“Something is happening right now, but it’s not what we think,” asserted Diana Butler Bass, director of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, during Alban’s The Practicing Congregation workshop in 2004

During a time when the story about mainline Protestantism seems to be one of decline or conflict or confusion or scandal, Butler Bass argued that there is another story to be told. First, there is a significant story about what is happening outside congregations. And then there is another story about what is happening within a number of congregations.

Outside Congregations

The story about what is happening outside of congregations, Butler Bass explained, centers around detraditionalization. That term from British sociology describes a cultural shift in which traditions no longer provide meaning and authority in everyday life.

In the 1950s, if someone had a religious question, he or she might have looked to a pastor, the Bible, a theologian, an author, or a teacher—and most likely would have received a similar answer from each. Today a questioner might turn to the Internet, more than one clergyperson, Barnes and Noble, a parachurch organization, Oprah or Dr. Phil, or a new practice—and discover a variety of answers.

That change, according to Butler Bass, reflects a shift from a univocal culture—one in which people depend upon a group of authorities with a single voice—to a multivocal culture—one in which different voices contend with each other and the individual becomes the ultimate authority.

The question is not how congregations can stop this shift, which is part of the detraditionalization process, argued Butler Bass. Rather, the question is: How should congregations respond to it?

Since people are hungry for tradition, Butler Bass encouraged congregations to engage in fluidretraditioning. This response calls on congregations to notice the changes around them and find ways to work with those changes. These congregations are willing to “change the package” by innovating their forms and practices so as to introduce or reintroduce the tradition within the new package, she explained.

Inside Congregations

The story about what is happening within some congregations, said Butler Bass, involves a growing sense of vitality that is springing out of such fluid retraditioning. She described these faith communities as practicing congregations.

Rather than focus on the conservative-liberal continuum that long has been used to characterize congregations, Butler Bass is exploring what she refers to as the established-intentional continuum. She described congregations that fall closer to the established end of the continuum as engaging in a pattern of “accidental churchgoing.” Congregations that fall closer to the other end of the continuum, she explained, make use of practices to engage in “intentional churchgoing.”

Practicing congregations help people discover the language of their soul, said Butler Bass, and then help them find practices to support it. These congregation help make nomads into pilgrims, she added.

The event was part of Alban’s Conversations that Matter series of one-day workshops for congregational leaders.


Featured Resources

AL295_SMThe Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass

The conventional wisdom about mainline Protestantism maintains that it is a dying tradition, irrelevant to a postmodern society, unresponsive to change, and increasingly disconnected from its core faith tenets. In her provocative new book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are indeed changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation.

AL182_SM Connecting to God: Nurturing Spirituality through Small Groups by Corinne Ware

Although spiritual growth occurs within an individual, Ware explains that it is the calling of the congregation to be a community of support and encouragement. Indeed, it is amidst the support of a group that an individual learns how to live out personal faith. Ware provides a very practical and accessible model of spiritual formation for self-directing groups that can be led by clergy or laity.

AL236_SM Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in the Congregation by John Ackerman

People today are less interested in thinking about God while being much more interested in knowing God, observes spiritual director and author John Ackerman, who served as a parish pastor for four decades. In this insightful book, Ackerman outlines ways congregations can promote members’ spiritual growth toward a greater intimacy with God. This book is about the whole system—individuals and small groups, lay leaders and clergy, worship and education—everything we do in a congregation to form us more fully into the body of Christ and to become aware of Christ in us.