Tuesday, December 05, 2006

a way forward?

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.)


Brian said...

Hi Jason,
Good to be with you this week.
I kind of sped-read your posts and appreciated your take on DBB's reflections and ideas.
Keeping in mind that I did not read in depth, I have a question:
You mention that you are an "evangelical" who wants "to work side by side with my centrist and liberal brothers and sisters." As a person who sees himself as a liberal/progressive with centrist tendencies (huh?) I also consider myself an evangelical in a kerygmatic sense without the polital baggage that sometimes goes along with it. Some see being an evangelical and liberal/centrist as a contradiction. You? Please, help me understand what you mean by your statement.
Shalom my brother,
Brian Caughlan

Dana said...

In response to your questions: 1) Sometimes - I think there are some issues that are important not to compromise on. 3) Definitely. 2) ... I think when God wants to do cool stuff, He likes to get people involved. So, yes, but with limits based on human faithfulness.

Anyway... this sounds interesting and I would like to hear more about the many ideas that're floating around in your head. :)

Jason Woolever said...

yo brian! great to see you on the blogosphere. i was happy to meet up with another blogger in our conference. from what i can tell, not many igrc clergy blog.

if you stroll down on my blog, you'll see a post i did a couple of days ago called "what is 'an evangelical.'"

i want to work with others from different theological viewpoints, because i understand it to be part of my call from God to minister in this denomination.

i don't really like the way that religious views get lumped into a particular political scheme, so in my mind you can be whatever you want politically and be an evangelical. you'll find my understanding of what 'an evangelical is on that post i referred to. let me know where you match up and where you don't (and i'll still be your friend if its not in many places.)

Jason Woolever said...

hey dana, thanks for wanting to know what's floating around in my head. i've paid people hundreds of dollars an hour to do that, and you're offering to do it for free (i think?).

gavin richardson said...

it's under my "books" category.. which reminds me.. i don't know if i ever finished the chapter by chapter breakdown & comparison to "postmodern parish" by jim kitchens.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,

1)IMHO, Doctrine matters. The Anglican Communion used to be able to hold together and was a example of the this principle. Now the Anglican Communion is tearing itself apart over doctrine, biblical authority, and church practice (tradition).

Those in the UMC that discard the articles of religion, the creeds, and doctrine derived from the standard sermons preach another gospel. We need unity in the essentials. I don't know how I could get past this.

2) we turn Established churches into Intentional churches with God's help? Most definitely with the help of the Holy Spirit. (I am making an assumption that this church still believes in a triune God with the Holy Spirit as the helper. (If we don't have the Holy Spirit, we just have social club.)

3) Can we humbly focus on building Intentional churches without demonizing folks of on the other end ... I have no clue on how to do this and be true to my own witness.

Do we rewrite the Articles of Religion? Just imagine the following: (Some of these are a tad silly, we have had are share of mean spirited lately... but hey, England recognized 'Jedi Knights as a religion!)


Jason, Think of the cool robes, a landspeeder, and if needed a light saber.

"We therefore are calling upon the United Nations Association to change November 16 to the UN Interstellar Day of Tolerance, to reflect the religious make-up of our twenty-first century civilisation. Tolerance is about respecting difference where ever it lies, including other galaxies. Please don't exclude us from your important work. May the Force be with you."

I'm a former Roman Catholic, I don't like Wesley's perjoratives "Romanish", "Popish", "Popery". They offend me and I feel excluded.


I'm a former Calvinist, I don't like the UMC & Welsey referring to the doctrine of predestination as "repugnant" and a "doctrine of devils". I'm offended and I feel excluded.


I just to the UMC come for the donuts and coffee. The music is pretty good, I wish they would something about getting more confortable seating.


I really don't like the color red. The UMC should get rid of all these red hymnals, lectionaries, and bibles. They should all be black leather. That would be way cool!


For the UMC to be really progressive, they should have RUSH (Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neal Peart) do a rewrite of the UMC hymnal. That would rock!


I don't like Welch's grape juice. If its good, it has to be Smuckers.


If you see the Buddha on the road, offer him UMC ordination.

If you're liberal and can't tell a joke right, you get stuck in the Senate instead of the Oval Office.


John Flores
Frisco, Texas

Jason Woolever said...

Hey John, what would you suggest is the way forward, assuming that we would never be able to convice everyone else to become evangelicals? should we split off and join/start another denomination?

JD said...


My comments to your questions:

1.) This may be a paradoxal oxymoron (used those words cause they sounded really smart). I am unsure how you can focus on doctrine and the standards of scripture that it maintains and have different interpretations. We have blogged long and hard about this the last week over at
John's blog
, so I will not delve. I just find it complex to think that one can say they conform to a doctrine with a different interpretation of the doctrine and still consider one's self part of the larger congregation in which they participate. There are aspects of scripture that are open for debate, but there are some things that just are, plain and simple. As John said, sometimes, for us to follow true orthodoxy, we isolate. Finding the balance without compromising the truth is going to always be difficult.

2.) I agree with John and take it one step further, they Bible tells me so, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13 (NKJV) Any time that we do not involve God in something directly related to Him, we will fail.

3.) Dag nabit, I have to agree with John again on this one. Being true to scripture and witness makes it hard to reach out to those churches that are a little more "liberal" (political leaning) in their teachings. No, John and I do not share a brain.

Thanks for sharing your comments on your meeting. I will probably forward this to our evangelization minister at church to get her thinking about things while we go through the transition we are going through.


Jason Woolever said...

Hey JD. I agree with you and John on most all matters of theology.

I'm trying to figure out if there is a way to move forward, if (and it looks it will be this way) we will never, ever agree doctrinally with our liberal bros and sises.

Eventually, separation may be the only option left if we can't find something to unite behind. Do you think we will be able to unite? Is it possible? Can we unite behind something like Intentionality without both sides getting a labotomy?

JD said...

I think that politics and religion have become more intertwined than anyone wants to admit (basis for the monster post I am working on). Unless we can each "reach out, touch faith" (quoting Depeche Mode again), we will never get past this divide. I think, when you discuss the issues from a scriptural perspective, “What was Jesus and the Holy Spirit trying to say here,” you can agree. To get there, giving up a part of one's "self," is the hard part. Each side has to be willing to put aside preconceived notions of the other and really, and I mean really, be willing to have an honest discussion. I also see it as a logic vs emotion issue. I have the faith I have because to me, it is logical. A liberal has the faith that they have, because to them, it is emotional. IMHO…

For example, I disagree with Jonathan about pacifism, first, from a political standpoint, and secondly, because of a logical one. But if I throw aside the politics, and open my heart to Jesus' message, I can better understand Jonathan's viewpoint. I may ultimately never agree with him, but from a personal relationship with God, that is not a "deal breaker", unless I am a Hitlerite war monger. Since I do not see it as a "deal breaker," it is something that I am willing to compromise on because it does not lessen my faith or ability to share my faith. This allows me to work together for a common goal for Christ and not tear down my “co-worker” in Christ.

Hope that makes some sense. I am at lunch and trying to pour out my thoughts as quick as possible.


Jason Woolever said...

I think I get ya. You're definitely a man who has his priorities straight. Blogging is more important than food when you're hungry!