Losing our religion: Books that pastors read

I interviewed more than 25 clergy for November’s cover stories, and most of those interviews took place in their studies. As you can imagine, when talking about the present and future of churches with ministers who are surrounded by books, it’s inevitable for some of those books to be discussed.

Here are just a few that were mentioned (and a couple generously loaned to me, which I plan to return as soon as I read them):

Rev. Roger Quillin of Northridge Presbyterian suggested "The Social Sources of Denominationalism" by H. Richard Niebuhr. The renowned theologian broaches the subject of church unity, looking at the social and historical ways churches have split off into different denominations, as well as optimistically looking at ways to reunify.

Rev. Karl Schwarz of Westminster Presbyterian mentioned "GodViews" by Jack Haberer, a book also addressing unity by discussing the issues that divide Christians and ways to deal with diversity.

Jason WalkerCraig of Royal Lane Baptist referenced Walter Brueggemann’s "Evangelism", which describes evangelism as story telling. WalkerCraig had a lot of things to say about evangelism via handing out tracts, preaching on street corners, and using "turn or burn" methodology — none of them good. One of my favorite quotes from WalkerCraig, though, was his take on the term "unchurched", commonly used by churchgoers to describe people who are not Christian or do not attend church: "It just irks me to no end because it makes it sound like church is something you do to someone."

Rev. Laura Fregin of Church in the Cliff was full of good suggestions; one of them was "The Gift" by Lewis Hyde, which explains a philosophy Fregin’s church tries to implement: "It’s not that the neighborhood is so lucky that we’re coming to help them," she says. "The idea is that the community has gifts to offer the church, and the church has gifts to offer the community." Church in the Cliff’s work with local artists to showcase their work is one example of this mutual gift-ing.

Another of Fregin’s suggestions is one I’ve been trying to read for some time, and is a perfect pairing for this story — "Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith" by Diana Butler Bass. The author studies mainline churches across the country, ones that are supposed to be declining, and shares the stories of centrist and progressive churches that are flourishing without mimicking the characteristics of megachurches.

Rev. Clay Allard of Oak Cliff Presbyterian started off our conversation by naming "The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for the New Mission Frontier" by Loren Mead. All of the changes taking place locally, Allard says, "are taking place against the background of one of the largest, if not the largest, changes churches have seen since the Reformation, and the change is we are on a mission field." There used to be a mentality of "gather the people in from the neighborhood, but what do you do with them? Well, there’s nothing to do with them — we’re all Christians," Allard says, adding that, of course, "that was never true, either."

Allard continues that what we have today are "congregations with no mission," which has led to the movement of the "missional church" over the last 20, 30 years, a term made most popular by theologian Darrell Guder. "In essence, what’s he’s saying is a church without mission has no right to exist anymore. No one is going to keep it alive. The only people who care about it are the people who have already been here, and [the younger] generations are not that susceptible to catching that mission."

Speaking of changes in America, Rev. Gerald Krumenacker of Christ Episcopal Church talked about a recent NPR story he listened to on a book called "Are We Rome?", comparing the trajectories of the two empires.

Last one, suggested by Rev. J.D. Godwin (and a Back Talk commenter), "UnChristian", the Barna Group study of how younger generations feel about the church and why they are leaving.


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