Mainline Vitality | Sojourners

Mainline Vitality

Liberal churches are dying. Conservative churches are growing. Everyone knows that’s true.

Except that it isn’t.

So argues Diana Butler Bass, a former college professor, syndicated columnist, trained historian, and sociologist. The Lilly Endowment has funded her multiyear exploration of mainline churches that are readapting ancient Christian practices for a new day. This is the third installment of a trilogy of books about these churches presenting Butler Bass’s research, and it is a gem.

The unfortunate implication of Dean Kelley’s thesis in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, first published in 1972 and rehashed often since, was that only conservative churches can grow. It only takes one exception to disprove the rule, and Butler Bass has hundreds. She studied dozens of mainline congregations carefully, and 10 intensely, attending so often she would be asked when she was going to turn in her pledge card. “Real people in real churches taught me by sharing their stories,” she writes, and she is wise to let them have their say.

The book also takes aim at the secular press’s tendency to assume the Religious Right’s claim that only it speaks for true, vibrant religious communities. When asked what she was writing about, Butler Bass would respond “The other Christians. The ones you don’t hear about in the media. The quiet ones.”

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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