A few days ago, I noticed some clergy on Twitter talking about a church growth PowerPoint going viral among Episcopalians. The tweets were mostly critical (as tweets often are). The PowerPoint also kicked off a larger discussion of why Christians want big churches and actively seek to expand their religion.
I didn’t think much about it until a priest-friend asked me if I’d seen the viral PowerPoint because it prominently featured my work. That surprised me! He kindly sent me the document. Its author - Ted Mollegen, a thoughtful senior leader in the Episcopal Church - had, indeed, referenced two of my books: Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006) and Christianity After Religion (2012). While I was grateful to have influenced his thinking (and for his gracious recommendation of my work), I quickly realized that the framing of those books in a church growth PowerPoint gave the wrong impression regarding some of my concerns.
I posted a Twitter thread to correct the record. The core of the thread is in these comments summarizing the intention of the aforementioned books:
“I am not - nor have I ever been - interested in numerical church growth. Since I was a student in SoCal in the late 1970s when the church growth movement began at Fuller, I've found it offensive and have NEVER urged anyone anywhere to pursue a numerical church growth strategy. Frankly, I just don't care about the size of any church. I care about deepening the spiritual life and theological vision of churches.
I'm a ‘church depth’ person, if you will. If we pay attention to the depth of the things that matter, other things take care of themselves.”
The PowerPoint has noble intentions for the church and tried to present my work as a hopeful path for growing a denomination. But the framing reminded me how authors often have little or no control how their work is received and how it can be misunderstood.
It made me wonder: What is the point of my work over these last twenty years? What are the central concerns and arguments I really care about?
In the tweet thread, I outlined the answer to those questions in eight points (slightly edited and expanded below).
You might call them DIANA’S EIGHT THESES, and I’m nailing them to the Cottage door:
1) Intentional Christian practices of faith - both devotional and ethical practices - are the point of formation for individual Christians and vital congregations.
In Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006), I outlined ten such practices: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. Since then, I wrote A People’s History of Christianity (2009), that examines devotional and ethical practices as “useable history” and Grateful (2018), a book arguing that the single most important practice for our days is the practice of gratitude.
2) Theology must be re-articulated in post-Christian contexts speaking to postmodern (and post-postmodern) conceptions of human nature and knowing.
Of all the books I’ve written, Christianity After Religion (2012), Grounded (2015), and Freeing Jesus (2021) are the most theological. From my perspective, the best theological options for a life-giving faith in our broken world draw from liberation theology, process thought, pan-en-theist spirituality, and inter-religious mutuality. You may or may not agree with my modest theological suggestions on these fronts, but I have always drawn my vision for Christianity from a passion for lived theology. And I try to practice what I preach.
3) Tradition is an argument over what constitutes the goods of tradition (not my original thought) and as such, tradition is a fluid, ever-creative process. Every generation is called not to preserve tradition (like a museum piece), but to craft it anew (like clay).
I love tradition. And I also know that it must never be accepted without critique. Because tradition itself is historically constructed and every generation is called to re-examine what they’ve inherited, reject what needs to be rejected, save what should be saved, and add new wisdom to its treasures to be passed on to the next generation who, in turn, does the same. My mantra here: “Tradition gets a vote, but never a veto.” (That’s my riff on Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s insightful remark.) My most substantial discussion of this can be found in The Practicing Congregation (2004).
4) Beauty is central to both Christian spirituality and theology. We must communicate the Word with attentiveness to poetry, arts, writing, architecture, and in our relations with nature and our neighbors.
I don’t really write about this. I just try to do it. However, I am of the mind that creating and reflecting beauty is ultimately a practice of humility - that we humans experience its overwhelming power from something “beyond,” and that artists and liturgists and writers and builders attempt to embody “otherness” in the arts of our hands. Beauty is related to awe - and awe leads us toward activism.
