Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Vital Signs: Congregations Find Passion and Purpose by Blending Ancient Traditions and Contemporary Action

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Vital Signs: Congregations Find Passion and Purpose by Blending Ancient Traditions and Contemporary Action

Article excerpt

For the last three years, my job has been to go to church. As the project director of a research study on vital congregations, I have spent hundreds of hours in worship, attending programs and events, and talking to pastors and laypeople from healthy and lively churches. Although the conventional wisdom limits such traits to conservative congregations, my search for vitality focused on mainline Protestants, whose old churches dot the American landscape.

Many people chuckled when I told them of my quest. "Vital mainline churches?" they asked. "That sounds like a pretty short journey!" But I am an Episcopalian who has found a meaningful way of life through ancient tradition, social justice, spiritual practices, and beautiful worship. So I set off to find some like-minded pilgrims. I hoped to learn from real people in the pews what it is that makes their churches work and to give voice to their understanding of the gospel.

While my intent was simply to locate others who practice Christianity in ways that I recognize as faithful, what I found were mainline congregations all over the United States that are actually deepening spiritually and, in most cases, growing in membership. The 50 congregations in my study embrace no evangelistic strategy, no programmatic style of church growth. But they exhibit Christian authenticity, express a coherent faith, and offer members ways to live with passion and purpose. These churches exude a strong sense of mission and identity, which for many of them gives witness to great renewal following crisis, threatened closure, spiritual ennui, or general decline.

Paths to such renewal varied, but I did discern a similar pattern: Mainline renewal is, as one Lutheran pastor told me, "not rocket science. You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people's spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life." Each of the congregations in my study has found new vitality through an intentional and transformative engagement with Christian tradition as embodied in faith practices such as discernment, hospitality, testimony, contemplation, and justice. They reach back to ancient wisdom, and they reach out through a life sustained by Christian devotional and moral practices. They know both the biblical story and their own stories. But they are not message-centered so much as mystery-centered communities, focused on incarnate grace in the world.

I JOINED TRINITY Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California, just as it was awakening from a long mainline slumber of numerical decline, financial crisis, poor leadership, and loss of vision. Through prayerful discernment, radical hospitality, the development of new leadership patterns, and a series of near-miraculous occurrences, the church not only ended its decline but actually tripled its membership. It is now a vital, faithful, and deeply passionate Christian community.

Trinity is politically liberal, theologically progressive, and openly inclusive--so the conventional wisdom suggests that it should have died. In fact, it came back to life by heightening these very elements. But, unlike classic Protestant liberalism, Trinity linked its progressive vision to a new sense of spirituality and a renewed appreciation for Christian tradition. Social justice and spirituality were combined in an open community of practice: walks for the homeless and walking the labyrinth, a living wage and a way of living the Benedictine rule, attention to inclusive language and deep attentiveness to the Bible. People were drawn to Trinity by a hunger for exactly what the church offered.

A recent Newsweek cover story on spirituality in the United States claimed that "Americans are looking for personal, ecstatic experiences of God." The article emphasized individualistic styles of spiritual practice and concluded that Americans are far more interested in generic spirituality than in religion. …

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