Gathering Together: How 12 Churches Fared Over Five Decades

GRANT US COURAGE: TRAVELS ALONG THE MAINLINE OF AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM

By Randall Balmer

Oxford University Press 154 pp.,$22

Anyone who's been a member of a church has probably asked themselves, what makes a great church? What is it in the mix of theology, pastor, liturgy, staff, and members that satisfies and inspires? Or is it some other intangible that keeps people coming back Sunday after Sunday?

Those are abstract questions that Christian Century magazine explored in the particular some 50 years ago, when it surveyed its readers and then ran articles on 12 mainline Protestant congregations it dubbed ''great churches.''

''Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism'' revisits those churches and, in the process, distills a good deal about what happened to this country's mainstream religious life in the postwar era.

Some of the churches are still well-organized, active, and prosperous. Others have suffered from demographic drift as members moved away from the church, both physically and spiritually.

The book traces the effect on churches as pastors and staff change, and shows the influence of changing secular politics, shifting theology, and the expanding roles of women.

In many ways, this book reads like travel writing, with the writer always looking for the telling detail. It is full of numbers and adjectives, extensive descriptions of church buildings, and quotations from church members. But this approach has its limitations. Such details are frequently snap judgments.

Nevertheless, the book has value, although the biggest hurdle to finding it is the writer. Randall Balmer, author and host of ''Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,'' a book and PBS series on American evangelism, seems to be laughing up his sleeve at the members of these churches, and his studied attempts at objectivity do little to mask a deep cynicism about his subject.

As a religious historian, he had clearly already come to his own conclusions about why Protestants had ''fallen on hard times.'' Indeed, he could not be more blunt about his predilections.

''As an evangelical, albeit a tenuous one, I had taken a perverse satisfaction in the mainline's comeuppance, adopting an air of bemusement at the kind of ritual self-flagellation they had undertaken in recent years - the endless jeremiads, sociological inquiries, and foundation-funded studies - trying to discern reasons for their decline,'' he writes.

Through the lens of disbelief, any church or religion can look like folly.

The original task - to describe great churches - might have been instructive, but not when the telling of what happened to those churches is shot through with the suggestion that organized Protestant religions are doomed to falter.

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