5) There is a canon within the canon:
Love God & love your neighbor as yourself; Faith, hope, love: the greatest of these is love; There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male & female; and, In all things, give thanks.
If you know only four verses from the entire New Testament, I recommend knowing these four - and reading, marking, and inwardly digesting them your whole life. Also see: “God is love.”
6) Embodying God's love and justice - compassion - in the world is the entire purpose of being a Christian.
This needs no explanation.
Also, Christianity is not the only path of faith that does this. But it happens to be a deeply truthful way of life that is the tradition to which I was born, and so I continue on and encourage others on this Way to life it fully as well.
7) The church is the organic body of Christ in the world, not an institution. In that organic sense, it is always growing.
As an historian, I know that institutions come and go. But the body of Christ? Theologically, it is always present - it existed as the Word from the beginning, it exists now in a diversity of forms institutional and yet still invisible, and will continue to exist even if human beings and their words and world go extinct.
Here I stand: I can do no other.
8) The institutions we currently have are the products of late 19th century western social and economic structures. They don't work - and I've consistently said this - I do not believe they can be fixed as they currently exist.
We need creative courage to reimagine our traditions and the structures of Christian community. We can awaken to new possibilities, dream new dreams, and create what does not yet exist.
* * * *
These are the things you can say that I've said - the things “nailed” to the door of my heart. Of course, I’ve said a lot of other things as well - many of which are important, inspiring, and (I hope) beautiful. But you can put these 8 theses on my tombstone - this outline for a loving, humble, and truthful Christian life, faith, and community.
I invite you to nail them on your door as well.
Let me make this perfectly clear.
I have never written anything because it is a Poem.
This is a mistake you always make about me,
A dangerous mistake. I promise you
I am not writing this because it is a Poem.
You suspect this is a posture or an act
I am sorry to tell you it is not an act.
You actually think I care if this
Poem gets off the ground or not. Well
I don't care if this poem gets off the ground or not
And neither should you.
All I have every cared about
And all you should ever care about
Is what happens when you lift your eyes from this page.
Do not think for one minute it is the Poem that matters.
Is is not the Poem that matters.
You can shove the Poem.
What matters is what is out there in the large dark
and in the long light,
— Gwendolyn MacEwen
There is a growing disconnect between those who lead and the grass roots movements of lay mission and service. The Church remains mired in culture wars, wringing its hands over shrinking attendance, and trying to save itself by better budgeting in the wake of shrinking resources. The institutional Church of today struggles to sustain aging structures, repeatedly tries to force uniformity over unity, and desperately attempts to create diversity by legislation at conventions. The world has changed, and we are at a loss for how to respond.
― Bishop C. Andrew Doyle
Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— James Baldwin
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As always, thank you!
Two upcoming opportunities for you:
Writing in the Second Half of Life
November 8 - 12, with recordings available for 3 months
From the website: Are you thinking about a “second career” in writing? Many pastors and lay people feel this calling. We would like to help you make the transition! Writing for Your Life invites you to our Fall 2021 Online Conference “Writing in the second half of life” featuring authors Diana Butler Bass, Patricia Raybon, Marilyn McEntyre, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Erin Healy, Victoria McAfee, and Kaya Oakes.
For info and registration, click HERE.
* * * * *
A January Adventure in Progressive Christianity
January 14 -16, 2022
On-site, in-person, vaccination-required event on St. Simons Island, GA
What happens when Brian McLaren and I adopt a beloved event that’s been going for 17 years? We’re re-creating and curating a learning community focussed on strengthening Southern progressive Christianity!
And we invited Anthea Butler, Kaitlin Curtice, and Ken Medema to join us for the adventure. Southern Lights hosts inspiring teachers and joyous music that speak to the concerns of faith and social justice at this important juncture of American history and southern life. This year’s overall theme is “stories that can change everything.” Because southerners love stories. And we know stories matter.
There are only about 100 tickets still available. Please join us. CLICK HERE.