Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us
A Conversation with the Author
By Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Editor, Christian Feminism Today
“That’s a good question,” she said, laughing, as we talked by phone in May, 2007. She explained that the title came from a comment made during her research on spiritual vitality in mainline churches. “One of the interview questions I asked people was, ‘If your church wasn’t named (fill in the blank), what would it be called?’ I was trying to get people to help me understand the identity of their congregation. In one church, one person replied, ‘That’s easy. We’d be the church for the people who got kicked out of the rest of them!’ And then someone else said, ‘That’s too long to put on the sign! I’d just put, Church for the Rest of Us out on the sign.’”
Diana said she knew right then she would use that phrase somewhere in the title. “It evokes the idea of people who are uncomfortable in what seems to be the dominant strand of churches right now—fairly conservative, megachurches, etc. We interviewed a number of former Roman Catholics who felt uncomfortable with what was going on in their tradition, too. And here are these mainline churches that serve people who don’t get much press—people who are not dogmatic in any way—looking for more open forms of community.” She said the kind of people who were discovering a home in the mainline churches (or what she calls “brand name” churches —Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, and the like) were often people with complex lives—“things like divorces and women who felt oppressed by other religious structures” and who had questions and yearnings that did not fit with the absolute certainty, exclusivism, and judgmentalism they perceived to be characteristic of so many religious groups that are prominently featured in the media today.
In her book, Diana points out that many people in her study expressed “how hard it was to share their faith because the media had conflated ‘Christian’ with ‘fundamentalist,’ leaving them bereft of a public vocabulary to talk about their beliefs” (p. 49). I told her she was describing the feelings of many EEWC members who have been deeply wounded by their experiences in conservative churches. She wasn’t surprised by my comment and said it was just such people, “who had been hurt by more narrow forms of religion but who didn’t want to abandon the idea of real Christian community altogether, [who] were providing the creative engine in many of the congregations we studied.”
Just as some behavioral scientists have moved from asking why some people lack joy and hope and are studying instead the characteristics of happyindividuals and flourishing marriages, Diana set out to discover the characteristics of churches that are strong and vibrant, rather than asking why some churches seem to be dying. Her three-year ethnographic research project, “the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice,” was funded by the Lilly Endowment, and was based on the simple thesis that “mainline congregations that intentionally, purposefully, deliberately, by choice engaged in Christian practices would be vital congregations. Paying attention to what you’re doing actually increases commitment among adherents,” she explained, “and even increases what I thought would be the case (and which was the case) the attractiveness of a community as an evangelistic or mission community.” She laughed. “The hypothesis was proved! It’s not rocket science.” She said that someone told her, ‘This is one of the simplest theses I’ve ever heard for a project.” And yet it had never been tested.
I asked her about the commonly held belief that conservative churches are thriving because of their particular doctrines, whereas mainline churches are declining because they have moved away from these doctrines. Diana is troubled that the media continually perpetuate that idea. “The problem with that thesis is that people just accept it without looking for any counter evidence. But I don’t think that conservative churches grow because of their theological position. I think that conservative churches grow because of their commitment to helping people practice their faith in meaningful ways. And they have been a lot more overt about it than mainline churches. Now mainliners are figuring out, hey, we have practices, too, and our practices are not ‘Bible study so that you know the answers,’ but rather our practices include ‘Bible study so that you can live into the story.’ The techniques are the same—studying Scripture—but the practices wind up being different. The evangelical community is shaping a community around a particular set of beliefs, and so shaping community would be the actual practice in that Bible study technique. But with the more liberal churches, you mention Bible study and they are looking to live into the story. There is the practice of what I would call theological reflection, sort of an open-ended practice of being able to touch the life of the narrative. So these practices may look the same and the techniques may be kind of the same, but the actual undergirding practices are different—the intentions in them are different.”
