Interview: Diana Butler Bass on growing healthier churches

Diana Butler Bass is one of America’s leading experts on faith and culture. She is in great demand among church leaders who want to chart a healthier path toward growth. Her conclusions, based on a wealth of new data, are surprising.
In Part 1 of our coverage, this week, we review her new book, Christianity After Religion.
TODAY, in Part 2, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Diana …

Highlights of
Intervew with
Diana Butler Bass

DAVID: Let’s start with the question that millions of Americans are having trouble answering for pollsters: Given all the changes you’re writing about in this new book, how do you identify yourself religiously these days?

DIANA: (laughs) Can we just say: She responded with a big silence?

DAVID: Give it a shot, will you?

DIANA: I understand myself as a Christian who is leaning toward an unknown future and I am feeling a sense of loss. I know we have to leave some things behind in terms of ritual practices and traditions of the Church, but I am also full of a sense of wonder and imagination. What is Christianity going to look like for my daughter? For my unborn grandchildren? I am hopeful. I see the possibility of a Christianity that can be open and fluid and that will no longer be guarded by huge boundaries and barriers set up by human beings to close out so many people. I see a Christianity emerging that will embrace people around the world in love. I hope for a future of healing for our planet.

DAVID: Wow, that’s pretty good. I’m glad I asked. In our review of your book, I will explain to readers why this is such important reading for people who care about their congregations. One tough conclusion you reach, though, is:
Sometimes the term “Christian” can be toxic.
Is there hope for that word, Christian?

DIANA: I think the evidence is out on this question, but we might be getting close to the point where the label is becoming too toxic. I continue writing books with the word Christian in the title because I want to remind people that Christianity isn’t exclusively about authoritarian old men telling the rest of us what we have to believe. If we keep reminding people that fluidity and love and flexibility and doing justice—all of this—is part of the Christian tradition and life, then we may be able to reclaim the word. I do think the name can be reclaimed, but for millions of people this word means bad things.

DAVID: The 2012 campaign certainly isn’t helping matters. From cover stories in Newsweek to the New York Times, we see over-the-top Christian claims from politicians.

DIANA: Just listen to some of the political rhetoric we’re hearing this year about Christian This and Christian That! That’s not good for Christianity. Hearing the political voices this year moves me toward not wanting to say publicly that I am a Christian.


CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: Recently, I served on a panel at the University of Michigan, talking to business and civic leaders about the failure of traditional newspapers in the US. Why did they fail? Here’s one central reason: Newspaper executives became confused about their own product. They came to believe that their product was a profit for shareholders. In fact, their product was a newspaper that interacted with readers’ lives. When the executives forgot their real product, they were doomed to failure. Similarly, in churches, I hear a huge focus today on numbers: How high can you run the numbers each year? And, how much money can you raise? Your book reminds us that the product of Christianity is people, not numbers. Is that fair to say?

DIANA: Yes, and I would go further. The product we must focus on in the future is on people’s transformed lives doing justice in the world. This is about connecting people to God and their neighbors and the world in new ways. Focusing on fights over doctrinal purity or focusing on number games is not going to lead to success.

DAVID: And there’s some good news for mainliners in your book! Your book nails down lots of solid evidence that the big Boogeyman for mainline churches—the giant of evangelical America that mainliners feared for many years—is facing the same kind of shrinkage as everyone else.

DIANA: That’s true. Over the past decade, the evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been posting declines that resemble declines in mainline churches in the 1970s. People aren’t interested in who’s doing liberal theology vs. who’s doing evangelical theology. The whole picture we thought was operating across America is turned inside out. If you are in a mainline church, you don’t have to be afraid of the Religious Right. All denominations are experiencing declines. And this surprises a lot of people: What I’ve found is that the most spiritually vibrant congregations are likely to be the most liberal congregations. Liberal congregations are more likely to offer new experiences with God than theologically conservative churches that aren’t able to explore new spiritual experiences with people. The picture of spiritual life we thought was out there is turned around in dramatic ways.


DAVID: But, wait! I have to speak on behalf of the Classic Problem of the Leaky Roof. Our friend and colleague J. Brent Bill heads one of the nation’s leading centers helping congregations with real-world challenges and frequently the questions Brent receives aren’t about vibrant spirituality. The question often is: How do we fix this leaky roof? We don’t have the money. What do we do now?

DIANA: Some friends of mine recently asked me to help them with a capital funds campaign and one problem they had was a leaky roof. First, I asked them: Why do you even want to put money into a building these days? They came up with all kinds of reasons for fixing the building, such as: We don’t want mold. It’s not healthy. I kept repeating the question and they said: We need a building to function now in the community and to pass on to the next generation.

I said to them: That’s all great stuff, but tell me what’s spiritual about your roof? Give me a compelling spiritual reason to fix your roof. I remember seeing eyes go wide at this question. One person said, “You know, we’ve never really talked about that before. But our roof provides shelter for this amazing work God does in our congregation. And this man started talking about how people’s lives are changed under the shelter of that roof and how they feed hungry people and how youth have a place to go when their parents aren’t at home.

I said: “That’s the vision for raising the money you need. Talk about that. If you can communicate to people how your space is sacred, then people will want to help. Fixing a leaky roof isn’t about putting a new roof on a building. It’s not about shingles and numbers for most people. It’s about the ways we provide spiritual shelter for our community to welcome all who need this sacred space.”

