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Last updated November 24.

Feb. 16, 2009 issue

Old practices bring new vitality

By Mary E. Klassen Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

ELKHART, Ind. — Diana Butler Bass, Christian sociologist and researcher, helped more than 200 participants imagine a “new old church” during Pastors Week Jan. 26-29 at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Diana Butler Bass, Pastors Week presenter, talks with Carole Ricketts, pastor of MSU Mennonite Fellowship, East Lansing, Mich.

Diana Butler Bass, Pastors Week presenter, talks with Carole Ricketts, pastor of MSU Mennonite Fellowship, East Lansing, Mich.

— Photo by Mary E. Klassen/AMBS

Bass, author of Christianity for the Rest of Us, spent three years doing in-depth research of 50 congregations in mainline denominations to learn how they found vitality and growth in spite of trends of decline.

Her journey to this project, she told the pastors and church leaders gathered for the week, began with the congregation where she worshiped several years ago, Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, Calif. Over a five-year span of time, the congregation grew several times over and raised enough funds to renovate their old building to meet new state earthquake codes.

“We had saved Trinity, but at the same time God had saved us,” Bass said.

This experience led her to seek out other churches in mainline Protestant denominations —Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and others — who had similar stories of vitality.

While our culture sees success in numbers, Bass said, “We were looking for churches that were deep.”

She and her team worked with the premise that churches that intentionally engage in Christian practices will find new vitality. They measured this vitality with three characteristics: coherence, authenticity and transformation.

They probed the congregations with the following questions: What are the practices that mark your congregation? Are those practices done with authenticity? Do those practices change your congregation?

Bass said practices are the things the congregation does to meet human needs and serve God’s kingdom; they are different than programs. Practices may involve programs, but they have a greater sense of the three characteristics measuring vitality.

“Programs cost you money; practices are free,” she said.

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