Diana Butler Bass is the author of five books on American religion and a contributor to the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and USA Today. She writes:
"Many people think mainline Protestantism is dying, that it is going the way of the dodo in favor of a more lively form of conservative Christianity found in suburban evangelical megachurches. I do not deny that mainline Protestantism is in trouble. Some of its institutions, unresponsive to change, are probably beyond hope of recovery or repair. I also believe, however, that lively faith is not located in buildings, programs, organizations, and structures. Rather, spiritual vitality lives in human beings; it is located in the heart of God's people and the communities they form. At the edges of mainline institutional decay, some remarkable congregations are finding new ways of being faithful-ways that offer hope to those Americans who want to be Christian but are wary of the religion found in those suburban megachurches."
The book reveals the results of a three-year study of 50 centrist and progressive churches (Lutheran, Episcopal, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ) in America . They ranged in size from 35 to 2,500 members, with the average congregation numbering just below 300. Bass found that those that are flourishing have one thing in common: "All the congregations have found new vitality through an intentional and transformative engagement with Christian tradition as embodied in faith practices." She identifies ten signposts of renewal: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. Bass celebrates what she calls the new village church that is spiritually mobile: a pilgrim community on a journey together.
It is refreshing to report that the changes being put into practice in these transforming congregations are not gimmicky innovations in search of cultural relevance, such as the use of the latest music in worship services or a food court in the foyer. What comes through in the faith-story interviews with church ministers and members is a three-fold connection to traditions, to Christian practices, and to a concern to live God's dream. Together, these animate congregational renewal at the deepest level.