As Food for Thought reads Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, I’m offering my reflections chapter by chapter. (See my previous post on “The Beginning.”) In the first chapter of her argument, Bass charts the decline of American Christianity over the past decades and argues that we should see it as the beginning of a new awakening. She rehearses the well-known story of the mainline numerical collapse beginning in the 1960s and points out the less acknowledged fact that the conservative evangelical churches that did so well in the 1970s and 1980s have seen an end to their momentum. Following Anthony F. C. Wallace’s five-stage model of cultural awakening, she argues that we have been through a broad “crisis of legitimacy and a new perception that our institutions no longer work. We are now ready to seek new visions, and the early adopters among us will start to develop new practices and ways of being in the world. After this development, we will start to see the meaningful transformation of our institutions.

On our end of the mainline, I suspect that the crisis of institutional legitimacy has primarily manifested as boredom, a sense that there’s just not much point to continuing what we’ve always done. Yes, we have a great heritage of community, education, and service. However, as institutional needs – funding the building and staff – have taken a greater share of our energy and resources, education and service programs have often taken a back seat. The sense of rich community that expresses the life of the church can tend to function like a social club where long-standing members retain special privileges and outsiders don’t see what all the fuss is about. More frequently, the rising generation seeks community among networks of like-minded people, service opportunities with secular organizations, and spiritual growth through individual blends of reading and experiences.

If the church is primarily a group of people sharing their spiritual journeys, perhaps a piece of the new vision will depend on describing what we mean by being a part of this group. Established members of our congregation have a strong sense of community with one another, but we have a hard time with real hospitality, i.e. making room for others to be part of our community. When life in community is hard or unsatisfying (and it’s never magical for long), we need a reason to stick with it. For me, the reason is simply that the points of tension are where we challenge and learn from one another; the struggle to relate genuinely and lovingly is where God transforms us into faithful and loving people.

So, how do we establish a meaningful context and purpose for relationships that will make change possible in our world? And how do we live that community in a way that continues to have room for those “outside” to share with us?

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