I loved Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community by Diana Butler Bass not only because I love memoir, and I love churches, and this book told her spiritual biography by way of telling of the various congregations she has been a part of, but because she seems to be a born story-teller. She tells these stories—testimonials, if you will—so passionately and with such a good eye for the good detail, that you know that it really matters. It has been noted that this book may be the only such spiritual memoir that gets at a faith journey as it is seen through the lenses of her congregational life. That this is her professional area of research–parish life and American religious culture—doesn’t hurt, either. She tells her own tale, and weaves together her important insights about the formative nature of churches, the changes in American Christianity, and her love for the people, of various sorts, that populate the congregations she describes. This truly is about faith and community, a memoir about churches. We’ve been commending it for years, and we’re glad it is available in this attractive paperback edition.
As I said a few years back, it seems to me that the very, very important Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship, which narrates her struggles with post-9-11 unbridled patriotism and nationalism in the Episcopalian congregation where she worked, and her hard decision to leave the parish over her desire to be faithful to the ways of Jesus and to resist church complicity in jingoism and war-fever, is just like one more last chapter in Strength…. It seems very similiar; part-memoir, part Christian testimony, part congregational research. I often tell folks that it is one of my favorite books, that it is one of the most important books to come out after 9-11. As we move towards a year of increasingly common conversations about faith and civic life, I’d highly, highly recommend it (even if you are not, perhaps especially if you are not, a pacifist.) It is short, elequant, and will make you think. And, I hope, it will give you courage to know that some church ladies can stand up for what they believe in, even at great cost for themselves, pulling the prophetic move off with a measure of grace and care, even as very painful decisions are made. Ever been there? This is a very good aid for the journey.
Last weekend Beth and I sold books with Diana at a large gathering of our friends from the Penn SE Conference of the UCC. I am not UCC, but they are very good to us, praying about Beth’s vertigo and giving me a chance to blab about our book promotions. Diana told some stories of her research on the best practices of mainline churches and her powerful communication of the gospel—God is alive and well in many ordinary churches, despite what the media says and despite the claim by many evangelicals that the mainline is hopeless—was thrilling. Her main research (years of travelling around visiting vibrant and mature churches of the ordinary, liberal mainline sort) is documented in the excellent, if a bit dense, paperback published by the Alban Institute, entitled The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church. (The forward is by Loren Mead, who shows up in her first book, and the afterward is by her new bud Brian McLaren; isn’t that something, a dean of mainline research, and a pastor of an indie evangelical church.) Lauren Winner has a blurb on the back and she calls it “buoyant.” It tells an important story, and it is important.
This was followed by another Alban book, a collection of several stories written by pastors who lead churches that are doing this ancient/future, new bit of classic practice in a liberal, mainline setting, thing. From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories From Practicing Congregations is edited by Diana and a colleague who worked in her Lilly-funded research. Each chapter is by a different writer, from several different denominations, and they tell of ways they’ve found renewal in the churches, by focusing on concrete Christian practices. Her long chapter there is especially good, making this a great resource to share with others. It is a great bit of inspiration for anybody who cares about American congregational life, especially within the too-often mediocre mainline.
Christianity for the Rest of Us is a book that we named, last year in our end of the year Best Books columns (here and here.) Indeed, it is one of the best of recent years. Full disclosure: I really, really like Diana, and want this book to do well, and am happy to do our little part to promote it. I care about the mainline churches, and want this book to do well. And, I think this book is a bit too often over-reactionary against evangelicals and verges on caricature, at times, which frustrated me to no end and was something I had to get over, because, as I said, I trust Diana’s vision and I care about her project. So, I got over it….she is a memoirist, after all, and has her own baggage and perspectives. Those of us who hold to conservative theology more than most of our mainline friends, and perhaps see things a bit more traditionally than she does, would still be wise to work on this great book. It provides the best glimpse into good mainline churches (without merely telling of those successful mainline churches that are successful because they are evangelical, because they are huge, because they are borrowing from the learnings of the mega-churches) and is a vision of a what I am convinced is a movement of God. And, as I said at the outset, she is a great storyteller. Some of these stories will brighten your day; others will perplex you. This is messy stuff, this business of discerning new (old?) practicies that will get ordinary neighborhood folks, who attend ordinary neighborhood churches, to start living like they believe the prayers they say. It ain’t easy, and it ain’t pretty. This book shows it all, and I am delighted to tell of it once again. That she clearly documents examples of churches that are each doing one (or more) of the top ten practices makes this a very clear work.
We have some of her books left over from the conference, so we would like to make you a deal, a deal I was counting on offering.
Get any two of Diana’s books and pick a third one free.
(The least expensive is free, of course. )
Tell us which two you want to pay for, and which one you want free.
Did you know that one Washington DC church, founded for free slaves and whites to worship together in service to the poor, was shut down by the feds in the mid-1800’s because there were Northerners and Southerners worshipping together? That that church fell into liberal theology and big money and by the early-1990’s had a huge paid choir, a huge staff, immense spiritual problems, and only a handful of parishioners, all white and upper-middle class? And did you know that a new pastor came to town, re-appropriated the old tradition of their founding mother (not the weirdo blip of a huge, powerful and monied crowd of the 1950’s, the loss of which was causing great anxieties and identity issues) and began offering eucharist on the streets of Washington DC, gathering together a robust mix of various classes, ethnicities and theological persuasions? By rejecting the civil religion of their recent past, and re-learning the practices of their earliest radical discipleship (from healing services to keeping Sabbath to public justice advocacy) this dying parish has become a lively and faithful marker of what God is doing in mainline churches in a very tough city.
This is the kind of fascinating good news that Diana Butler Bass lives to tell. Her books are useful for all of us, and, even when I find things she tells about, things said and done that I don’t quite get, I am very, very glad to be in company with this kind of a pilgrim. Maybe, with these testimonies and stories, practices and new ways, we can all take steps to make our congregations that much more fruitful and faithful. Please God, let the Spirit fall on all kinds of churches.
Strength for the Journey Jossey Bass $16.95
Broken We Kneel Jossey Bass $23.95
The Practicing Congregation Alban Institute $17
From Nomads To Pilgrims Alban Institute $18
Christianity for the Rest of Us Harper SanFransico $23.95