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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, beginning with Holy Week and ending at Epiphany. Its greatest strength lies in its dead-on portraits of the staff members at a mainline Protestant church that (risking the redundancy) doesn't quite know what it is supposed to be doing: the minister for social activism who has mastered the choreography of outrage, to no discernible effect; the minister of education whose portfolio thickens with passing fads; the senior pastor who believes in energy and happiness as much as in God--or who might not know the difference. Less passionate than Arthur Dimmesdale, more circumspect than Elmer Gantry, the Reverend Van Parker merits a small place in American literature's clerical hall of shame. He rebels at Ecclesiastes for its not being a happy book. He has little use for H. Richard Niebuhr, his professor at Yale Divinity School, since Niebuhr had not seemed a happy man. Parker's call to the ministry came in the form of a family entitlement. A scion of wasp culture driving on after that culture has lost its lead, he is most distinguished in this account as the manipulator of a $1 million fund drive. We don't see him preaching much; in fact, we see little formal worship at all. In short, what was first for the congregation's Puritan founders comes last among their descendants.

What we see in abundance are women, especially women in small groups. Here communion flourishes in every kind, and individuals link together and spin off in their quest for healing, wholeness, social ministry, and depth of soul. Here pass the solitary New Age traveler, the deadened suburban housewife, the fundraising headhunter--all these and more, but also among them some paragons of common sense. Dorsey himself gets fit counsel from "JoAnne," a worthy heir of Anne Hutchinson, big on intuition, down on institutions, no longer needing to bother with meetings for sermon critique, but quick to zero in on the author's own religious block, the multiple conversions he endured in his Carolina childhood. Laywomen are the driving agents in Congregation; their male counterparts--a silently mourning widower, a NASA technician turned parish historian--sit on the sidelines or come to life only when it's budget time. One of the women, another engineer, resolves an impasse with the suggestion that greater faith might improve stewardship. That had not occurred to the pastors.

Engaging them all, the author unwittingly starts to show the mind of Christ. He waxes indignant; he comforts and mourns; he never ceases to be amazed at the hypocrisy, meanness, decency, and joy of these believers, half-believers, and fellow travelers. Dorsey himself passes through these three categories in reverse, leaving his original design for the path of faith. His book thus becomes the analogue of a Puritan's spiritual diary, with one vital difference. While that diary fought the self and closed with God, Dorsey's fights formlessness and closes with others. Puritan communal solidarity lives well at First Church, Windsor, but what of the soul's saturation with the Transcendent? The "divine" lurks in others and peeks out ambiguously: Is it God or just somebody else?

Then again, the narrative can't quite mask the author's hunger of soul. Narcissism seeps out of his final resolution "to be gracious to myself and finally [to] satisfy my desire to belong." Besides, one crucial community goes neglected in his quest, for the author pursues church fellowship partly to escape a sobbing, angry wife--or better, to escape the plight of their infertility. This, ultimately, is what drives Boomer Repentant: the specter of sterility in body and soul, of being found at the final day to be without substance or legacy.

Where does the penitent find release? Less at the cross than at the cradle. During Advent, he and his wife pray for a virgin birth; the next Good Friday they announce that a baby will soon be born for them. These pages capture depths of joy with quiet effect but quit on a disconcerting note. He has learned, Dorsey tells us, to give up his mania for control, to receive gifts with gratitude; but then he feels free to leave the community that made such trust possible. He joins another church closer to home but does not have much fellowship there. If the 1950s suburbanites had a family and rushed to church, this chronicle for the nineties runs that course in reverse.

Central to the media narratives of the "return to church" is the assumption that successive generations are unique and discontinuous. Thus "boomers" are one thing, "busters" another, each to be marketed to with a brand-new sell. The most influential church planners have adopted this model, according to which the history of a particular church or tradition counts for little in sustaining its life, just as local variations seem insignificant next to national trends. Much of this talk passes as "evangelical," but in its cult of novelty and its cultural accommodation it more nearly resembles Protestant liberalism a century back. It must be divine humor, then, that has called forth from a bastion of that liberalism, the University of Chicago Divinity School, a giant project celebrating just the opposite themes: the local, the particular, the historical.

The project began eight years ago on funding from the Lilly Endowment. After winding down a long chain of seminars, it has finally produced the two volumes under review: an anthology of twelve congregational case studies that sprawl over 700 pages, and a defter collection of essays interpreting the same. The profiles circle the compass, from New England Congregational to prairie Muslim by way of (inter alia) African American Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish Reform, and multiethnic Roman Catholic. Beyond serving up a nice smorgasbord, the studies were all supposed to promote congregational history as a subdiscipline, in two ways: by capturing felt memories on local ground, the better to explain why Americans still join religious associations more readily than any other type; and by demonstrating how the world's great religions are passed along by parochial adaptation and rejuvenation.

