A Year In the Life Of a Church


By Gary Dorsey

Viking Penguin, 388 pp., $24.95

Church news never makes the news. Oh you might hear about denominational doings or theological wranglings, but what happens in your church or my church?

That drama goes largely unreported. The subject seems too local, too personal, even too explosive. That's why ''Congregation: The Journey Back to Church'' is worth noting. In it Gary Dorsey finally treats the life of a church as if it is important.

''Congregation'' is a chronicle of the year Dorsey, a journalist and disaffected baby boomer, spent immersed in the day-to-day activities of a mainline Protestant church. He dogs the pastor, attends meetings and services, befriends members and staff. He is the proverbial fly on the wall.

As the year unfolds, we see that First Church in Windsor, Conn., is struggling with how to include healing in its mission, with whether and how to consider God as Mother, with boosting membership and raising money (''nickels and noses'' they call it), and with whether to use that money for restoring historic buildings or for outreach.

We see the 360-year-old community struggle to keep the living word alive amid almost overwhelming forces of conformity and mediocrity. We see the strengths and failings of the pastor; we see that the work of the church goes on ''with the help of members who are like ministers, too, whether they know it or not.''

Dorsey meant to detail it all objectively, and he does, creating a finely crafted narrative that reads like a novel. But even he is drawn in by what he finds, and the cynicism that makes him stereotype and stumble sweetens into acceptance, if not faith. ''Imagine me, praying again, like a child who knows that ways will always open,'' he writes.

Here are dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders prodding their fellows, taking chances, reaching out, and regrouping. They are not of a piece, they wander off, pull back, disagree. But somehow, amid a dulling round of ritual, they find spiritual insights and answers to prayer.

Tell me again this ain't news.

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