Practicing Congregations: New Books on Church Renewal

I was raised in a church-going family, for which I am forever grateful. I am thankful to God that my parents where active in Grace EUB in Hanover, Pennsylvania; similarly, my wife’s parents were both leaders of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Highspire, Pennsylvania. In my Pittsburgh years as a young man, I was on staff of a Presbyterian church, having the privilege of working with extraordinary pastors and mentors I still think of often. I am happy to say, without blush, as the saying goes, "some of my best friends" are pastors. In our daily grind here at the bookstore, we sell books and supplies to congregational leaders, consult with Christian educators, and hang out with church folk of all stripes. We hope our store is seen as a good place to help congregations. From our love of kids books that can be used in spiritual formation to our hopes for helping churches become more intentional about community, from our huge section of books about liturgy and worship to a hefty youth ministry selection, we would never want to be seen as disinterested in churches or their programs. We have a high ecclesiology and, to be candid, recognize that congregations are among out best customers.

For the record, it concerns me that some of my younger friends are not in love with the church. (And it perplexes me that apparently a lot of people support the weirdness in the new George Barna book, Revolution, which seems to minimize the role of the church.) While bigger books may be necessary to counter this foolishness, at least Joshua Harris’ very small book, Stop Dating the Church can be given out to teens and collegiates; Philip Yancey’s little classic The Church, Why Bother? is a must-read. And few weeks go by where we don’t mention to somebody Marva Dawn’s great book Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be Church. (Her book on children in the church, Is It a Lost Cause: Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children is a handy way into a radical ecclesiology where all are embraced, including parents and kids.) We absolutely love John Stackhouse’s great little collection of short pieces on church, simply called The Church (and once again want to remind you of his chapter on why congregations should support indie booksellers. Hear, hear!) All of these are easy to read and delightfully solid. One friend recommends Peter Scassero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church (the title alone is worth pondering) which reminds me of the delightful and convicting book, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come As You Are Culture in Your Church by John Burke. I’ve said for decades that my favorite book on the church is Howard Snyder’s classic Community of the King, which explore themes I will note below.

Still, it is true that our bookstore (like most general-market bookstores) stock more than just books about church life and I don’t often review books on this topic here. I don’t need to fully re-hash our H&M song about God s reign being embodied by folks who have discovered the spirituality of the ordinary and who, captured by the vision of calling, live out the implications of the Lordship of Christ across the whole of life, even in public life. Twenty-plus years of promoting "whole life discipleship" and the "transforming vision" of a Christian worldview, calling for Christ-honoring cultural reformation and just social transformation, and it is still typical for days and days to go by without having anyone—local customers or emailers—ask about a Christian view of work, politics, art, technology, business or science. Even obvious Biblical concerns that seem to fall a bit outside of the typical terrain of most Christian Retailers, like God’s concern for the poor, or Christ’s call to be peacemakers, or the vexing matters of racial justice or world missions—are rarely inquired after. Oddly, though, except at some Christian ed conferences or the occasional pastor’s retreat, we rarely sell books on congregational life and church stuff, either. It seems pretty evident that more personalistic pietism, inner issues, and self-help inspirational guides trump concern for both public life and church life. Given the way the sacred versus secular dualism deforms our worldview, causing us to think that God disapproves of typical, mundane or worldly issues but favors what most people see as "religious life"—see Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth for one good study of how this works, if you are unfamiliar with this analysis— one would think that at least churchy stuff would still be of interest. Apparently not.

I don’t mean to back off our big hope of being a bookstore that is more like a typical bookstore than a church supply house or "Christian Retailer." We still want to sell books on science and sex, literature and liturgy, ecology and engineering, work and war, politics and poetry, but I want to write again, now, about new books on church life. The Kingdom of God is more than the church but, as I sometimes diagram it, the local church is surely the hub of a Kingdom wheel. The broad circumference of the wheel may be God’s Kingdom coming on Earth, the renewal of all creation, and the various spokes delineate various spheres being touched by Christ’s redemption—economics, politics, family life, education, science, media. But at the center of the Kingdom, the scattered laity are gathered, nurtured by word and sacrament and called into life together. We are, as Yoder or Barth put it, firstly against the world so we may be for the world. Robust and vibrant congregational life is essential for Kingdom living, even if our time in the sanctuary and parish hall doesn’t exhaust our Kingdom duties. This is best expressed, I think, in The Community of the King by Howard Snyder. Re-issued a few years ago by Inter-Varsity Press, it should be in every church library and well-used by anyone who wants to get at the relationship between church and kingdom.

