Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What I'm Thinking About What I'm Reading

Here are the three books I've been reading and thinking about in preparation for our class.

1. Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somthings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, Princeton Univ. Press, 2007.

I have been appreciative of this sociologist's previous work. He really knows the contemporary religious ethos in America and has engaged in research that has integrity and depth to bolster his analyses. He begins by noting that "there is, however, once point on which theologians and social scientists agree; from wahtever source theological inspiration originates, it manifests itself in the concrete realities of human life. In theological language, this truth is expressed in the doctrine of the incarnation: the word made flesh. In social science, the same idea is captured from the ground up, so to speak, in arguments about the social constructuion of knowledge and belief. The individual person of faith is influenced by the social contexts in which he or she lives. Faith is thus not only a conviction about the unseen but also an expression of the opportunites a person has experienced." From this point of agreement, Wuthnow continues by identifying the generation of young adults (20s &30s) who are taking their time establishing themselves in careers, marrying and starting families later, which he translates into an estimated 6 million fewer adults attending church than in previous generations in America.

So what? Wuthnow is not interesting in either wringing his hands or celebrating this finding. Rather he just wants to document that evangelicalism's growth is tapering off [Rick Warren has admitted this in his most recent book as well]. At the same time, however, Wuthnow notes the growing interest in more individualized approaches to spiritual connectedness and authenticity that are attracting those no longer interested in "traditional" institutional Christianity. Hence the appearance of the emergent church movement.

Well worth reading and pondering, I think. I think he does a good job in setting the context of many 20s/30s in our country. I'm especially interested to know if Wuthnow's interviewees represent this generation fairly -- will the 20 and 30 somethings I know find themselves described in these pages?

2. Carol Howard Merritt, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Alban Institute, 2007.

I haven't finished this yet -- but its style of writing is much more informal than Wuthnow (no value judgment here on my part) and has as its central goal challenging the perception that folks who are coming of age today are somehow less capable of theological depth, not "into" discipleship, slackers with poor attention spans, etc. Instead, Merritt wants to argue that the current generation is every bit as theologically curious and committed to relationships fostering peace and justice as any generation preceeding them. What I've read so far, however, differs from the sociological study in that it is more didactic (no value judgment here either -- didactic is good too) and narrative -- the author speaks about her own experiences as a pastor and seminary professor to to this generation. This book seems a good introduction to who this generation "is" from the perspective of a pastor/professor who serves them.

3. Nathan C.P. Frambach, Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today, Augsburg Fortress, 2007.

Part of the Lutheran Voices series, this small book gives the broad outline both of how emergent churches that Frambach is acquainted with understand their theology and practice. It is the changing face of the mission field that motivates Frambach's work and also our engagement with emergent cultures if we wish to remain faithful to our "historical legacy as Lutherans in this country." Frambach identifies emergent communities as those who "learn to do theology in unaccustomed ways," "relate to a context genuinely," "practice new forms of communication and deep listening," and "ask honest, hard questions about the purpose of the church." OK, but what I don't like about this book is the "tone" that implies that by and large the churches today have lost their way here and that it is this renewal movement that is the cure for mainline malaise. I wish the book didn't draw such a sharp distinction between and reinforce the idea of an immense chasm between the institutional church which has very little good and alot of static inertia and the emergent ministries that are basically the church's only hope.

In fairness, I suppose it is difficult to do justice to the nuances in such a short text. At best, this could be a good book for adult study in congregations to get people talking about how to be missional in an increasingly diversified American Christian landscape.

OK those are my initial thoughts. What are others thinking about what they are reading?


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