She lamented the lack of a sociological survey-taking instrument that would measure the qualities she found that marked congregational vitality, “qualities such as hospitality, discernment, theological reflection, justice —all the things that mainline churches are strongest at.” Instead, most survey instruments employed by pollsters and other researchers use “measures that reflect evangelical and fundamentalist piety” in the questions they ask —questions about how frequently church services are attended, how often one prays, whether one invites others to church, attends Bible study groups, and so on. Thus evangelical churches ace the test, whereas even the most vital mainline churches might come out with only a C. “If we’re trying to measure vitality, what we’ve done is privileged one vision of what vitality means,” Diana said. “No wonder the reporters are confused! There’s no doubt in my mind that all of the major survey instruments privilege the practices of more conservative religious communities, and they don’t ‘get’ what these other kinds of communities do with regularity and depth. [Those qualities] are just absent; so, of course, you’re going to fail the test if the teacher doesn’t ask the right questions.”
The research on which Diana’s book was based was qualitative, not quantitative. She was trying to find what made some mainline churches thrive and what they were like, rather than trying to learn what percentage of churches could be classified as vibrant. Nor was she looking for statistics that measured successful congregations by their size. (Churches she studied ranged from 35 to 2,500 members.) “All of the study churches rejected standard church-growth strategies,” she writes in her book (p.53). They were not built around such tactics as “niche marketing, sophisticated programming, capital campaigns, and architectural plans.” Rather, through interviews, open-ended surveys, and on-site visits, she and her research associate, social scientist Joseph Stewart-Sicking, closely examined the life of “fifty mainline congregations [representing six denominations] in which new things appeared to be happening, and where people were growing deeper and experiencing a new sense of identity by intentionally engaging in Christian practices” (p.5). This intentionality in engaging in Christian practices was common to all the vital congregations.
People often think of Christian practices solely in terms of personal devotional disciplines, such as engaging in private prayer, reading the Bible, meditating, fasting, and other ways of drawing close to God and fostering spiritual growth for the individual. And such personal practices were indeed important in the congregations Diana studied. But she found an emphasis on Christian practices not only in a solo sense but also in community. And in addition to individual and group devotional practices, these congregations emphasized practices of another kind, namely, moral and ethical practices that reach out to others in love—practices such as hospitality, healing, forgiveness, and seeking justice.
After sorting through the thousands of pages of data emerging from the research, Diana was able to determine what major spiritual practices distinguished these congregations. She compiled them into what she called “ten signposts of renewal” and devoted a chapter to each of them. Every one of these chapters pulsates with life and has flesh and blood examples of how these renewal signs are being followed in the churches she studied. For people of faith who are not content to be “spiritual tourists” but instead see themselves as “spiritual pilgrims,” she lists these signposts:
Discernment—Listening for Truth
Contemplation—Open for Prayer
Testimony—Talking the Walk
Justice—Engaging the Powers
Beauty—Touching the Divine
The Top Three
I told Diana I thought it was significant that the spiritual practices that came out at the top were hospitality, diversity, and reflection. “I love it!” she responded enthusiastically, not hiding her obvious delight in discovering the importance of these qualities as markers of vital congregational life.
“People often ask me what they can do to help their churches along this pathway, and in my mind it’s to practice hospitality,” she said. “To really know what it is, to study it, to become knowledgeable about what the tradition teaches about it—and to do it. Hospitality is the kind of practice that transforms both the person who receives the hospitality and the person who gives it. And there wasn’t a church in this study who didn’t know that. They had all engaged in hospitality in very meaningful ways, and it had changed who they were.”
Diana says that the likelihood of undergoing such an identity change is “part of the risk of hospitality” and illustrated her point with the example of the Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal) in Washington, DC. For that church, “asking the question, ‘To whom can we offer hospitality?’ was a no-brainer. They had to trip over homeless people on their way into the building! Some of these same people are now on various boards of the church. People who are homeless are not just recipients of a social service. They are members of the community. It took [church members] about ten years to understand that. But when they did, it created an entirely different dynamic in the church.”