And, so, for the sake of the restoration of the whole creation, here are seven important new books on the local congregation and how best to be effective and faithful in our churches. There are oodles of books for parish life, many quite helpful, but I’m quite taken by these. You ought to read some of this kind of writing every so often (if you are a congregational leader, you need to study up; if you aren’t, all the more reason why you should learn and be motivated by this whole field of research. Perhaps God will call you to a season of working for congregational renewal wherever you attend.) Buy‛em for your pastor, at least…

The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church Diana Butler Bass (Alban Institute) $17.00 I’ve mentioned this book before, and have raved about her good memoirs, Strength for the Journey and Broken We Kneel. She is a wonderful and important writer and we are pleased to know her a bit. As Loren Mead writes in his forward, "The Practicing Congregation explodes the simplicity of the liberal-conservative polarization we have lived with for decades, and proposes new ways of configuring the dynamics that drive religious life among us today and that are shaping our institutional frameworks…Bass gives us new categories…In the push-and-pull-of the power of tradition and the impulse for change, she suggests that perhaps there are congregations attempting to move beyond’establishment’ to’intentionality.’" Yes, she is a scholar of this field, and has done the serious research, and knows the nomenclature. But she is also a graceful writer and thinker, and this is truly a wonderful little book. She has a major new book coming in the fall of 2006 from Harper, which will follow up these themes even more.

Bass is convinced that older visions of the spiritual life within authentic congregations can be revived/rediscovered in the mainline churches, and shows how it is happening. She tells of the intentional practices that are seen in (and are themselves helping to shape) robust congregations. This is not a new program or trendy plan. It is a rich and thoughtful invitation to consider how classic disciplines and practices can shape our lives. Rich books like this call forth rich blurbs, and the raves on this one have been significant. Listen to Lauren Winner: "…to the story of mainline transformation, Bass brings her scholarly authority, her pilgrim’s passion, and her lively prose. This is an eye-opening book, a buoyant book. It tells a new story, and anyone interested in the present or future of the Christian church should read it."

Or, as Tim Shapiro (director of a church researching center) says, "Bass describes a stunning congregational design that draws from a time-honored sketch…plans drawn long ago need not be discarded. They can be built upon. This excellent book shows how."

From working in soup kitchens to walking labyrinths, discovering renewed interest in liturgy or being more intentional about community, spiritual practices such as these are common to the most vibrant mainline churches. (Interestingly, Diana quipped at a conference last fall, that, without the tattoos and body piercings, these are not all that dissimilar to the ways of church being explored among the postmodern emergent communities.) This is a wonderful witness against the rather flat and cliched notions found in the popular press about the demise of the mainline churches. It is a very important book.

From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking (Alban Institute) $18.00 Bass has been directing the Project on Congregational Intentional Practice, a Lilly Endowment funded study of mainline Protestant vitality and this collection tells of some of the churches she visited, each in the words of one of their own church leaders. Drawing on various denominations, these narratives are provocative, insightful, exciting, humbling…Each tells of how they live out classic disciplines and show the kind of vision for renewed congregational life described in The Practicing Congregation. Most of the chapters tell of a particular strength of a particular congregation, although these helpful glimpses illustrate that real churches rarely have "easy answers" or "miracle cures." From a chapter on "Taking Risks" to one on "Engaging Creativity," from "Enlarging Hospitality" to "Saying Yes & Saying No", these are useful testimonials, making a very helpful set of stories.

Here is what Diana wrote in a concluding essay: Although the pastors sharing these stories had never met, we noticed that certain common themes were threaded throughout their accounts of congregational change. In every case, leaders practiced discernment by paying attention to cultural change, listening to the voices of the congregation, and relating the biblical story of God’s call to the gathered community. The practice of hospitality looms large in the narratives as congregations pondered the question of how to welcome an array of strangers in their midst. In addition, emotive and participatory worship practices emerge as key to vital faith communities. The triad of those practices—discernment, hospitality, and worship—laid the foundation of congregational spiritual depth and vitality. Through the essays, we heard what we as researchers had already witnessed in our study: intentional engagement with Christian tradition as embodied in faith practices fostered a renewed sense of identity and mission in congregations. At first, we called such churches "practicing congregations," but increasingly, we have come to think of them as "pilgrimage congregations," communities of Christian practice moving towards the ultimate goal of knowing God.  She continues to tell of the ways these congregations touched the lives of spiritual nomads, enfolding them into communities of pilgrimage. Although I could say it of many of the chapters, this piece alone is nearly worth the price of the whole book.

Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power N. Graham Standish (Alban Institute) $18.00 Graham is a friend of H&M and we are glad to commend his newest book, as we have his others. He is a contributor to the above-mentioned From Nomads to Pilgrims where he tells of his work at Calvin Presbyterian Church just west of Pittsburgh. His earlier books are about spirituality and formation, a field in which he is well known. With mystics like Kent Groff offering endorsements, you might imagine that this is a book for those who want congregations to be sacred schools for some kind of old monasticism. Well, yes, but mostly no. As the sub-title puts it, Rev. Standish shows how a rather ordinary congregation can develop robust purpose, through the power and presence of God s Spirit in their midst. As in his ministry, Graham happily draws from sources from across the theological spectrum (I don’t know if this is the first Alban book to cite Catholic scholar Adrian Van Kaam; I suspect it is the first to draw favorably from The Purpose Driven Life or Henry Blackaby or Corrie Ten Boom.) Fluent in approaches as diverse as "Natural Church Development" and the team-based work of George Cladis, he is, still, at heart, a poet and mystic. (Ahh, anybody that quotes Annie Dillard next to this stuff is himself surely a blessed writer!) McLaren calls this book "a masterpiece. " Pastor of a large Presbyterian church, Stan Ott writes a sweet forward. Diana Butler Bass writes that he "points the way of hope. " With this many different folks affirming it, you don t have to take our word for it. This book is a blessing.

What s Theology Got To Do With It? Convictions, Vitality and the Church Anthony B. Robinson (Alban Institute) $18.00 It is well known that most theologically conservative churches emphasize basic theological education; as many commonly put it, with thanks to Paul Little, they want their members to "know what you believe and why you believe it. " Earlier on the day I wrote this, I showed a new book on a classic theological writer to two different mainline pastors (in the tradition of this theologian.) Both rolled their eyes, suggesting that such academic stuff would never fly in their congregations. (They brush off these serious books within their own tradition even as they look down their noses at our local evangelical community church which easily orders twice as many books from us as do both their mainline churches combined. In my experience, the ethos of learning is vibrant in most evangelical churches while it is not in most mainline churches.) I don’t think this episode was merely incidental: my mainline pastor friends need Tony Robinson’s new book! And they need it now!

We sold bunches of Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregations (perhaps our best selling in this category last year) and we are excited about his new commentary on Acts, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, both published by Eerdmans. What s Theology Got To Do With It? though, is very, very important, and does what needs doing: it offers for parish study a primer on grand theological matters. It not only maintains that vital congregations must be theologically literate, but shows how pastors can take up their calling to lead theological conversations, helping congregations become authentic "learning communities." This is nearly a one-of-a-kind resource (complete with thoughtful questions for reflection or discussion.) Why we haven’t seen a book like this before is beyond me, and many will be grateful to have just such a guide. Designed mostly for mainline churches, it seems to me that those from other traditions could benefit as well. Clearly, good theologizing is part of the task of the mature church, and serious Christian leaders will need to be gentle but firm in moving in this way. Robinson is an imprint ally for your work.

The Missional Church Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk (Jossey-Basss) $23.95 Roxburgh has been a major leader in the movement recently calling for a "missional church. " Helping church to be about the reign of God, creating discussion about how modernist and liberal theology and a Christendom model of culture has sidelined the mainline, this movement has been fresh, innovative, culturally savvy, and very important.

If any movement or school of thought is helping renew the typical mainline congregation, deepen the evangelical church, or provide focus for the emergent congregation, it is this missional stuff. Darryl Gruder wrote the seminal book, The Missional Church, which has been followed by a couple volumes (including some from the "Gospel and Our Culture Network," the most recent of which is the very helpful collection of stories of missional churches, Treasures in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness edited by Lois Barrett.)

