Diana Butler-Bass wants to flip the script of Western Christianity. She likes this video as an illustration of what she’s after:
Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening is at heart an argument to reverse the order of things in contemporary North American Christianity. Beginning with faith’s beliefs before proceeding to its attendant behaviors which can lead to belonging in the religious community is a dead end. Today, people need to experience relationships of belonging to a church community before they can be apprenticed into some expressions of Christian behavior that may form Christian belief.
“Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief.”
Jesus didn’t invite followers to hear propositions about God but to be part of a band of followers. He didn’t call followers to cultivate faith but to follow him. And those who followed Jesus sometimes articulated belief that Jesus, in their experience, was “the Son of the living God.” Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they ran away and denied knowing him.
I doubt that this proposal will generate much controversy for readers of this blog. The people I’ve gravitated toward over the last 10 years have tended to start from the same place Butler-Bass is starting from. Many of these “Emergent” Christians have been mocked by their evangelical forbearers with simplistic pans like that they want to replace Bibles with candles and The Lord’s Prayer with yoga. That was never fair.
Yet, moving into the second decade of the embrace of these emergent ways of thinking, it’s beginning to be asked how much longer their experiential faith can relegate belief to the back pew. Statements of belief are far less important to Christian faith than previous generations of American Christians have assumed, I agree, and yet it is those beliefs that are center stage in the deepening (and likely irreparable) divide within mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., to say nothing of the way that divide is rending the social fabric of Western civilization.
Can an embrace of Butler-Bass’s reversal change that? If a tidal wave of churches moved relationships and apprentice-style faith practices ahead of articulations of belief in their life together, would that divide be repaired? Would those churches arrest their decline and begin to grow?
Probably not. But that’s not really the problem that Christianity After Religion is trying to solve. Rather, it’s trying to advance an awakening that Butler-Bass sees happening in the expressions of the “spiritual but not religious.” Many churches across the denominational spectrum are already with her on this, like the ones incorporating interactive prayer stations into worship, the ones who have embraced Godly Play as a tool for religious formation, and the ones that are using the relational organizing methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation to strengthen the relationship infrastructure of their congregation and community.
These seem to me to be tools of the awakening Butler-Bass is describing. As tools, they require artisans’ hands and a commitment to something approaching craft. They aim for an impact scaled to a deeply experiential encounter with God, rather than a mass movement.
Count me in.
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