Author: There's Hope for U.S. Protestant Churches

For years, America's mainline Protestant churches were in serious decline, with plummeting membership and a voice that seemed irrelevant in national politics. All the energy seemed to have drained out of them, flowing inexorably toward evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, with their burgeoning megachurches and media empires. But a new book finds hope for the mainline. In "Christianity for the Rest of Us" (HarperSanFrancisco), independent scholar Diana Butler Bass contends that a spiritual renewal is underway, and to prove it, she marshals the examples of 50 mainline churches that are anything but dead. As Butler Bass says of her own Episcopal church (the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.): "They're not just the 'frozen chosen' anymore. They're starting to thaw." She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood.

NEWSWEEK: How did this book come about?

Diana Butler Bass: It grew out of an earlier book of mine, published in 2002, called "Strength for the Journey." I was a little miffed that everything I was reading about mainline churches said they were hopelessly dead and would never breathe again. My own experience didn't match that picture, so I decided to write a book about these eight quirky Episcopal churches I'd been a part of during the previous 20 years. All were growing and had interesting ministries. In the last chapter--because I didn't know how to end the book--I threw out this suggestion that a new style of congregation was being born that was re-engaging with spiritual practices. People at the Lilly Endowment saw that and gave me a three-year grant to see if this was true across the mainline denominations, not just the Episcopal Church.

How are these churches re-engaging with spiritual practices?

In the 1960s and 1970s, churches tried to become "relevant" or "modern." They did that through social action … and the rewriting of prayer books and hymnals. The church was cut loose from its moorings. It was as if a big cultural sledgehammer shattered their traditions. What's happening now is that churches are picking up the pieces of glass and making new mosaics with these shards from the past. It's coming out in new patterns.

What does that new mosaic look like?

We have Methodists who engage in Celtic spirituality, Episcopalians who walk the labyrinth and Presbyterians who do reiki. You find Protestant churches engaging in the Benedictine rule or reading the ancient Christian fathers or practicing contemplative prayer. They're mixing elements of contemporary culture with ancient spiritual practices. A lot are engaging in the Christian practice of hospitality, which doesn't mean serving tea and cakes. It's a process that goes back to the heart of monotheistic religion, where Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers. It means not just welcoming people who are like you, but young people, homeless, gays, minorities and having them be real members of the congregation.

Some would say that the mainline decline resulted from a loss of focus on the Scriptures. Are they reclaiming that focus?

Contrary to the stereotype, lots of these churches have reading groups, Bible study groups and theological reflection groups. They're studying Christian tradition, starting with the life and teaching of Christ and ranging up through the medieval mystics, Protestant reformers and liberation theology. The difference between them and a conservative, evangelical megachurch is that the megachurch says, "This is the tradition and there's one interpretation"--where tradition is like a statue in a museum that you're never supposed to touch. In the new mainline churches, tradition is more like the clay from which you make the statue. It's something you can rework and play with. Every successive generation is called on to take that same body of Scripture and make it look beautiful in our own time.

Is this largely a Blue State phenomenon?

No. I've got churches in places like Naples, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Zelienople, Pa., and Scottsdale, Ariz. Those places are pretty Red. One of our best Lutheran congregations is next to a military base in Yorktown, Va. They're renewing their practice on the basis of Ignatian spirituality, a form of Roman Catholic medieval mystic spirituality that traces to the principles of St. Ignatius Loyola. I have amazing stories about members of this congregation after 9/11 having to fight this war and trying to answer the question: what does it mean to be a Christian soldier? For them, it's not fighting out of a sense of revenge, and it's not waving flags and marching to war, but reflecting deeply on defending one's country.

Even though these congregations are growing, their size is still modest, isn't it?

These aren't the biggest churches, but they take their call seriously. The Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, Conn., was threatened with closure nine years ago. Their membership was down to 40. Now they've got 230.

Is this phenomenon limited to 50 churches, or does it represent a broader trend?

I initially got close to 200 recommendations of churches to study. That was way too many to handle. Talking to Lilly, we came up with a pool of 50. But David Roozen at Hartford Theological Seminary, a quantitative sociologist of religion, is trying to figure out what percentage of all mainline churches are represented by this trend. He thinks 6 to 7 percent are renewing themselves on the basis of Christian practice and reworking Christian tradition.

What percentage of the population could be considered mainline Protestants today?

The losses in mainline membership have largely stopped. Twenty-two percent of the population consider themselves mainline. That's 20 [million] to 30 million people.

Where did the title of the book come from?

When you're trying to discuss something nobody believes exists, you have trouble finding the vocabulary. The title actually came from a focus group. I asked people, "If your church wasn't called Calvin Presbyterian Church, what would it be called?" One man said, "This is Christianity for the rest of us, who don't have a name or party label, but who take Christianity seriously as a way of life."