Now, the other answer to this question for the larger church is: We have to recognize that we no longer need so many buildings. Some of our buildings no longer serve a spiritual purpose in the community. They no longer are true shelters welcoming the community. And, in those cases, we need to say: Perhaps this building is more of a hindrance than a help.


DAVID: I’m sure our readers are wondering: Who is this woman? People may have a general awareness of your work, but how do you describe your professional role?

DIANA: I call myself an itinerant educator. I travel from place to place and I work with people to help them understand trends in religion and in our world. I work with lay people in congregations, I work with clergy in big events, I speak at seminary conferences. I do some high-level events for bishops and leaders at the national level. I am an educator and I travel widely. I use those two words now: itinerant educator.

DAVID: Many readers know that you were United Methodist and you also got very involved in the evangelical community. Do you attend a church today?

DIANA: I do participate in a congregation. And, yes, I was raised United Methodist and was confirmed in a Methodist church in Arizona. Then, I sort of went my own way and wound up for a long while in pretty conservative evangelical and Pentecostal circles in the 1970s. I even went to a conservative evangelical seminary. It wasn’t until 1981 that I seriously began to explore the mainline again. I found my way into the Episcopal Church and that’s been my own label ever since.

I participate in an Episcopal congregation in Virginia. We go for a couple of reasons. My daughter likes the youth group, especially because the youth group emphasizes justice and working in the world. It’s a place where she enjoys the opportunities to be involved in the larger community. And we go because I’m always prodding other people to get involved in churches and help make changes. So, I should be doing that myself, too. The church we attend is kind of a 1970s congregation. Like everyone else, I find that church life sometimes is frustrating, but it’s where we are grounded as a family.

DAVID: Who are your readers? Your national audience?

DIANA: My main audience comes from the cluster of churches known as mainline. In a very real way, I find that my readers have invited me into their lives. I’ve experienced amazing hospitality among Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and among people across the ecumenical spectrum.


DAVID: So, what is this thing we’re calling Christianity today? I know from our own Mormon readers that members of their church consider themselves completely and fully Christian. But we know from polling in this 2012 campaign year that many evangelicals don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Here’s the problem as I see it: Most American churchgoers are unaware of the huge breadth of Christianity around the world. There’s a vast range from a free-spirited Pentecostal church in the American South—to the more traditional Eastern Orthodox churches in the Middle East or India. There’s perhaps an even greater range there than between Baptists and Mormons. So, how do you describe the umbrella of Christianity today?

DIANA: You just gave a pretty good summary of the answer. When people describe that range to me, I say: Welcome to the 21st-Century Church! We tend to look back on Christianity and make the mistake of thinking that it’s a nice unified story. But the truth is that the 1st-Century Church was probably as wildly diverse as ours is today. You get little glimpses of this in the New Testament where Paul and other writers are trying to correct different wild forms of faith. The church has always been difficult to define in one central way. That’s the history of Christianity.

One way I describe Christianity today is using these words: Christianity is an experience of God in and through Christ that results in personal transformation and communal transformation that is lived through a set of practices for the sake of the world. That kind of definition is able to include a lot more people than simply listing a set of doctrines we have to check off to get into the club.

Christianity is constantly straining at the boundaries human beings construct in order to contain God. By starting with the kind of definition I just provided—we’re inviting a lively discussion about Christianity. What do those phrases mean in this definition I provided? Christianity in the 21st Century will not grow through more and more specific theological interpretations of God. It will grow when we invite a whole lot of people to come into this family of faith and have a lively conversation about what we are doing together. We need to realize: Nobody gets to have their way over everybody else, anymore. We must figure out how to live as friends. The question I ask about various Christian groups is not: Are you Christian? If a group comes to us and says it is Christian or wants to be involved in the Christian community, my question is: What kind of Christian are you?


DAVID: One of the most striking findings I’ve seen in recent months is a report that America’s greatest character strength is kindness. Does that surprise you? I’m saying this because, in my reading of your book set and my understanding of the larger trends we’re seeing in American culture, this central value of kindness bodes very well for the hopeful things you’re saying.

DIANA: America’s character strength is kindness—does that surprise me? No, that actually doesn’t surprise me, but it does help me to understand better why we have our knickers in such a twist right now about the way so many people are angry with one another. We’re all wringing our hands about the anger in America. Why? Because we have this underlying value of kindness—and we’re upset that we’re so far from the way we see ourselves.


DIANA: Closely related to this theme of kindness, I see great potential for American religion in hospitality. That closely relates to kindness. This is a great challenge, but—because we are so diverse in America and we receive so many immigrants here—hospitality is a great possibility for us nationwide.

This may surprise you, but I’m finding great examples of this kind of hospitality in places you might not expect—places like the Great Plains. I’ve got an example I like to talk about in Nebraska. And why? Because in the Great Plains, the skies are big and hearts and open. That’s a lesson for all of us in America. In each new generation, we need people to come along and remind us that’s a defining vision of America. We don’t need to fear our neighbors.

If you want a one-line summary of this new book, I’m reminding readers of this central truth: Our skies are big and our hearts are open—and all of our religious traditions can be renewed in light of that vision.

JUMP BACK AND READ PART 1: Our review and overview of Christianity after Religion.

GET THE BOOK: Christianity After Religion is available now through Amazon.

MORE ABOUT AMERICA’S BIG SKIES: Enjoy our American Journey series.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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