommended by a friend for that purpose. It was a challenge for me, in some ways, to be reading a book about grief at a time in my life when I am (blessedly) not walking a grief-filled path. I feel inadequate to judge how helpful the book is for those in the midst of a grief journey, because my point of view is somewhat removed.

What I most appreciate about Dan Moseley’s approach to the journey of grief is his simultaneous ability to name that grief is not something that you “get over,” especially not in some predictable time frame, and his wisdom that new life and unexpected joy is still available after a life changed by grief. He handles the agony of pain, anger and loss without glossing over it, yet points to the promise and possibility available only through grief, the “spiritual gifts of loss and change.” It’s not simply a positive outlook or word of encouragement, it’s a deeper sense of hope in the resurrection. Moseley’s mantra is, “To live is to love. To love is to lose. To lose is to live.”

The book itself follows the journey of grief in its many twists and turns. There are chapters that attend to naming the loss, feeling pain, anger, remembering, guilt, forgiving, gratitude, play, practice and becoming new. Each chapter describes what it is like to journey through that particular aspect of grief, and includes stories of diverse people facing different kinds of losses. One of the best features of the book is the “Good Companions” section at the end of each chapter, which describes the kinds of friends and relationships that can best help you when you are experiencing each part of the journey. This book therefore makes an excellent resource for those wishing to offer support and care to loved ones who grieve.

One of the insights that spoke the most to me was about losing faith in the midst of grief. Moseley writes,

The guarantee that we will lose holds true for our faith as well. Faith is a human construct. We create an understanding of our lives in relationship to God. We use symbols and language to create that understanding. These symbols, while shaped by divine power and history, are constructs of the human mind. … Therefore, when we are faced with a crisis that results in losing whatever we have come to count on, the way we imagine God can also change and we may lose our faith. … Since we constructed it, we can lose it. (25)

While God does not change, our relationships and perceptions of God are nearly guaranteed to fall apart when we grieve. I take strange comfort in that truth-telling.

Another section I found especially insightful were his chapters on playing and practicing. Grief doesn’t just strip us of the one we loved, but of our identity in that relationship, forcing us to change who we are.

We play our way into new ways of being and living. … To grow spiritually involves imagining ourselves as different kinds of people, playing with different ways of being in the world. (94)

After we have explored a variety of options for living again, somewhere along the way we will discover that some of those options represent who we are more than others. When we come to that awareness, we begin practicing those options more than others. (103)

Moseley encourages the deep, transformative work of grief that invites a new way of living and being in response to the loss we experience in our lives. I have found the group discussions so far to be helpful and productive. This could be an excellent resource for a church group or therapy group, since the context is not specifically Christian, although Moseley himself served as a pastor for many years.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass, HarperOne, 2012, 294 pp.

Christianity after ReligionThe ever-wise Diana Butler Bass continues her quest to root out the spiritual lives of contemporary Americans and the ways that local churches are helping, hurting, or just left out of them. Christianity After Religion unfolds the next chapter of the work she began in The Practicing Congregation (2004) and continued in Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006). Those books examined what was happening among mainline congregations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Christianity After Religion moves beyond what’s gone wrong and what’s going right in churches, and starts to posit what comes next after the rapid upheaval of the last several decades.

Bass describes a radical transformation underway in the practice of Christianity, triggered by a crisis in legitimacy. The crisis in legitimacy means that “large numbers of people question basic aspects of meaning and life.” (47) The basic questions–What do I believe? How should I act? Who am I?–are not being answered in a meaningful, satisfactory way by religion as it has been known and practiced. The compelling sense of believing, behaving and belonging has slowly eroded from contemporary Christianity. Bass traces the ways that believing, behaving and belonging have faded, leaving us with a faltering religion and the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” segregation.

While the decline and crisis of legitimacy have been unfolding for decades, the first dozen years of the 21st century have been especially brutal. Bass identifies this as the “horrible decade” with a precipitous decline in religious participation and a “religious recession.” She cites five triggers for this horrible decade:

  1. September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: When religion was blamed for the attacks
  2. Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal: When religious leaders went from most trustworthy to least trustworthy professionals
  3. Protestant Conflict over Homosexuality: When Christians were mean to each other and especially mean to LGBT people
  4. Religious Right Win in 2004 Election, but Lose a Generation: The reelection of George W. Bush felt like a victory for the right, but it alienated an entire generation of young people who associated Christianity with ugly politics, power and exclusion
  5. Religious Recession: Studies document that only 20% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in “organized religion.” Participation declines rapidly. (76-83)

These have been the exact years of my ministry. I was ordained in the spring of 2001, and I have never known another decade of ministry. This is what it’s always been like. However, when you add it up like Bass does, it looks pretty bleak.

However, Bass is not bleak in her outlook. Not at all. Instead, she pronounces that this discontent is actually “a deeper longing for a better sort of Christianity.” (87)

What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection–these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. (96)

The root of religion is “religio,” to reconnect–to claim the “and” of faith and practice.

