As communities of faith continue to worry about the latest demographic studies documenting the decline of Christianity in the U.S., I’d like to call attention to Derek Penwell’s book, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World (Chalice Press, 2014). While valued institutions may very well be declining, Penwell helps us see that this actually harbors the potential to provide an opportunity for churches to consider valuing the call of Christ over and above the call of Christendom, which is something that has been lacking in the churches for far too long.
Here is the review I did for Encounter magazine:
It’s no secret that Christian congregations and organizations have long measured their institutional health and vitality based on numbers, particularly in regard to members and finances. As such, success in ministry is frequently understood in terms that are quite similar to the consumeristic market-driven economy that in many respects is viewed as more sovereign than Calvin’s God, leading more and more scholars to assert that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world – atomically, biologically, chemically, etc. – than to imagine an alternative to the consumeristic market-driven economy in which we (and our churches) live and move and have our being.
However, Derek Penwell refuses to play by these rules, and his book shows that churches can (and should) refuse to play by them as well.
Penwell begins in familiar territory, citing various statistics related to mainline denominational decline that in one form or another have been voiced for over two decades, the affects of which culminate in what he calls a “vortex of doom” that leads congregants and pastors to feel “mounting anxiety about the prospect of failure.” But instead of allowing such fears to consume congregations, Penwell changes the conversation: “The prospect of death need not necessarily imprison us; it could, if we were able to shift our thinking, liberate us.”
It is precisely here that we begin to see that Penwell isn’t interested in the typical remedies for so-called “revitalization” that have become a dime a dozen in the mainline publishing market, remedies which in sum generally offer little more than the peddling of snake oil to desperate congregations that are much more interested in renewing a mythic past than in moving into a transformational – albeit risky and uncertain – future. Perhaps surprisingly, Penwell doesn’t offer a clear and concise remedy at all. Rather, he invites churches to risk, to leap, to fail, and to do so by embracing the heart of the Christian story, for “the gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who’ve got nothing left to lose.”
Instead of primarily worrying about typical market-related signifiers, which lead congregations to constantly want a return on their investment (e.g., new members, young families, additional pledges, etc.), Penwell challenges churches to focus on the gospel as a gift to the world – a gift which, as Aquinas describes, “is literally a giving that can have no return.” Penwell’s approach to congregational faithfulness is reminiscent of St. Paul’s notion of kenosis, in which Christ empties himself for the sake of others.
To be sure, Penwell affirms, it would be nice for congregations to experience new life in the process. But the point is not to do what is right for the payoff; the point is to do what is right out of faithfulness to the gospel, no matter what the return might be. And in a world that is constantly trying to manipulate people in order to get something out of them, such faithfulness just might bring with it signs of resurrection.