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Leadership JournalConfronting controversy with character and grace.
Spring 1998

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Growing Edge

Why New Churches Are Growing


Will Willimon on a ground-breaking book


A few years ago, teaching for a summer in Southern California, I visited numerous congregations of my denomination. They were mostly graying, aging—obviously dwindling and depressed.

Why are we mainliners doing so poorly here? I wondered.

"Californians aren't religious anymore," I was informed by denominational leaders. "We are too socially progressive, too religiously sophisticated for most people here," explained others.

I concluded that what they meant was too boring.

California sociologist of religion Donald E. Miller is, like me, a product of mainline Protestantism. In the 1980s he wrote The Case for Liberal Christianity, beating the, if not yet dead, terminally ill horse of liberal Christendom. After that book he decided to "shelve all attempts at writing theology until I was retired and had earned the right to engage in speculative reasoning." Miller joined a liberal Episcopal congregation "where I did not need to check my mind at the door when I entered to worship."

Some of his undergraduates got him interested in a new phenomenon on the American religious scene, churches that "preached an old-fashioned gospel, but their music and form of worship were radically contemporary, and their mood was quite different from that of the typical evangelical and fundamentalist church I had visited."

Armed with a grant from the Lilly Endowment (that esteemed subsidizer of academic commentary on mainline decline), Miller began his journey into Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, and Hope Chapel churches—all born in Southern California. The result is Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (University of California Press, $27.50), ...



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