What I appreciate most about Bass in this book is that she doesn’t stop there. In fact, she’s just getting started. She begins to chart the course of the new Christianity that might emerge–what it will look like, how it will feel, what it will embody. She returns to each of the fundamental questions of believing, behaving and belonging and offers a perspective on how they will be redefined and how we can begin to engage that work. For the work of believing, she shifts the question from “What do I believe?” to “How do I believe?” and “Who do I believe?” Those changes make room to explore issues of authority, meaning and authenticity. The work of behaving shifts attention to practices of faith. While habit used to be sufficient, we must now return to bigger questions of “what” and “why” we engage in worship, prayer, service and other practices. Bass writes,

Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be. Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice. (160)

Our attention to behaving must focus on intention (the practices that will intentionally give shape to my life in faith) and imitation (the practices that imitate Jesus and the saints). The work of belonging, then, is the fundamental work of identity. Who am I? Where am I? Who am I in God? Our sense of identity is in flux, moving away from old familial and geographic identifiers and toward a more fluid understanding that “I am my journey.” (178)  Our spiritual journey then becomes a sense of discovering who we are in God and through God, in relationship to God and one another.

After describing the new questions of believing, behaving and belonging, Bass proclaims that there needs to be a “great reversal.” For the last 500 years, since the Enlightenment and Reformation, we have put belief first in the order of faith, followed by behaving and then belonging. It is time to return to the original order: belong, behave, believe. First we belong to a community, then we take on the practices of faith. The sense of belonging (identity) and behaving (practicing) are what evoke believing. (203-204) The final section of the book outlines this transformation as a Fourth Great Awakening, and draws some of the outlines taking shape.

Christianity After Religion is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read dozens of books about the decline of the church, the need for transformation, the causes of the collapse and what we should be doing about it. None of them compare to the depth of insight, wisdom, description and prescription found here. I finished reading it about six weeks ago, and I’m already feeling the need to read it again. It is a book to study, revisit and use as a lens for seeing contemporary ministry and religious life. I think every religious leader should be reading this book, talking about it, and finding ways to interact with it in their ministry. This book contains what may seem like depressing information about the demise of religious life as we’ve known it in our lifetimes. But it rings with hope at every page. There will be death, to be sure–but God holds out the promise for a resurrection, more beautiful and brilliant that we could have imagined. Thank you, Diana Butler Bass, for helping to roll away the stone.

Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations by Anthony B. Robinson, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, 199 pp.

Changing the conversationAnthony Robinson is among my favorite authors when it comes to explaining the changes facing the world, articulating their impact on the church, and raising the questions that we all need to contemplate in response. In this book, he takes it farther, drawing some conclusions about what mainline congregations need to do to engage with this new era. In Transforming Congregational Culture (one of my favorite guides for leading change in the church), Robinson makes the case for why change is necessary and hints at the kinds of changes that will be required. Changing the Conversation is a tool to help congregations launch the conversations that will engage the work of transformation.

The premise implied in the title is that congregations have been having conversations for the last few decades about whether they are liberal or conservative in their politics, traditional or contemporary in their worship style, emergent or established in their way of life. Robinson labels these conversations ubiquitous, unhelpful and even destructive. (4) The third way moves beyond “either/or” into “both/and.” How can we be about faith formation AND social justice? How can we be about personal transformation AND public transformation? How can we be serious about scripture AND about reason? The path he charts guides congregations around those unhelpful conversations and into new ones, conversations that will move the church forward into a new way of life.

Much of the material was familiar to me, both from Robinson’s other books and from a myriad of authors addressing similar topics, like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, and Gil Rendle. However, this book is unique because it condenses all that material into short, topical chapters that are perfect for discussion with leadership groups in congregations. I ordered copies of this book for every member of my church Council, and we are going to be working through these conversations throughout the coming year, one chapter at a time.

Robinson covers all the major topics that churches should be considering. The first two chapters are titled, “It’s Not About You” and “And Yet…It Is About You.” These two chapters recap his earlier work (which I think is some of the best out there for mainline churches) on the death of Christendom and its implications for the church. The third chapter puts forth the key challenge for mainline churches: moving beyond civic faith to have “a new heart,” passionate about God and following the way of Christ. This chapter reminded me of a line in Martha Grace Reese’s work in Unbinding the Gospel, “You can’t give what you don’t got. Changing the church demands that all of us grow in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. He imagines four chambers of this new heart:

an encounter with the living God and the message of and about God; the power and purpose of Scripture; evangelism for the “churched”; and reclaiming theology as “wisdom proper to the life of believers.” These are four aspects of one whole transformation, that is, being “formed anew” or “formed over” by the living God. (79)

Subsequent chapters address more specific questions: leadership and governance, vision, purpose, mission and public role, stewardship and faith formation.

One of the most important things for me in this book was the chapter on a church’s purpose. Robinson traces a variety of authors (including each of the Gospel writers) on the purpose of the church, such as making disciples, changing lives, embodying Christ’s way of life in the world, glorifying God. All of these are variations on a theme. In a workshop with Robinson I attended on Sunday, he put it this way, “we’re in the people-making business,” making Christians not just by conversion but by a steady, shaping way of life. I think clarity of purpose is critical for all congregations, because it should shape everything else. Our purpose guides what we do (and what we don’t do), and how we go about it. We need to be clear on it, and reiterate it over and over again in everything we do as a church. For my congregation, this will be our starting place. We developed a purpose a few years ago, but we have not revisited it recently.