I admit to being a bit skeptical about this new leadership book. Can such a guide even begin to get at the theological maturity and cultural discernment that has followed Gruder’s work? Can influences from Polanyi to Newbegin, MacIntyre to Hauerwas, neo-Calvinism to rediscovered Anabaptism, postmodern concerns, and critiques of globalization— can this diverse missional stew be the basis for thinking about leadership? You read the book and tell me. I think this is essential stuff, smart and visionary. As Sharon Parks put it in her own new book (about the innovative and effective teaching work of Ron Heifetz at Harvard "leadership can be taught." Let’s hope missional leadership can be taught, that strategic change can happen as congregations see themselves taking up God’s purposes in the world. If it can be, Roxburgh and Romanuk will have helped show us the way.

The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism and Other Modern Maladies David E. Fitch (Baker) $14.99 This book covers more ground than some titles twice the price. I haven t fully finished this yet, but it has surely created much pondering and conversation around here. Large on the back of the book, and large over the whole project, is "toward a postmodern evangelical ecclesiology. " Dr. Fitch is indeed a bone fide evangelical, working as a church planter in the C&MA denomination. He also is widely read, rooted in classic, older theology, moving his thinking along the lines (at least) of the missional church folk, influenced a bit by postmodern emergent folks, and perhaps similar to "radical orthodoxy. " Insisting that evangelicalism itself, with its ethos of choice and change, and its penchant for techniques, has eroded its own authority, he thinks that contemporary renewal movements need to reclaim the centrality of the local congregation. His scholarly assessments—more like highbrow rants, which is befitting such a prophetic book—run towards a recovery of traditional practices and deeper and more artistic liturgy and more intentional body life.

Pastor Fitch bravely tilts at a lot of windmills, aiming at how modernist consumerism has enthroned "the individual" making older notions of authority and tradition and place nearly incomprehensible to contemporary folks. He does a good job, mostly (although his jibe against Ron Sider being too capitalist would be lost on most folks, especially folks that actually are involved in actual service to and with the poor.) I liked his powerful critique of the "triumph of the therapeutic" which his blasts; again, I wonder how real, deeply Christian counselors, will respond.

That evangelicals have been particularly complicit in endorsing spiffy modernity and its erosion of a Christian worldview should give mainline Protestants no room to be glib, since liberal theology is a grand exercise in capitulation to the spirit of the age. Perhaps a casual reading of Fitch may cause us to wonder why we not all ought to be Roman or Orthodox. No matter what tradition or denomination, we are all in this 21st century world, so for us to be more discerning in our adopting modern methods, and to lament our relinquishing important church doctrines and functions, will surely be an important part of the conversations in renewing vital churches. Serious, thoughtful, imaginative, The Great Giveaway provides a good summary of what many are saying these days, and reminds us of the need to say in ever more accessible ways. Read, especially in tangent with the punchy, Biblical exegesis of a book like Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, this anti-modernist analysis may help us truly be what we are called to be.

Who Are You To Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith Dale Rosenberger (Brazos) $16.99 My goodness, a book that truly covers new ground, a title unlike anything I’ve seen in 25 years or more. (Any old-time bookman or bookwomen want to correct me on this?) "The issue of legitimate pastoral author, " Anthony Robinson writes, "is right at the center of so many crucial matters: pastoral identity, preaching and teaching, church leadership, and the witness of the church in this culture and this time. " Marva Dawn calls this book "brilliantly relevant" and Martin Copenhaver says "…this important book (is) full of insight, passion, and wit…" Rosenberger is a UCC pastor and he places gospel values and gospel ways right into this discussion; not unlike the above mentioned book, he asks not what is relevant or modern or customary or popular, but asks how the Triune God of Biblical revelation informs us. Bracing and provocative, practical and timely, I am amazed this book isn t being talked about all over town. Rev. Rosenberger’s call to root our understanding of our churches, our structures, our relationships, and our views of pastoral authority within the unfolding Biblical story is, of course, what must be said. That he says it so well, and brings in so many different topics and excursions, makes this a wonderful book to work through, alone, among friends, or, dare I say it, with your pastor. Who says so? I do for one. Thanks for allowing me to do so, knowing that some readers take our suggestions warmly. I do not take this writerly authority lightly.