In 2002, the Lilly Endowment awarded me a grant to study the role of Christian practices in relation to congregational vitality. My team speculated that a new intentionality around practices such as hospitality, prayer, healing, discernment, and justice would foster renewed life in mainline Protestant churches.
Since the beginning, the Alban Institute supported this research and published its findings so that clergy could be part of an emerging conversation on the relationship between spiritual vibrancy and Christian practices. In 2004, Alban published The Practicing Congregation, a short book outlining the thesis and theory of the project. In the years since The Practicing Congregation, a myriad of clergy groups, seminaries, and denominational leaders have engaged me to speak about the role of Christian practices in transforming their institutions.
But The Practicing Congregation was about more than practices–it also proposed that practices intertwined with tradition in an intentional engagement with history. Practices are what we do; tradition is why we do it. Vibrant churches were not only communities of practice, but they were also communities of memory. In the project, the vast majority of study congregations had not only engaged practices but they had developed a profound interest in the Christian past as a resource for practicing their faith. They were “re-traditioning” their congregations. Practices and tradition worked together to foster vitality.
When I asked study participants about this, many responded by saying things like, “Well, I like history but I really don’t know much about it.” Pastors noted that their congregations had relatively “thin” memories of the Christian past. In a quest for serious practice, they were searching history anew–but often found few resources to help in a journey to reintroduce a congregation to history in open and engaging ways. As one pastor told me, “You know, my favorite subject in seminary was church history but I’ve never been able to figure out what to do with it in the parish.”
I was never able to forget that pastor’s comment. She helped me see a spiritual need–contemporary Christians would benefit from a usable history of Christianity that linked meaningful practices to engaging stories of the past. Thus, as a direct result of my project on practices, I began to write a church history. And a new book was born: A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, just published by HarperOne.
Alban readers who have followed my research over the last decade will recognize the essential themes of intentional practice and re-traditioning that mark my work throughout the new book–as well as my interest to develop a new faith vocabulary that moves beyond divisive categories of “liberal” and “conservative.” Instead of simply describing the changes in congregations, A People’s History is intended to guide you and your congregations on a journey into a past that will open your way to a more hopeful future.
Here is a short excerpt from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story
Christianity as Spiritual Architecture
In 2007, I attended a meeting where some clergy spent a good deal of time bashing the institutional church and organized religion, saying how outmoded, irrelevant, and wasteful it is. The conversation surprised me. After all, they were clergy and not a group of friends at Starbucks!
In an age when people claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” it is fashionable to downplay institutions in favor of a direct experience of the divine. Yet, as theologian Larry Rasmussen notes, structure answers an essential question, and one that was quite poignant for medieval Christians: “How do we order life together in a world with a nasty tendency to fall apart?” Without some sort of architecture, spirituality probably cannot be sustained over time or taught to successive generations. At its best, structure carries life-giving wisdom beyond our immediate experience and limited individual memory.
Although contemporary people often think of architecture as static or perhaps stifling, buildings often “live.” Medieval Christians attempted to translate their spiritual sensibilities into some sort of structure that would communicate life–even long after the builders died. Chartres Cathedral would not exist if not for the two great institutions of the Middle Ages–the monastery and the parish church.
To medieval people, church buildings expressed their spirituality–their visions, virtues, and dreams of God. Church buildings were the geography of paradise, the actual location where God’s reign of beauty and justice could be experienced. Buildings, and the arts and liturgies therein, demonstrated the mysterious interweavings of the worlds, the playful combination of this world and the one beyond. Holiness was translated into visible structures where people might see, touch, and feel the beauty of God. Medieval builders captured this sense, creating sacred spaces that were both spiritually unpredictable and theologically structured at the same time.
Because the church building was holy geography, communities spend enormous resources of time, money, and talent constructing church buildings; the church stood as both a location of paradise and an icon of communal identity. Medieval people associated the actual building with God’s reign and were ferociously protective of their churches. In the 1130s, Peter of Bruis, a French preacher, promoted the idea that God had no use for church buildings. To him they interfered with the purity and simplicity of faith. Peter urged Christians in the town of Saint-Gilles to give up their church and burn its ornaments, including its crosses, dramatically illustrating the point by lighting a pyre. The people of Saint-Gilles, whose church was a major pilgrimage site, responded by tossing poor Peter on his own bonfire.
Excerpt copyright © 2009 by Diana Butler Bass, from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. Used by permission of HarperOne. Published by HarperOne, you can find A People’s History of Christianity at your local bookseller or amazon.com. To learn more about the work of Diana Butler Bass, visit www.dianabutlerbass.com. Diana is currently working on a new edition of The Practicing Congregation, which will be published by Alban in late 2009.
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
by Diana Butler Bass
Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing
by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to vitality-retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.
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