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New Life Seen in Protestant Churches

September 20, 2003|From Religion News Service

A leading religion scholar sees a quiet resurrection in the nation's mainline Protestant churches as many of those congregations cope with newcomers and shifting cultural trends.

Despite significant membership losses from the 1960s to the 1980s in their national denominations, many Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches are vital places, said Diana Butler Bass, an author and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.

Bass explored such trends in her book "Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community" (Jossey-Bass), published last year.

Now she is lead researcher for a new project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, which will explore the emergence of a new style of mainline Protestantism.

Bass said that mainline churches suffer from "the Tevye Syndrome." Like the lead character in "Fiddler on the Roof," such churches struggle with tradition on the one hand and change and growth on the other.

"Most of the fights are between hanging onto the past and leaning into the future by adapting, changing and growing," she said.

In her book, Bass examined eight Episcopal congregations with which she had worshiped over more than 15 years. Using her spiritual journey from Methodism to evangelical Protestantism to Episcopalianism to illuminate the subject, Bass concluded that such Christians are bound to tradition, but they are not bound by it.

"What people don't know about mainline churches is that they aren't what they used to be," Bass said in an interview.

"Lots of Americans grew up in these kinds of churches. Lots of Americans left them, and they carry with them memories of what the church was like in their childhood. Some of these churches remain the same and that's why they're dying. But many aren't the same."

Such churches have remained concerned about social issues and tuned in to spiritual questing in American culture. "They are beginning to come up with ways of living together in community that provide meaning for younger generations of Americans," Bass said.

She isn't predicting a swelling like that experienced by the mainline in the 1950s, but gradual growth -- or, at least, real change in some congregations.

In the Lilly-funded study, Bass aims to describe how Protestants are practicing their faith and to offer insights and resources on how to nurture revitalization. It will build on the work described in her book.

Bass plans to write another book on her research.

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