Marcus Borg on elements of thriving churches

Marcus Borg was the evening plenary speaker at the FGC Gathering on Thursday night.

Having read several of Marcus Borg's books and quite a bit of other popular literature about contemporary biblical scholarship, I didn't pick up much new information from Borg's talk. It was, however, wonderful to hear him deliver the talk in person, to an audience with varying levels of knowledge of the material, and to have him available to answer questions from the audience. And I tend to agree with his interpretations of many things.

I did find one of his responses particularly interesting during Q&A at the end, just as Robin & I were getting up to leave because we had to pick up the children. A Friend asked Borg what signs of hope he sees for religion in the U.S. and the world today.

Borg responded with a summary of Diana Butler Bass's book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith. He said she had studied several hundred mainline Protestant congregations to determine what helps them thrive, and studied a much smaller sample in much more depth.

A thriving or "emerging" congregation has the following four qualities, Borg contended:
  1. They are progressive.
  2. They are intentional.
  3. They reacquaint their members with their traditions.
  4. They are for justice and peace.
Sounds like a good description of the thriving Quaker meetings I know! I also know of several meetings that tend to be weak on (2), intentionality, and fair-to-middling on (3), reacquaintance with traditions. How seriously do the majority of members and attenders take their meeting community except on Sunday? The answer varies widely, as it no doubt does in emerging mainline churches, too.

Borg noted that "emergent" churches in the evangelical denominations probably account for about 15% of those congregations. If he said how many "emerging" churches there are, I missed it. (I was scribbling the notes on the back of my nametag, because I had put my notebook away in my backpack and was walking toward the back door to leave when he said all this.)

I would hope most Friends meetings and churches would see the list above and aspire to do well on all four counts. I could also see a "convergence" of Friends happening here as meetings and churches decided to work on the areas they have paid less attention to in the last decade or so.


forrest said...

Not having examples from the speech, I am not so sure what "intentional" means in this context. (?)

"Progressive?" Again, what's that? Is that anything like having a conversation with a burning bush who expects you to talk the Jews into leaving Egypt? I generally like what people call "progressive," as opposed to what Americans have been doing instead... but doesn't this risk sounding like a call for an idolatry of new stuff for its own sake?

Traditions? A blind alley, except as we treat these traditions as means of reacquainting ourselves with the Source of those traditions.

For justice & peace? So is God, who gives us our appetite for these conditions.

And why should we care whether a church "thrives" or not? Methinks people will tend to want this--when said church is giving them something they value. That "something" might mean any number of disguised ego-treats, or a range of benevolent purposes--But ideally I'd like my meeting to thrive and grow because it was giving us chances to better see God at work. We talk as if this was either unimportant or a matter we can expect a church to fulfill automatically... Or is the problem more like this: We have no way to insure God's participation, and so we devote ourselves to considerations that seem more under our control? But can anything we can control be truly sacred?

Anonymous said...

Where can I read more about what Marcus Borg means by the four characteristics?

Chris M. said...

@Zach: Yep, I would be interested in a (post)modern remix, too. Seems to me a lot of people in your Yearly Meeting are seriously exploring that, as are some in Pacific Yearly Meeting. In fact, Elaine Emily from our YM did a workshop on rediscovering eldering at the Gathering.

@Forrest: Fair enough to ask what was meant by those terms such "intentional" or "progressive." I'll take the commonly construed meanings at face value, please.

As for why we should care whether a church thrives, my take is that we humans are social creatures, and we come together in bands. While we may experience God anywhere/any time, we're only good for the long haul in community. So, to me that requires some form of congregation (whether affinity group, house church, small meeting, or megameeting is up to you). I'd rather participate in such a community that could be described as thriving.

@anonymous, I'd refer you to the book that Borg was referring to by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us. Her website is http://www.dianabutlerbass.com/.

-- Chris M.