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In STRENGTH FOR THE JOURNEY: A PILGRIMAGE OF FAITH IN COMMUNITY (Jossey-Bass, 2002), author and churchgoer Diana Butler Bass suggests that a new kind of mainline Protestant congregation is emerging in America. Read an excerpt adapted from the book:
The intentional congregation is non-geographical, and those who attend choose to do so for a particular reason. Intentional churches welcome lay participation, are not clerical or hierarchical, are creative with music and worship, and de-emphasize doctrinal uniformity. Intentional congregations, however, do not draw members primarily because of programs and are not primarily seeker oriented. People come because the church lays out a theologically meaningful (but not dogmatic) vision in worship and Christian formation, giving them the ability to see their work, relationships, and the world with spiritual insight. Intentional congregations draw newcomers because of something transcendent — a connection with God embodied in the spiritual practices of a distinct tradition in the context of particular community. They are pilgrim congregations — communities that practice faith in the world yet live at some tension with the surrounding culture.
The higher the sense of cultural tension, the greater the sense of spiritual journey or pilgrimage. With a clear call to living as a pilgrim, congregations attract members who take faith seriously and engage in distinctive spiritual practices to enrich their journey and deepen their connection to God. This spiritual purposefulness breeds congregational vitality. A committed core of spiritual practitioners will reach out and bring in new members who, in turn, embrace the practices and continue the cycle.
I believe the emergence of a pilgrim mentality in the old Protestant mainline is a stunning and perhaps revolutionary change in American religious life. And I think the pattern of intentional churchgoing is far more widespread than most people have noticed. It has taken a while for the Protestant mainline to understand these shifts and the development of this new congregational pattern. But once the reality sinks in, we can expect even greater change in the old mainline.
Mainline congregations are appropriating, reclaiming, and recreating their own traditions in imaginative and innovative ways. Much of this has been an internal challenge, and no sense of the public witness of such mainline congregations has emerged with any real clarity. The mainline public voice has been quite as these inner processes have been unfolding. Part of the difficulty in identifying intentional congregations is that they engage these tasks of change and renewal without much fanfare. You need to be on the ground — on in the pew — to know what has been happening.