Item description for Mainline Manifesto: The Inevitable New Church by Charles Denison...
Overview This book is indeed a manifesto. Written in a passionate style that is never preachy or condemning, Mainline Manifesto looks at the past and future of mainline congregations. It presents new and important perspectives that give congregations both the language and the tools with which to think through the future of the mainline congregation. It is a rousing call to hope, setting for forth a very positive agenda for the rediscovery of the mainline tradition and its relevance to tomorrow.
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Dr. Chuck Denison is a writer, speaker, consultant and musician. During the day he works for the Presbyterian Church USA designing new models of ministry. As a jazz musician, he has played at the Indy Jazz Fest and many other venues. He has also been a poet, blues guitarist, merchant marine, cab driver, pastor, songwriter and folksinger.
Charles Denison currently resides in Fishers, in the state of Indiana.
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A prophetic voice in urgent times Apr 6, 2007
Here is a book to give to your judicatory leadership, to the members of the committee responsible for church redevelopment, transformation, and new church development, to pastors and lay leaders, and also to those many, many people who can't quite figure out why their church just doesn't seem to be attracting new people. This is a bold, passionate, and articulate analysis of why the mainline churches are facing institutional crisis, why the Church (with a capital "C") will continue even if the church (lower-case "c") collapses, and what an effective strategy might look like for the renewal of the mainline.
The book begins with a three-page preface, entitled, "A Letter from the Lost Tribes." I don't want to spoil the experience of reading those three pages. It was a deeply moving experience, one of those moments when you find chills running down your spine because you know that what you are reading/hearing/experiencing is so deeply profound. Basically, it's a letter from the perspective of someone in that 57% of the population of this country who just simply don't find the church, as it currently exists, sufficiently meaningful or relevant or spiritual to inspire them to want to connect to it, and yet who yearn for a community where they can explore their deepest and most profound questions about life. But I will say no more about the preface. Please just read it for yourself. I simply cannot do it justice.
On the whole, Denison's book is what he calls a "manifesto". He provides an analysis of what's wrong, and then outlines how to fix it. Basically, he's calling for a new missiology. Drawing on sociological trends, demographic analysis, and personal experience, Denison argues that the way we mainliners tend to "do" church just doesn't "work" for huge segments of the population, especially including younger generations. He describes one of the churches he served as a pastor as follows: "The job description was to bring in new young people, to grow the church back to the 2500 plus membership, and to change nothing. That is, make these new people enjoy the worship we enjoyed thirty years ago. Somehow force 'Generation X' to love Mozart, the Apostles' Creed, the Gloria Patri, the Ruth Circle . . . It couldn't be done. This was indeed a congregation poised on a threshold -- choosing between their past and their future. It was a difficult choice." Then, Denison suggests: "It is precisely this choice the mainline denominations now face."
"Every few generations," Denison argues, "the church has required a 'molt.' Many times in its history, the church has reached a threshold, pessimistic and afraid, angry and divided. The crisis has felt apocalyptic in scale, the very 'survival of the church' has been questioned." Denison traces a few of the major moments in history when the church has faced such a threshold (and the resistance many of the enterprising church leaders faced in trying to "do things differently" to keep up with the shifting tide of culture). He provides sketches of some important Christian pioneers: Antony, Chrysostom, Augustine, Benedict, Francis, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and more. Along the way, he wonders: "Do we 'accommodate' our gospel to the times, or do we hold out an unchanging answer that we dare not ameliorate? This is the question of our age." And he suggests: "History tells us that observing the need to change and suggesting the means to effect a change in the church has not always been successful or safe. It is rarely appreciated, and more often than not, meets resistance of the most violent kind."
Denison then provides a very perceptive re-telling of the story of the book of Acts, from the vantage point of what it means to cross cultural barriers in order to spread the gospel message. (It inspired me to go back and re-read Acts with very different eyes!) Then he suggests: "To penetrate the culture of today, we can either strive to understand and ultimately relate to the mission field at our doorstep, or we can continue on in a frozen subcultural expression of Christianity and grow further and further away from the people we claim to be trying to reach, as society itself hurtles by us at breakneck speeds." He suggests that every movements go through a predictable cycle, starting with an obvious need felt by many, to a vision for a solution, to an experience on the part of a key leader that results in the articulating of a vision and the gathering of followers around the vision to share the experience, to the development of an organization, with a shift from entrepreneurial to managerial leadership styles, to institutionalization, to -- finally -- a museum, in which the movement is now just a memory. Denison suggests that just at the point when the organization commits itself to a certain methodology, "the culture changes. The need changes. The cruiser faces a crucial moment of truth. Can we still turn and face the new demand? Or do we hold the course and become committed to an outdated method? The cruiser becomes an aircraft carrier, with a turning radius of three miles, and a museum has begun. The once vital movement is now a museum, a tribute to a founder and a founding vision that worked once, long ago."
Denison suggests that most of the churches in the mainline denominations are dominated by the WWII generation and their particular values, hopes, needs, predilections, and prejudices. But the culture has moved on. "What do we do whan a way of worship that once was effective, invitational, welcoming, and familiar -- a way of worship that met a felt need and attracted new people -- has become a relic?" He suggests that many churches are functioning something like museums. "They are committed to preserving the fine tradition of sacred choral music, or the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. They are preserving a method. And they have lost the mission. These are not missionary congregations, venturing into cross-cultural communication of the gospel, striving to win people for Christ. They are tributes to their founder or their particular style." And museums, Denison suggests, do not attract new people. Movements do.
