There are many ideas floating around in my mind as I try to process the last couple days of learning with Diana Butler Bass. I know I'll be drawing on this teaching summit for a long time. At this point, I want to try and organize a few central pieces that I can hang my thoughts on.
1) We have been believing (and thus living in) the wrong story.
Diana shared from her own journey how she had long bought the line that the mainline churches are in decline and that only theologically conservative churches are growing. She actually studied American Church History for years, and was taught and bought the story that the mainline churches are like a sinking ship, like the Titanic going down, and their day is over.
After buying into this idea she was shocked when she stumbled onto a large, dynamic, non-conservative Anglican church in California. If the mainline is in decline, how could this church be growing faster than the conservative Calvary Chapels and Vineyard churches in the town?
This forced her to re-examine the mainline decline paradigm and she discovered that it actually is not true. After much study, she has found that there are many thriving mainline churches out there. She embarked on a study of them.
I questioned the adequacy of the mainline decline theory when I stumbled upon some myths about megachurches, which I reported in an earlier post. It turns about that 5% of megachurches are United Methodist, while 4.4% are Calvary Chapel. I've been interested in Calvary Chapel for a long time, being I'm a Chuck Smith Sr. fan. There's hardly any chance that you'll find a UMC as conservative as any Calvary Chapel church, but we have more megachurches than they do.
The results of Diana's research show that its actually Intentional churches which show vitality, and Established churches which are in decline. (At least, that's how I process what she said. If anyone remembers her stuff better than I do please correct me. I welcome it!) Established churches are stuck in an organizational model which served well the era from 1870-1960. Intentional churches (or practicing churches) began sprouting up around the 1970's, which happens to be the time of the formation of many of the conserative churches which are now thriving.
Mainline churches who have moved into the Intentional church model are vital, just as Intentional conservative churches are vital. A very crude and inadequate way of explaining what an Intentional church is would be that it is somewhat "purpose-driven" (sorry Diana!), not necessarily the in the Rick Warren model, but sort of. They choose what they are going to do and be based on the richest of the last 2000 years of church practices. Instead of worrying about survival, they focus on service, hospitality, reflection, study of God's Word, etc.
2) The liberal/conservative paradigm is not an adequate construct for measuring vitality.
Diana shared how the liberal/conservative paradigm has been passed down to us from the modernist/fundamentalist controvery of the early 20th century. When the modernists started pushing social gospel and higher biblical criticism, those who were against it formed a movement known as fundamentalism, to preserve what they saw as orthodoxy. For the first part of the 21st century, the modernists and liberal churches flourished and swelled with pride and satisfaction. Their bubble burst in the 60's (the end of the Established church era/the beginning of "mainline decline"). Because of the high level of tension that existed from this controversy, many people are still sold on these labels and fighting this battle.
Diana says this battle is no longer the story that we're in, though many people believe it is. When mainline churches begin to decline, the conservatives began to blame "the liberals who are destroying our denomination and causing it to shrink." Likewise, the liberals began to blame the conservatives. All the while, the truth is that there are Intentional liberal and conservative churches flourishing, and Established liberal and conservative churches floundering.
So there is not only a liberal...conservative spectrum (though it does certainly exist), there is also an Established...Intentional spectrum. Diana says that when the waters get rough, everyone is looking for who to throw off the boat in order to regain God's blessing. The liberals think we need to throw the conservatives off the boat, and the conservatives think we need to throw the liberals off the boat.
She said the truth is that Christianity is sailing into unchartered waters, and what we really need to do is get all hands on deck!
3) There is a big difference between tradition and custom.
Tradition is the richness of Christian practice from the last 2000 years and a lot of it is good. Customs are particular practices that a church just got in the habit of doing, which may or may not be beneficial.
An example of a custom could be having a Wednesday night soup supper during Lent. It may have very little theological significance attached to it. However, it can become very engrained and hard for a church to let go of, if it somehow becomes "canonized" (my word) in an Established church model.
A tradition would be the rich soul-searching season of Lent which allows time for deep reflection. There are a number of wonderful practices that will allow us to benefit from this tradition of Lenten reflection. The Intentional church will love and utilize the practices that work toward their intended purpose. The Established church will stick to its custom of soup suppers and decline and lose morale.
Here are some questions I'm thinking about tonight:
1) Is it possible for us to respect each other's different interpretations of doctrine without demanding that others conform to our interpretation?
2) Can we turn Established churches into Intentional churches with God's help?
3) Can we humbly focus on building Intentional churches without demonizing folks of on the other end of the liberal/conservative spectrum?
As an evangelical, I want to work side by side with my centrist and liberal brothers and sisters to build Intentional churches, but I need to be allowed to be who I am as an evangelical. I want to be able to let them be who they are as liberals. I want to be in mission without fear being demonized myself and without demonizing others.
It seems that it will take a great deal of emotional maturity for Diana's model to work for us, but for the first time in long time, I see a possible way forward. May God grant us the grace we need to do his will, to let his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
(Much more could be said about the terms "Intentional" vs. "Established." Check out Diana's website at www.practicingcongregations.org. I just picked up her new book Christianity for the Rest of Us. I haven't read it yet, but will share more from it as I dive into it. I would also recommend The Practicing Congregation, which I have read. I know Gavin blogged through this book at one point, but I couldn't find it in his archives.)