A Delightful Day with Diana Butler Bass

Alliteration aside, June 11’s gathering with Diana Butler Bass at Christ Church Cathedral witnessed once again to the fact that Butler Bass has considerable insight that can be applied to ministry in our diocese – and to the ministry of United Church and Lutheran  folks who joined us for a day of learning and conversation.

What I’ve always enjoyed about Diana’s presentations is that she engages her audience in the active struggles of her thinking-at-the-moment. She seeks to learn as well as share insights gleaned from her careful study and analysis of current Christian and religious trends the the North American cultural context. Today she opened for us the basic concepts of her forthcoming book – to be published early in 2012 – Christianity After Religion.

Concerning Diana’s new book, I’m not going to give it all away. I want you to anticipate it and then tear into it eagerly. Mark your calendars for next February. What I do know from Diana’s presentation to us at the Cathedral, is that her latest effort should probably be “must read” material for all those concerned about the ministry future of our parishes. The book will provide a great opportunity to extend our current thinking around ministry strategy that we are developing around the Ministry Assessment Process, Plan 2018, and the work among us of people like Brian Roxburgh. Parish study groups are definitely in order, as they have been for Christianity for the Rest of Us. Butler Bass will continue to inspire the numerous parishes in our diocese who have been thinking ‘outside the box’ and implementing new forms of ministry. Thinking and dreaming on a larger scale, I hope that we can incorporate Butler Bass’s current thinking into the ministry consultation that will be part of Provincial Synod’s upcoming triennial meeting.

Most importantly I hope we can all capture and act upon the sense of urgency that permeates Butler Bass’s message about a Christianity situated in the midst of a dramatically and significantly changing cultural context. She is a person of passion when it comes to the possible positive future of the Reign of God being active among us, and about us as vehicles of that Reign within a renewed Christian way of ‘being’ and ‘doing’; about moving away from “Christianity-as-institution” to “Christianity-as-a-viable-and-relevant spirituality” in a North American social and cultural context that is strong in its mistrust of religious institutions – indeed of all once trusted institutions.

The current rejection of institutionalism generally has resulted in plummeting church attendance across the board. Statistics are alarming. Even “the faithful” are attending less frequency in the midst of heavy demands on people’s lives – even to the extent that some lectionary writers are looking, not to weekly sequential readings based on the assumption that people come to church like clock work, but to monthly cycles of readings that make sense and would hold greater meaning in the face of our current reality. As Butler Bass states, we are not in a simple situation where “liberal” churches are declining and “conservative” churches are holding their own or growing as one current myth has it, but we are in the midst of a major social phenomenon where ‘joining a church’ and valuing the institution is no longer a part of the given social reality.

And who’s on the forefront of this phenomenon? Why we are, of course – the people of Canada’s ‘left coast’ and of the social bulwark of Cascadia. Drawing on the work of Canadian sociologist, Reginald Bibby and Vancouver journalist Douglas Todd, Butler Bass maintains that “Cascadia” (roughly BC, Washington, Oregon) is the bell-weather area for what the rest of North American will soon experience in terms of the decline of institutional religion. Here’s even more challenge to change our way of doing ministry and set an example for the rest of the country. It’s surprising to learn that in the 1950s, Canada sported the highest church attendance ratio in the western world. Now we’re down there with everyone else. Canada has never experienced the “mega-church” phenomenon that has swept the US in the last twenty-five years, but even the mega-church is in big trouble. Yes, Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral has declared bankruptcy. How fallen are the mighty.

Where is there hope in all this? Jesus said that the very gates of “hell” would not prevail over the movement he began and bids us to be part of. Butler Bass shows us ways into that continuing truth. Drawing on the distinction between Christianity-as-institution and Christianity-as-spirituality, she reminds us of where we have been and of where we need to go.

For the past several hundred years, Christian expression has been primarily organized around “institution”: Primary has been “believing” -the development of doctrine, propositional statements about God, and derived systematized theologies; next car on the train has been “behaving” – our ‘rule books’ and institutional policies and programs that follow from those  boxed up ideas about God; finally, there is “belonging” – who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ based on those beliefs and practices that define the institution.

What Butler Bass has observed for us is a profound shift away from institution to spirituality that will enable us to keep being people of God in a world filled with institutional mistrust and outright rejection. Replacing “belief” as the engine pulling the train is a new kind of “behaving”.  “How” is what engages people today; ie. “how do you believe that?” The experiential base of faith is the context in which people want to talk to Christians about faith and engage in God-talk. What’s the narrative? What’s your story? These things speak louder than argument or propositional debate. So we become primarily people of the story – of the story of God among us and how we experience its reality and employ it in our lives to make the world a better place; ie. furthering the Reign of God.

Second in the reorganization of the institutional train is a renewed sense of the “what”. What do we do out of “how” we believe that makes a difference to the world we live in? What do Christians do to engage justice, to show hospitality? What are the best “intentional practices” growing out of our experiential encounter with the Holy?

Third in the reordering from institution to spirituality is the evolving of the “who” of belonging into the “whose am I?” To whom or what am I connected? Here again is a line of engagement that is relevant to most people in our various social and cultural settings. Here is a profound cultural shift, as Butler Bass points out, from propositional approaches to God which characterized the church-as-institution to “prepositional” relationship with the Other – Who are we in God – in relationship to Jesus Christ who is “in” “through” “under” and “within” to hearken back to St. Patrick’s teaching.

So in ministry, we are challenged to offer “relational reality” with the Divine and with one another in meaningful community. Evangelism is not arguing the merits of various propositions about God, but inviting people into experiencing the reality of God that we experience in our own lives – through offering hospitality, through meaningful community ministry to people who may never be a formal part of our parish community life, but nevertheless are a very real part of it – through doing justice and walking humbly with God.

In this challenging shift of priorities and of ways of creating opportunities for people to encounter God in the person of Jesus Christ working within us, Butler Bass says, may be the seed of a fourth “great awakening” (I’ll leave it for you to discover the nature of the previous three historical Great Awakenings). Here is the great hope we are urged to embrace and then to act out.  Such a hope is demanding and involves what might be uncomfortable change along the way. But who said anything in the life of God’s people is easy – even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Thank you, Diana, for an inspiring day. I’m looking forward to Christianity After Religion.  

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and one of the nwanglicanblog blogmasters. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

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