While I may have read or heard many of these ideas before at multiple clergy workshops, and while our church has already been doing this conversational work together over the last five years, it will still be new to many of the Council members reading this book throughout the year. For me, it is a reminder that the conversation needs to be ongoing, not just a one-time thing. Most importantly, this book (far more than many others) does not just lament the past or imagine the future in vague and dreamy ways. Robinson’s questions and model of congregational conversations offers a path for practical, local, immediate and meaningful ways for real churches to engage with change. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I finished Changing the Conversation thinking, “we can do this!” I can imagine my church having all these conversations, and, with the help of this book, we will.

Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, Alban Institute, 2010, 139 pp.

This is the follow-up volume to Merritt’s Tribal Church. Tribal Church mapped out the contours of the next generation, describing with insightful detail the cultural promise and pressures facing Generations X and Y. I finished Tribal Church frustrated that it did not offer as much wisdom as I had hoped about how to be engaged in ministry within this new cultural reality. Reframing Hope picked up where Tribal Church left off, and started to paint a picture of ministry in a new era.

Merritt’s gift is not a program or a plan of action for ministry. Instead, she is able to draw a portrait, an evocative image of what ministry can look like with a new generation. Instead of spelling out “do this, don’t do that,” she carefully draws out the places that hope is found and Christianity is alive anew. In broad strokes, she points out areas that need attention and reformation: authority, community, means of communication, the way the Gospel is told, activism, connection to creation and spirituality. The picture as a whole is still blurry, because we are still figuring out what this new Christianity looks like, but Merritt provides concrete anecdotes that are hi-res clear.

Merritt does an excellent job of distilling and naming subtle changes in understanding for our generation. She gives voice to things that seem vague and unnamed. One compelling example is her description of power and authority:

In a new generation, reliable information does not radiate from a central power; rather it moves underground, through networks, streets, relationships and friends.

Someone recently asked me where I look for information, insight and new ideas about ministry. I realized that there are very few authors or leaders that I turn to as authorities. Instead, I most admire my young colleagues in ministry, whom I connect with through the 2030 Clergy Network. They are my most reliable source, and they are available to me via social media.

Merritt also offers wise words about the impulse toward community.

We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions, yet we are weary from radical individualism. … A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action.

Amen and amen. We realize that we cannot make it on our own, that we need one another, and that life together is richer and more full. Yet we do not turn to institutions to provide ready-made community. We are looking through institutions to build community that is authentic, intense, small and demanding.

Merritt’s book maps out the ways the historic church can be meaningful, relevant and life-giving for a new generation.  Her reflections are deep and beautifully written, demanding contemplation rather than programming. It asks the church to orient itself in ways that are spiritual but not radical, so it can be a place of welcome and filled with hope.

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church, by Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Pilgrim Press, 2011, 230 pp.

It has taken me months to finish reading this book, which is not like me at all. I have read and reread chapters, and noticed that sometimes they fly by without impact, and sometimes I immediately act on the content. I think this is a book that is like “just-in-time training.” You need to reach for it at the moment you are preparing to act and change and work on a particular topic. When I started it back during sabbatical, I just couldn’t connect to it when I was away from church leadership. When I tried to read it all the way through like a monograph, I just couldn’t get inspired. Now that I’m back in the groove of transformational church leadership, I was ready and eager to absorb the content and make use of the ideas and information.

Piazza and Trimble are the founders of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an inspiring non-profit organization dedicated to helping people start new churches and renew dying ones in the mainline and progressive traditions. Both have extensive experience and a proven track record in starting and renewing. This book is a compilation of their best practices, critical questions, strategies and insights. It is a treasure trove for pastors and church leaders doing the work of congregational growth and transformation.

Liberating Hope covers an enormous range of topics—leadership, small groups, stewardship, mission, worship, administration, social media, databases, and more. Unlike many other books, Piazza and Trimble do not offer a formula or program for your church to follow. Instead, they focus on the big questions and important things a growing, thriving church must be doing,  then leave the details of what that looks like to you in your own context.

For example, in the chapter on worship they emphasize that the experience must be transformational–it must bring people into a real encounter with God that will leave them changed. Worship that is transformational will be authentic, accessible to newcomers, of excellent quality, sensual, touching both head and heart, and it will demand a response. Any church, of any size or style, can aspire to offer that kind of worship. The authors do not offer steps to follow, but questions and measures to help a church improve its effectiveness and enhance its service to God.

This book is not new or radical information. What makes it different is the freshness of the material (in response to new media and technology) and the comprehensiveness of the content (every aspect of church life is included). It is a great starting place, foundational text and reference point for any pastor or congregation engaged in birth or renewal. It won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it will help you identify what you need to know, where to find resources, and how to figure things out in your own church. For exactly that reason, I recommend it highly.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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