She tells another story of a church that “found they had to practice hospitality not by looking outside the building but by looking inside the building.” She said the First Church in Cambridge, MA. “an old, brainy Congregational Church with an out lesbian minister—a nice stable UCC church, not declining—in 2000 asked themselves, ‘Is this all there is? We still feel there is some spiritual place we need to go, and we don’t know what it is.’” They called in a consultant who held a parish workday and furnished newsprint and art supplies to the surprised 150 or so people in attendance, instructing them to depict “all the things that were meaningful about their church—anything to tell the story of this congregation.” The consultant then ask them to talk about the drawings they had posted on the wall. “They told stories about the founding of the congregation, the great Puritan forebears, the people who preached fabulous sermons from the pulpit protesting the Vietnam war, and being on the side of women’s rights in the 19th century, members of the church who were Pulitzer Prize winners, and on and on and on—this incredible history of social action and justice and intellectual endeavor. And finally one person said, ‘But where are the children?’ And they looked around and realized they had not drawn a single picture of a child.” Diana continued, “At that point, the minister reported to me, ‘We realized how adult-centric we had been.’ And then they began to think, what does it mean for a congregation to offer hospitality to their own children? That began a three-or-four-year process in which they redid the entire worship and Christian formation life of that church. And by doing that, the whole system has done nothing but deepen spiritually, and it’s a growing congregation.”
“So the story of hospitality is asking, Who are the strangers? And what do we do to welcome those people? Sometimes the strangers are going to be homeless people you trip over on your way into the church, and other times they might be the elderly, they might be your children, they might be women. They might be anybody. You don’t know who those strangers are until you stop to look.”
I then asked Diana about diversity, another of the top three spiritual practices characterizing vibrant, thriving churches.
“Well, diversity’s funny,” she replied, “because as soon as you offer hospitality, people will come. And then you’ve got to figure out what to do with them! So [the link between hospitality and diversity] made sense to me. It was really about making space in the structures and systems of the congregation for those people who showed up once you figured out how to offer hospitality. And real hospitality always welcomes people who are different from you.”
I pointed out that some conservative churches might welcome different people but they want to change them toward uniformity. “These churches didn’t demand that,” Diana said. She writes in her book: “I have often heard leaders of the religious right attack diversity as ‘political correctness,’ a kind of affirmative-action liberalism” and a sign that “secularism has invaded the church. . . . From their point of view, it appears that God wants us all to be the same—believe the same things, worship in the same way, and vote for the same political candidates. As a Christian, this surprises me. A Christian practice of diversity is not secular relativism. Rather, it is the active construction of a boundary-crossing community, a family bound not by blood but by love, that witnesses to the power of God’s healing in the world” (p.148).
I mentioned that some EEWC members have felt uncomfortable in some churches because of attitudes toward gay and lesbian people or because of male-centered language in worship services. Diana said there was not a single church of the fifty vital congregations she studied where a gay person would have felt uncomfortable. “In almost every congregation, we interviewed gay and/or lesbian members,” she said. “It just wasn’t a big deal. And then you move up the ladder from churches where gay people would feel welcome, to churches where gay people are in significant leadership and some are ordained.” Restrictive denominational policies had some effect so that “there were some churches where people were more quietly gay,” she said, “but I really can’t think of one congregation where if a person were known to be gay they would have any trouble at all. Diversity is part of what these churches are.”
She said she hadn’t found feminist concerns to be separated out as big issues among churches in her study. But just as having gay and lesbian members (and in some cases, gay and lesbian pastors) was normalized, so were feminist commitments and feminist theologies. One indication of feminist influence showed up in what she calls “flattened structures of leadership.” She explained that “even if they were part of a very hierarchical denomination, like the Episcopal Church, most of these congregations had reorganized their local structures so that leadership was more shared, collaborative, networked. It was all very mutual—a real strength.” She believes this is a response to feminist commitments.
Similarly, she said, “about half of the churches were very conscious about inclusive language in liturgy and theology and sermons—and public presentation of the gospel.” And although the other half used more traditional language, “there was a sense of openness attached to it, so that if someone came along and said, ‘I feel uncomfortable when I hear this language,’ the person who had been approached would probably say, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better,’ rather than getting defensive. These are communities where openness and questions were welcomed and where varieties of perspectives and diversity were not taken as issues,” Diana said. “When I think of issues, I think of things that divide congregations.” She was encouraged by what she saw, including the fact that almost all of the churches had women pastors on the staff, either as senior pastors or associates. A couple of the churches had gay or lesbian senior pastors.