Measured by those aims, the profiles must be judged a mixed success. In certain cases, like Jeffrey Burns's account of Saint Peter's Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco, voices from the past sound so fresh, and the neighborhood is etched so clearly that we know what Irish Catholic once meant there and what Latino Catholic means there today. Quite another method, a statistical analysis of all 7,379 members that have ever joined Center Church in New Haven, Connecticut, enables Harry Stout and Catherine Brekus to plot the inexorable sociological fate awaiting a church that loses its theological memory and its demographic role. But some of the other essays mostly recount pastors, programs, and building projects, the dreary doings that give congregational history a bad name. Members of the traditions represented in this volume will nod in recognition at the piece on their own group, and historians will go away newly aware of the genre's possibilities, but not all these pieces will serve as models of execution.

The studies do help explain what sustains congregations, in the absence of which they die. What Gary Dorsey found at First Church, Windsor, seems to turn up in every time, place, and tradition. First, a well-run congregation needs women, small groups, and money--better yet, small groups of women to raise the money. Second, the United States may be the land of democracy, but democracy wants leadership; lay initiative will call up--not squelch--clerical professionalism. Third, parishioners sooner or later will want the clergy to do their believing for them; good leaders don't let them, but they then run the risk of being thought ineffective. Fourth, the chief purpose of a congregation is to pass on its tradition to its children. That implies, fifth, that every congregation has a tradition, especially those (in this volume, Rockdale [Reform Jewish] Temple, Cincinnati; and Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, California) that think they don't. It further implies, sixth, that the core of a congregation is family. Gary Dorsey's fertility instincts led him aright.

So how, and how well, do congregations pass tradition along? The question defies answer since different bodies occupy such different social spaces. The Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in suburban Chicago is so fully first-generation immigrant that the process of differentiating religion, language, and regional (Indian) origin has barely begun. The Muslim congregation of Lac La Biche, Alberta, has surmounted regional for national (i.e., Lebanese) identity; the members at Baltimore's Cathedral of the Annunciation have become self-consciously Greek American and Orthodox, and notably active in city politics for erstwhile "outsiders." In all these cases tradition-passing is easier, if conflicted, because ethnicity remains strong. The toll that ethnic change exacts on religion is evident in the trials some of the Roman Catholic parishes surveyed suffered after World War II, and in the extinction of one of them, Saint Boniface, Chicago, in 1990.

But if the God of Yankee imperialism is bad, are not these ethno-religious entanglements also lamentable? Probably, but no better alternative comes into sight, at least in these volumes. Center Church, New Haven, merely hid its tribalism behind class and entitlement; when these faded, it slumped. The Mormons of Sugar House Ward outside Salt Lake City built a total religious enclave on the basis of their calling as a chosen people. In moving toward privatization since World War II, they have taken on more of an All-American identity--not a safer option, all things considered. The most haunting alternative rises at Calvary Chapel among the feckless, prosperous Anglos of Orange County, California. Here abides no memory of any kind, ethnic, religious, even congregational. Rather, their "Spirit-filled" worship lifts the audience up to timeless ecstasy, while the pastor's apocalyptic preaching cancels out the future. The present, meanwhile, orbits between right-wing politics and mass consumption throttled by traffic jams.

Perhaps the happiest trail out of this thicket has been blazed by African American churches. Here ethnicity is a given and a prize, while American identity operates less as an idol than as a reformist aspiration. The church, meanwhile, can adjust to any new challenge and remain the heart of the community. Such is the thesis developed by Clarence Taylor in The Black Churches of Brooklyn. But even the African American case is complicated by the cross-cutting movements of local and mass culture. Taylor argues that black churchgoers adapted generic products to their own purposes; yet they had the resources to control neither the production nor the distribution of these products and might not have been well served by being absorbed into the culture of consumption. Ironically, gospel music, the group's seminal contribution to mass culture, emerged from holiness-Pentecostal circles that were otherwise closed to that culture's ways and wares.

In this light, how should we assess an African American congregation today, such as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal in Baltimore, the Chicago project's selection? Long a flagship of middle-class dignity, the church has recently gone "soft" Pentecostal in liturgy, African in decor, and off the chart in growth rate. Yet the upbeat gospel music that links these three together is so mainstream that the church might actually be in the process of re-Americanizing. Here again, as in Gary Dorsey's pilgrimage, it is the younger middle class that has taken hold on church; the boomers can be black. Those at Bethel can afford the change; their group memory lies so deep and their faith so central that, for the foreseeable future, their tradition cannot be expunged.

For the other congregations gathered in these volumes and scattered across the country, the question remains whether they have the spiritual resources to command a sacrifice for their God, and for a future that can unfold their past.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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