Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: The Mainliner's Survival Guide by Derek Penwell

The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live. - Derek Penwell, The Mainliner's Survival Guide

I don't visit popular bookstore chains very often any more. There are at least three reasons for this, the first two of which are more practical. First, I don't really have the time. The closest store to my house is a good 15-20 minute drive, and I haven't been able to justify the trip. The second reason is related to the first, in that ordering online is faster and in many cases cheaper. I suppose I'm contributing to the death of the physical bookstore in this way, which I feel bad about, as I do think there is something valuable about their existence.

Anyway, my third reason for no longer frequenting such stores is my knowledge of what I'll find there, at least in the "Religion and Spirituality" section. There will be rows of popular preachers and D-list celebrities smiling (or if they're younger, trying to look indifferent) while touting their success stories, as well as countless titles purporting to share the Big Secret Of Why Churches Are Dying And What Can Be Done To Fix It.

It's easy for me to ignore the first set of titles, outside of a few personalities that I still admire. And after years of lapping up every new guide to fixing the church, I've largely given up on them, too.

It's not that the books fitting this latter category aren't helpful. A good deal of them are. Increasingly, clergy and church leaders have been given access to books that seem less interested in quick fixes and magical growth models, and more interested in getting an accurate read on the cultural climate so that we really know what we're dealing with. These are slower to propose solutions, arguing that we need to have a real understanding of the challenges first.

Don't get me wrong. These analyses are helpful and needed. It's just that I've read so many of them that I wonder what yet another book on the subject could tell me that would seem new and fresh and worthwhile. What's more, most of these books are geared more toward an evangelical church culture rather than those old mainliners, who each perhaps have different entry points and different needs when it comes to realizing what is happening and planning how to address it.

Derek Penwell's The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World has a few things going for it that sets it apart from the pack. While raised in an evangelical tradition, Penwell eventually was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and as the title suggests, he seeks to address mainline denominations such as his own in particular. By "mainline," he means those denominations that largely had their heyday in the mid-20th Century such as the United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), and a handful of others including his own.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a brief historical treatment of Christianity's varying place in the United States. He spends quite a bit of time in the Revolutionary War era, describing a decline in church membership for a time after the war that picked up again thanks to the Second Great Awakening. He notes parallels between that era and our own, particularly a questioning of where authority lies. Just as people in the newly free colonies questioned and tested their freedom of and from religion, so we are experiencing a similar exploration of religious authority today. No longer can denominations and their structures assume that their authority will be recognized. Thanks to the wealth of information and social options now at our fingertips, authority no longer looks the same. I found this the most interesting and novel section of the book, as I had not previously heard this treatment of early American history and the wrestling with religious authority that accompanied it.

The second and third sections might be familiar to those who have encountered similar books. In the second, Penwell explores some of the features of this new landscape, particularly as it relates to younger generations: they/we are more apt to embrace the term "spiritual but not religious," are more likely to embrace diversity and inclusivity, and are more technologically savvy. These factors, as one might imagine, are important to consider when attempting to understand what speaks to younger generations.

The third section makes a few suggestions, or at least presents some broad features of what churches and denominations might need to look like and be in order to embody faithful discipleship for this new reality, namely taking social issues seriously, recognizing that places such as pubs or coffeehouses tend to serve as one's "third place" more regularly than churches, being environmentally aware, becoming more welcoming to LGBT people. To varying degrees, these chapters will not be very surprising especially to mainline churches who perhaps have already been observing them. The difference, Penwell argues, is in how well mainliners communicate that they care about these things. In this cultural climate, people may be less apt to embrace denominational institutions, but might find more meaning in local church involvement if they see such churches are taking these issues seriously.

Penwell presents the issues facing mainline denominations with historical perspective and a casual, accessible approach to the modern incarnation of our situation. This would serve as a great introduction for a church-wide study. Even for those wearily browsing bookstore shelves, there is something new to be found.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)