Yet, Denison suggests, it is not necessarily fair or effective to come into a church that is slipping into museum-like qualities and expect it to willingly change. "The people who are in a church are there because they like it that way. They will be the last ones to vote for any change." A parishioner might say: "When this particular method of meeting with the Divine has been meaningful for me, you have no right to change it to make it meaningful for someone else. It works for me. Change it and it won't work for me; let them find their own church that works for them, but this is my church and it is God's way to get to me." Denison sympathizes with those who might feel that way. "If I were comfortably retired in 2025, worshiping in a nice service I had found meaningful for, say, twenty years, and the new pastor decided that we had to do more outreach, I might be agreeable to that. I might fund it. I might volunteer. But if our new pastor decided that the best way to do it was to change all the Sunday morning music, I could have a huge problem! I might fight for my church, for my style of worship. I might fight with an odd passion, a passion that comes from a real longing for God, and for a method of meeting God that has worked for me and for my compatriots." Denison suggests that trying to get people of that mindset to change their worship habits is just as unfair as trying to get people who like rock or rap to suddenly like choral music in four-part harmony. Both efforts promote the same model: "Be like us." And when the culture "out there" is radically different from the culture "in here" -- those efforts just won't work.
The mission field is right at our doorstep. Our churches, for better or for worse, want new people, but we tend to want new people who will be "like us." There are fewer and fewer of those people out there every passing day. The culture has changed. Denison's solution: we need to learn how to become like missionaries to the culture that is around us. We need to be asking questions about what of our church culture that our mainline denominations have established over many decades is necessary or essential to the proclamation of the gospel. How does our dress or our language inhibit our ability to reach out? "We are there to reach these folks. We learn to love them. We learn to respect as much of their culture as we possibly can. We learn to embrace their way of life. We want to present as few obstacles to their accepting Christ and his gospel as we possibly can. We do not want our way of dressing or eating to stop them from hearing the message of hope in Jesus Christ. So we decide, going in, that our culture is to be considered relative. We are not trying to win them to wearing shirts or singing with pipe organs. We are trying to win them to Christ." This is fundamentally rooted in Christ's own incarnation: "To go from being God, in exalted glory, to becoming human being represents the ultimate in cross-culture communication!"
The first half of the book outlines the problem and the need. The second half of the book begins to articulate the vision. "It is really hard to change existing churches! It is not only hard to do; it may not be fair to do. We have considered the pastoral implications of demanding that a generation give up their worship because the kids don't like it. It isn't fair to anyone. This, then, is what we suggest: New churches! Lots of new churches. Lots of new models." The last several chapters of the book discuss new methods, new models, entrepreneurial leadership, creating the core values of a new congregation, necessary leadership qualities, and more. The final four pages offer "hope for the mainline" -- an honest assessment of what we have to offer tomorrow. Denison suggests that we have much to offer. "What if we had a healthy model for creating unique, individually distinctive new churches with great hopes of success, and what if we invested enormously in these new churches? What if . . . what if there could be a future for the mainline?"
I, for one, think that Denison is right on target. The Church (capital C) will continue. The question is whether the mainline will choose to incarnate itself in new ways, so that we might be a significant and meaningful part of the Church of tomorrow, or whether we will collectively continue to allow for the fossilization of local churches into something resembling museums, with the restult that people of a younger generation or a postmodern orientation will seek to be part of the Church elsewhere . . . or not at all.
Helpful and Informative Mar 19, 2006
Dr. Denison provides an interesting discussion of possibilities for the future of the church without dismissing the church's past. The early chapters provide a historical context that is valuable, though those who are already familiar with church history may not need to read carefully. In the same way, people who have been following the discussion in the larger church about mission and structure as they relate to new church development may find some of the material self-evident. From chapter nine on, though, the author provides a unique perspective and some helpful resources for understanding what the church will need to do in order to reach the people who are out there right now.
Every pastor has had the experience of service at least one congregation who seemed more interested in digging up their old members than going out and finding new ones. What passes for evangelism in many congregations is the practice of swapping disgruntled members with other, similar congregations. Denison challenges those attitudes and presents some significant alternatives. There are some helpful descriptions of the visioning process which set these ideas apart from most of the canned church-growth programs, and a very genuine passion for mission comes through loud and clear. If you're only interested in building a large institution, never mind this book. If you want to learn how to fish for people in the contemporary world, this work is a very helpful guide.
Helpful Words from an Insider Aug 24, 2005
Dr. Denison has written a concise and useful critique and prescription for the on-going decline of the mainline church decline of the past four decades. He writes this not as an condescending outsider mocking the moribund mainline membership decline, nor does he speak as a disenfranchised angry insider. Instead Denison writes as a mainline denominational leader, but more important, as one who's started and grown a vibrant, prospering church--his legitimacy is accomplishment and a commitment to offer helpful observations and prescriptions from one in the middle of it all. Two highlights: one, his discussion on mainliners who need to remember what it is that gave us our strength in the glory days, and to re-package those strengths for a new context--this proves refreshing. In essence he offers a hopeful prescription not by "me-too-ing" the megachurch success stories, or cashiering five hundred years of ecclesiastical tradition. Two, Dr. Denison says we need to modify the development of leaders, not by copying the ways of Ozzie & Harriet, but by ministering to the world as it is today and tomorrow, and he highlights what this might look like. Mainline Manifesto is a must read for church leaders and denominational officials at least. It's a quick, earthy discussion that avoids the common run to polarities of debate--instead he offers hope and substance for the well-being of those with ears to hear.