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Friday, September 5, 2014

"Mainliner’s survival guide to the post-denominational world" (Derek Penwell)

TITLE: The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World
AUTHOR: Derek Penwell
PUBLISHER: St Loius, MO: Chalice Press, 2014, (192 pages).

Many people have talked about dying Churches. Even friends I know have mentioned the decline in their Church ministries or overall numbers each Sunday. The truth is, the Church generally is on a decline. Quoting various statistics to support this claim, Derek Penwell has painted a grim picture of a decline across all mainline denominations. So much so that many churches are asking how much longer their congregation is going to last. While acknowledging the negativity about the future of the mainline Church, Penwell prefers to adopt a hopeful posture. If someone is suffering from Stage IV cancer, what would we do? Would we drown ourselves in discouraging that person, or would we stand up to fight to the very end? Using this metaphor for the declining Church, the purpose of this book is to read the situation appropriately and make the best out of whatever remaining years ahead. It is not about anticipating death. It is about surviving through the years when alive. Penwell, author, speaker, and senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) writes this book about hope in the midst of hopelessness. He says that the gospel is about "failure and death" and God embraced that. Making a reference to the post Revolutionary War period, Penwell points out that time also as a period that seeds the Second Great Awakening. During that time, the Church was also in decline, like our present. During that time, there was great apathy toward the Church, just like ours. During that time, there were skepticism and negativity toward the institutions, just like ours. During that time, people wanted to be free of ecclesiastical or political meddling, just like ours! In the same way, the success of the Great Awakening contributed a lot to the apathy toward the Church, just like our present crisis which came after the most recent revival. Like the generations that participated in the great revivals of old, these very people are also passionate about "equality, mission, and social justice."

Part One of the book compares the present crisis with the period after the Revolutionary War. With the Enlightenment thinking still very much a strong influence, Church takes a beating as people associate them with royalty and corruption. With the growing popularity of Deism, together with anti-establishment and anti-clericalism, the stage was set for the decline of one, and the rise of another expression of faith. Penwell highlights the early beginnings of the "Disciples of Christ" movement. Churches led by Barton Stone and Thomas Campbell bucked the decline with the former ditching the denominational label for an independent one, and the latter urging for a greater focus on Scripture over creedal stance. Penwell then supplies some learning points from history.
  • Take special notice of the unaffiliateds
  • Be aware of the existing cultural fascinations, and be ready to speak into the situation with a relevant voice
  • One may be running away from hierarchical power, but catch where they are running toward.  
  • Note the rising use of technology and the Internet
  • Fear is a normal thing. Fear of a decline of any denomination is also a normal thing.
Part Two looks at three big initiatives about how to adapt to the postmodern environment. The first is how the Church can adapt to a "spiritual-but-not-religious" and a missional-not-institutional culture. Do not be carried away but maintain a balanced stand. Know not only the negatives but also the positives of institutions. According to Penwell, the problem with the Church now is essentially a "technological one." He argues that the institutional church that we have come to know is simply a "way of doing things" and not about their identity. The rationale is that if one had invested lots into ABC, there would naturally be anxiety when ABC looked set to be replaced by DEF. The purpose is to move one away from the tools of the trade toward the mission of the trade. In other words, be ministry focused and not institutionally locked into. Secondly, Penwell proposes a more theologically inclusive Church. This calls for creative ways to promote the acceptance of diversity without being accused of syncretism. The purpose of this acceptance of diversity is not the different expressions of belief per se but the avoidance of judgmentalism. Thirdly, Penwell homes in on the technological aspect of the institution by reflecting on the impact of social media which can be constructively seen as an augmentation of our existing communications network. He believes that mainline denominations need to learn how to engage in social media.

Part Three looks forward to the future. Against a negative climate that seems anti-Christianity, and where Christians are increasingly seen as a liability to society, one needs to be aware of two main reasons why people shun religion, especially Christianity: Dead irrelevant structures and Hypocrisy. Moreover, people are not content with just a Jesus as a passport to salvation kind of religion. They want a life that is larger than themselves. They want something they can relate to. Penwell makes some observations about contentious issues such as homosexuality, the declining number of Millennials in the Church, and how a postmodern generation prefers a more casual environment like the coffee house, even the Pub. He makes a distinction between "intrinsically good" and "instrumentally good" we know that the latter is a short-term-quick-gain while the former tends to be more long term even without big gains upfront. In other words, doing good because of good in itself covers more ground than merely doing good for some myopic purpose. How the Church deals with the gay issue takes an entire chapter. Penwell believes that it is inevitable that the Church has to embrace the LGBTQ community into the fold.

So What?

I think Penwell begins strong with a reference to the historical contexts of the Second Great Awakening. He makes several good and salient observations of the postmodern climate and the potholes that the Church had fallen through. Unfortunately, toward the end, the momentum tapers down as he starts to take instructions less from the Bible but through the teachings of Buddha instead especially Chapter 7. It is one thing to be open to new teachings but it is yet another to start adopting non-Christian sources, considering that the author himself had written with conviction about letting Scriptures speak louder than creeds and traditions (p33). This brings me to the next critique of the book, which is a lack of explicit biblical principles in the "survival guide." I would have preferred a consistent incorporation of what the Bible teaches with what Penwell had observed of the culture. Finally, there is the almost uncritical acceptance that culture speaks louder than the denominational world. While it is true that we ought to pay attention and the need for relevance in the world, we cannot simply pander to every cultural shifts as if they speak louder than the gospel. For example, his section on social media is a little more lopsided on the advantages. As we all know, there is also a sinister side to social media. (Read Sherry Turkle's and Nicholas Carr's research or my articles on "How Technology Divides"). You may even want to read iGods by Craig Detweiler.

Apart from the above, throughout the book, Penwell writes in an encouraging manner for readers to press on, not to be drowned out by the staggering and depressing statistics, but to cling on to the hope that based on history, we are probably in a pre-revival stages. When that will happen we do not know. What we do know is that faithfulness in the present is essential. Hope for the future is crucial. Encouragement throughout it all is the differential for the generations that are to come. Who knows, our generation that maintains a half-full disposition will be a strong witness. Taking a leaf from Zechariah 4:6, its not by numbers, not by powers, but by God's Spirit that will make the entire difference.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Speakeasy and Chalice Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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