Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World

The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World
by Derek Penwell at
Chalice Press 2014

I had never heard of Derek Penwell until I read his book, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World. Now I’m a fan. He has something vitally important to say to the mainline church. Actually, he lays down the gauntlet and challenges its leaders to “embrace (denominational) death as a liberation from having to succeed, and learn how to live,” by “rediscovering the radical Jesus of the Gospels.”

As a seasoned pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church and a lecturer at the University of Louisville, Penwell is well qualified to speak his prophetic word to the mainline Christian church at large. I’m a pastor in the Episcopal Church and I am a part of the community Penwell is addressing. His words are timely.

This book is a response to the overwhelming “vortex of doom” that is consuming the mainline church as it continues to decline towards extension. His ideas will make most denominational leaders cringe. Some will look for a way to dismiss his work. He boldly states that, “Whether mainline churches survive is largely beside the point.”

His point, he writes, is that the church’s constant focus on the problem is feeding the negative downward spiral. Penwell challenges his readers to move their focus beyond an over-reaching desire to save the church and instead to pour their energy into doing God’s work in the world. He says the church should “start celebrating the work of the faithful, and let God worry about the finish line.”

He doesn’t avoid the question of the missing “Nones;” the largest growing segment of young adults who declare they have no faith tradition. Instead, he offers excellent current research as to what the Emerging generation is seeking. He says they have a hunger for a “commitment to theological inclusivity,” that is “suspicious of a universalizing meta-narrative that imposes orthodoxies.” The Emergents have a passion for equality, mission, social justice and a radical distrust of established religious institutions. The younger generations seek community, embrace diversity, and want to explore new spiritual frontiers. Penwell is quick to cite a variety of interfaith sources. He says it is time for the church “to move past ecumenism (and) recognize we live in a pluralistic world.”

His “Survival Guide” challenges the church to create spaces of community by moving beyond their walls and provides practical means to do so. He says, though, it’s less about bars and coffee shops, and more about being authentically present among the people of our towns and cities wherever they hang out. He speaks frankly to church leaders, challenging them to create a theology of inclusivity, embracing the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, and Queer person. Including them in all aspects of church life. He challenges the church to develop a meaningful theology of creation, which is truly green and relevant. He also questions the notion of certain church leaders who are unwilling to tackle these difficult issues, for fear of losing members by stating, “The church must be more concerned with relinquishing any idea of success that doesn’t begin with death, sacrifices, and laying down. The church must focus on letting go of the need to ensure its future more than on grasping for its survival.”

My only critique of the book is personal. I could have done without the church and American history lesson, harkening the church to the post-American Revolutionary days and the Second Great Awakening. I get it. I understand it. I even enjoy history. But, I doubt it was necessary for him to build his book on the premise that the mainline church has been in this situation before, and confirming God continues to do God’s work despite the climate of the church.

Aside from my own minor pique with Penwell’s book—when I finished it I had a long list of people I hoped would read this excellent work. I wanted “them” to read it because I knew he wrote it for “them.” I didn’t think his book was written to me. I agree with what he wrote. But, by the time I was at the end of writing this review, I realized, indeed, his book was written to me. First, by encouraging me that I am not alone in my thoughts about the church. Second, and more importantly, Derek Penwell has challenged me to dare and be as bold and prophetic. When my resolve gets weak, I’ll need go back and read the book again.

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