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Christianity for the Rest of Us

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2007-10-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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For decades the accepted wisdom has been that America's mainline Protestant churches are in decline, eclipsed by evangelical mega-churches. Church and religion expert Diana Butler Bass wondered if this was true, and this book is the result of her extensive, three-year study of centrist and progressive churches across the country. Her surprising findings reveal just the opposite-;that many of the churches are flourishing, and they are doing so without resorting to mimicking the mega-church, evangelical style. Christianity for the Rest of Us describes this phenomenon and offers a how-to approach for Protestants eager to remain faithful to their tradition while becoming a vital spiritual community. As Butler Bass delved into the rich spiritual life of various Episcopal, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Lutheran churches, certain consistent practices-;such as hospitality, contemplation, diversity, justice, discernment, and worship-;emerged as core expressions of congregations seeking to rediscover authentic Christian faith and witness today. This hopeful book, which includes a study guide for groups and individuals, reveals the practical steps that leaders and laypeople alike are taking to proclaim an alternative message about an emerging Christianity that strives for greater spiritual depth and proactively engages the needs of the world.

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Christianity for the Rest of Us
How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith

Chapter One

The Vanished Village

I grew up in a village that has vanished. The village was not destroyed by a war in someplace like Iraq or by a natural disaster such as the tsunami in Indonesia. For that matter, its buildings still stand—a scant fifty miles from where I currently live in Virginia. Each morning, when driving my daughter to school, I pass a freeway exit that would take me there: "North 95—Baltimore." That is where I was born and grew up. Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1960s. Or, more specifically, the neighborhood of Hamilton in Baltimore along a street called Harford Road. Although Hamilton exists on the map, my childhood universe—an urban village of the 1960s—is gone. It is almost as if it never existed at all. The names may be the same, but there are no maps, and no freeway exits, back to the place that once was.

When I was a little girl, Hamilton was populated by hard-working families, many of German ancestry, almost all of whom were Catholics, Lutherans, or Methodists. We belonged to the last-named group and attended Saint John's United Methodist Church of Hamilton. My Hochstedt ancestors were among the founding members of that congregation. Grandpop Hochstedt owned a flower shop in the center of Hamilton, on Harford Road itself, a family business begun by his grandfather in 1884. The entire extended Hochstedt clan, including my parents, worked there. Every day at noon, we would close the shop for an hour, cross the back driveway to my grandparents' house, and gather for family dinner. My great-grandfather, a local celebrity of sorts, owned the first motorcar and first telephone in the neighborhood, laid the cornerstone for the public elementary school, and was the captain of the volunteer fire department.

From my house, it was one mile to Saint John's. In that mile, a tiny urban village existed—a complete world of school, work, play, relations, and worship. When I was seven or eight, I used to walk the entire mile—from home to school to the public library to the florist shop and, finally, to the church—by myself. I now marvel that my parents let their young daughter traverse city streets. If I am honest, however, I realize that I was never really alone. All along the route, their friends, neighbors, and other small business owners looked out for me. Everybody knew them; everybody knew me. We all looked out for one another.

Not only did we look out for one another, but everyone in the village seemed to believe the same things about God and morality. Parents, pastors, teachers, librarians, politicians, businessmen, and police officers—specific religious preferences aside—shared a common view of what it meant to have a good life. From an early age, I knew the answers to every ethical question: "Be nice," "Follow the rules," or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Everyone in Hamilton was a Christian (although it was hard for the Lutherans and Methodists to admit that the Roman Catholics were really Christians). We knew about Jews—mostly from the Bible—but we never actually met any. Some Pentecostals lived on the margins of Hamilton (my grandmother embraced that faith to the consternation of the Hochstedt patriarchs), and we knew that—somewhere—black people had their own churches. But that was the limit of religious diversity. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists lived in exotic, faraway countries.

For my family, Saint John's served as the village church. There, in the chilly church basement, the walls painted in a World War II surplus green, I first learned about the Bible and Jesus. My Sunday school class sat in tiny chairs, placed in rows facing the teacher who told us Bible stories, helped us memorize the books of the Bible, and explained the mysterious geography of the Holy Land on a set of worn maps. On the wall behind us were pictures of Abraham and Abraham Lincoln—reminding us of the close link between our biblical faith and our faith in democracy, and that church and state believed the same things about God and doing good. My Girl Scout troop met down the hall, in a space lined with pictures of the Men's Bible Class stretching back to the church's founding.

We all knew our place in this world. It was a world of boundaries, rules, and roles. Social class, race, ethnicity, birth order, and gender determined everything. We believed that God made it that way. All his life, my father, the second son, struggled with his role, condemned to the financial whims of the rightful heir, his profligate older brother. And me, my father's daughter? In the early 1960s, I knew what would lie ahead: marriage to a high school sweetheart, children, and working for my cousin Eddie (the first son of the first son) in that same flower shop. Some of the adults talked of the younger generation attending college, but I was never sure how that would happen. Although I was born into this boundaried world, I always chafed under its rules and roles. Part of me always wanted to leave.

Things did change on Harford Road—unanticipated and, for some of its inhabitants, unwelcome change. And people did leave. Not long ago, film director John Waters depicted Harford Road in his sexual comedy Dirty Shame. In it, the residents of Harford Road awake one morning in the 1970s and find their entire world transformed from a working-class Christian village to a sexualized urban playground. I remember Harford Road changing, too, but not from the perspective of the sexual revolution. I remember the changes brought on by family pressures and cultural change—from women resisting their assigned roles and black people protesting in the streets. In 1972 my parents moved to Arizona. Most of the cousins went to college—none became florists; none still live in Baltimore. After my grandfather died in 1985, my uncle sold the flower shop. And that period of my family's history, a history . . .

Christianity for the Rest of Us
How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith
. Copyright © by Diana Butler Bass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith by Diana Butler Bass
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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