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By James D. Bratt

Congregation: The Journey Back to Church

"Congregation: The Journey Back to Church," by Gary Dorsey. Viking, 388 pp.; $24.95

"American Congregations" Volume 1: "Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities;" Volume 2: "New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations," edited by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis. University of Chicago Press, Vol. 1, 712 pp.; $34.95, Vol. 2, 292 pp.; $22.50

"The Black Churches of Brooklyn," by Clarence Taylor. Columbia University Press, 297 pp.; $27.50

The boomers are returning to church: of that the Lord Hucksters, spiritual and temporal, are well aware as they kneel in reverence once again to milk their demographic cash cow. Academics, too, have been quick to identify a trend: a subject ripe for conferences and monographs. And we experience the familiar paradox of a phenomenon so widely proclaimed that it begins to seem unreal, cover-storied and talk-showed to death. To get at the reality of the "return to church," we need to see it in the larger, messier context suggested by the books under review: the history of American congregations.

Gary Dorsey's "Congregation: The Journey Back to Church" offers a Tracy Kidder-style immersion in the life of a single congregation. The author first appears on stage as Boomer Rampant: the journalist returned from an overseas assignment, seeking out a new project to go along with the new house and the new wife. Why not religion, a pretty sure bet in the bookstores? Why not, in particular, the secret heart of an ordinary parish, the mystery he senses in the "erotic" smells of a musty Connecticut church? But if conceived as Couples Redux, Congregation becomes a story of a plot gotten out of hand, of how voyeur turns visionary. The book may or may not stand as the chronicle of the boomer's quest, but it memorably etches the path that quest follows and raises some worries about its destination.

"Congregation" is reader friendly. Its tone modulates nicely between the poignant, the comical, and the deadpan. Its narrative follows the church year, though--significantly--backwards, ...

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