Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: Christianity After Religion

I have been following the work of Diana Butler Bass for some time now. I really enjoyed her earlier books especially Christianity for the Rest of Us and A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. She is a great writer and has the gift to take a lot of information, history, facts, figures, and data and convey them to the reader in a simple and clear manner, which sounds easier than it is! Bass holds a doctorate from Duke University and is the author of eight books and many newspaper articles, essays, and book reviews. Currently Bass travels around the country leading workshops and seminars about congregational life for both clergy and lay leaders.

Her latest book is just as good as her previous ones. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (NY: Harper, 2012) is a bird's eye view of contemporary congregational and Church life. In short, Bass' thesis is that we are now going through another type of Great Awakening or Renewal, a period not unlike the Great Awakening in the 19th century where various types of Christian groups and spiritualities started perking up: tent revivals, itinerant preachers, and so forth. Bass looks at the demise of what is mainstream "institutional" Church life and looks to the various spiritual practices that have fostered and cultivated healthy spirituality in congregations.

The book is divided into three major parts:

Part 1 The End of Religion

Part 2 A New Vision

Part 3 Awakening

Bass draws from raw data gathered from major studies such as the Pew Foundation as well as from contemporary sociological research on religious such as Robert Putnam and others. She also includes many vignettes and stories from both clergy and laity from across the country, peppering her narrative with stories from her own past. In sum, this book is a synthesis of how parish and congregational life is changing right before our eyes.

Kudos to Bass for producing such a book. I would hope that clergy, especially those of us in parishes and congregations, should read this book, even study it perhaps, looking at how our parishes and congregations are experiencing or in some cases not experiencing this Great Revival. My hunch is that many parishes are hurting: financially, socially, and spiritually. We keep on relying on old models for planting parishes, we neglect to reach out to younger adults who are more interested in community and authenticity and not so much in the Altar Guild or buying a new organ. In many sectors we are more interested in maintaining the bricks and mortar of the building rather than on cultivating a rich vibrant and robust community life.

In my community I have noticed that many of the larger older established congregations that are in the mainline Christian Church have either downsized or had to share clergy or programs, they simply cannot sustain a large physical plant with not enough income. Younger people are either not interested in joining and the current parishioners have moved away and only attend Church on Sunday. The parish is no longer, as it once was, the center of community life. No longer are people tied to a particular parish for their spiritual needs. There is hope though, Bass shows her readers that real change is possible, but it will take all of us to do it. The question is, will we have the wherewithal to do it?