But what if you don’t like electric praise bands?

Anyone who is interested in church growth should probably read Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith by Diana Butler Bass (Harper San Francisco, 2006). Bass studied liberal mainline Protestant churches that are currently experiencing growth, and documented what is helping them grow. (Since Unitarian Universalist churches are essentially mainline Protestant churches with a post-Christian theology, Bass’s findings for the most part apply to us.)

Her findings challenge the usual advice given by church growth experts, who tell us to copy the big evangelical mega-churches in order to grow. For example, in a chapter titled “Contemplation” Bass recounts how some successful mainline churches are introducing more contemplative, silent time into worship services. She writes:

Some church growth specialists think that successful churches entertain people during worship — the more activity, the more noise, the more loud music, the better. From that perspective, silence is boring and an evangelism turnoff. Quiet churches cannot be fun churches. Contemplation is not a gift for the whole church but something practiced only by supersaints. As a fellow historian reminded me, “The [Christian] tradition has always reserved the contemplative life, and contemplation itself, for the very few.” After all, contemplation leads directly to God’s divine presence. Such “unmediated access to divine energy” can be spiritually dangerous for novices in faith! Following this logic, it is best, I suppose, to keep everyday Christians distracted with overhead projectors, rock bands, and podcast sermons.

From my point of view, if you want to have a big projection screen and project the words to hymns on it, or if you want to have an electric praise band in worship, go right ahead. But it’s good for me to hear that there are other ways to update a worship service, since I just can’t bring myself to organize an electric praise band for our church.

In her book, Bass also discusses how new understandings of hospitality, healing, testimony, diversity, and beauty have influenced worship services in mainline congregations. A provocative book, full of ideas for creating more vital liberal congregations, and worth reading for religious liberals trying to figure out how to implement church growth without copying evangelical techniques.

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