Although every one of the practices Diana discussed was important in defining flourishing congregations, reflection, another of the top three, was basic. It indicated the strong intentionality of these congregations and their determination to learn, grow, and stretch both minds and hearts through thinking theologically. “The amount of books these people were reading was extraordinary,” Diana said, “and their reading lists were as diverse as the congregation. They were reading Marcus Borg and C.S. Lewis; Jack Spong and Brian McLaren. They were doing first-rate theology in Bible studies and small groups. Some churches had feminist theology reading groups.” They would refer to books on the New York Times best seller list, as well as to early theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa. “These congregations had really taken a lot of their theology and a lot of their thoughtful engagement with contemporary concerns, and they had rolled them into their lives in ways that were spiritually meaningful.”
Are These Churches Rare?
“I always feel when I am with these people that they are the very best of the mainline,” Diana said, “and I realize that not all of the mainline is doing so well.” Nobody knows how many vibrant, spiritually flourishing mainline churches like these are out there. A best guess estimate from a friend of hers at Hartford Seminary thinks “somewhere around 5 or 6 percent of mainline churches are showing some level of some of these traits. It’s a low percent,” Diana says, “and also a kind of qualified percent—some level of some of these traits.” At the same time, she sees signs of encouragement, not only in mainline Christian churches but also within “Synagogue 3000,” an emergent spirituality movement for revitalization within the Jewish community, with whom she also works.
In her book, Diana mentions three church models (p. 36): One, the “gathering of saints” model, stresses purity. “Such communities must maintain clear boundaries of who is ‘in’ (the saved) and who is ‘out’ (the unsaved).” Another, the “hospital for sinners” model, “does not emphasize personal salvation in terms of heaven and hell” but recognizes that all human beings need spiritual healing, The focus is more on this life than on eternity. “Faith is a matter of trust in God; morality is enacting God’s justice; salvation is God’s wholeness or shalom.” A third type of congregation is “a kind of Christian version of the Rotary Club, understanding the church as a religious place for social acceptability and business connections.”
Although we’re of different generations, Diana and I had similar experiences of attending “Rotary Club”-type mainline churches that left us spiritually unsatisfied in our early years, leading us to turn to evangelicalism on our own as teenagers. There we found a more lively form of Christianity and an exciting emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ. But we also ran into gender discrimination almost immediately. After the Wednesday night Bible study for highschoolers at the fundamentalist church Diana attended, the youth minister met with the boys. His wife met with the girls, and “it was all about things like how godly girls should dress on dates—sort of a dress for spiritual success,” Diana recalls. “The boys were talking about things like double predestination and the end times, so I would just go over and sit with them. At some point, I started asking questions and talking. One time, the youth minister turned to me and said, ‘It’s too bad you’re a girl. If you were a boy, you could go to seminary.’” Diana believes such questioning by young people is not terribly problematic among evangelicals. “They kind of like precocious teenagers who express an interest in church and theology.” It also wasn’t a problem when she attended an evangelical college. But after she received her Ph.D. and went back to teach at that same college, her questions were no longer welcome. “That’s when I began asking much more serious questions about gender roles and the role of tradition in the making of theology. I also began exploring liberationist interpretations. So those things really got me into serious trouble.” (You can read about it in her 2002 book, Strength for the Journey, reviewed in EEWC Update, Winter, 2003, Vol. 26, No. 4, and at eewc.com.)
Diana makes a distinction between tradition and traditionalism (“the way we’ve always done it”) in churches. One surprise she found in her research was the way vibrant mainline churches were “engaged in tradition as though tradition was not a finished act,” she said. “Instead, tradition was an open journey in which a congregation could participate. How this renewal of tradition relates to Christian practices is marvelous! Tradition doesn’t just float around disembodied. Tradition is always lived out by a community, and that’s where we get all these practices, and then the practices connect people with the traditions, those great stories and those big themes and arguments that the church has had over the last 2000 years. And so tradition and practice always live this life of mutuality as vital systems. That’s when Christianity is the strongest—when these two pieces are connected. Tradition is not a stopper or piece of art work in a museum that you’re never allowed to touch.” For Diana, tradition is the clay to be molded, the palette of colors to be worked with, not the finished statue or painting on the wall.
Ed. Note: For more information on Diana Butler Bass, visit her website at http://www.dianabutlerbass.com
Interviewer Letha Dawson Scanzoni is the editor of Christian Feminism Today and author or coauthor of nine books.
© 2007 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, volume 31, number 1, Spring (April-June) 2007