Stirring Our Imaginations
A Brief Review of
The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities
Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
It is easy for churches to rest in the comfortable clutches of tradition, and many churches that do so for years, or even decades, may eventually find themselves teetering on the brink of death. Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit has rejuvenated the people of God through communities that embodied their faith in imaginative ways outside the prevailing tradition and convention of their day (e.g., the monasteries that took shape in the desert, the Benedictines, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Catholic Workers, etc.) The witness of these communities has echoed through the intervening centuries, well beyond the particular traditions that formed in their wake, reminding us of God’s continuing desire to renew and refine the people of God.
I was reminded of this history, as I read through Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris’s new book Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities. Both authors are employed by the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, which “strengthens Indiana congregations by helping them find and use the best resources to address their challenges and opportunities.” This new book is built around a case study involving thirteen such alternative communities that are seeking new ways of being faithful together that fit the challenges of the present. The strength of this book is that it serves to introduce us to new practices of Christian faithfulness that will undoubtedly stir our imaginations for the ways in which we strive to be faithful in our own congregations. At the heart of the book are chapters on six innovative practices embodied in some of the congregations that the authors studied. These practices include: shaping community, conversation, artistic expression, breaking bread, community engagement, and hospitality.
Of these practices, I spent the most time with the chapter on conversation (full disclosure: I’m presently wrapping up a book manuscript on conversation as a transformative practice for faith communities). Although I was not familiar with any of the congregations featured in this chapter, their practices resonate with those of my own church community, Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and many of the other congregations across North America whose practices of conversation I have studied as part of my research. Especially striking were the authors’ focus on the sort of vulnerability that is required for (and cultivated in) conversation and on the power of conversation to deconstruct and refine our theological vocabulary.
Divergent Church is an immensely hopeful book that will stir our imaginations with stories of new possibilities for how way share life together in the way of Jesus. It is a great introductory text, but as a reader, I felt at times like it was moving too swiftly and covering too much ground. The chapters introducing practices could easily have each been fleshed out in book length manuscripts (and in some cases already have been, in recent or forthcoming books), and I suspect we also could use more theological reflection on the interplay of these practices with one another and the ways that they synergize with one another to transform particular faith communities.
We desperately need the stories that this book tells, but even more, we need to reflect on them in our own congregations, and prayerfully consider how God might desire to transform our life together amidst all the challenges of the present.
Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, co-author (with John Pattison) of Slow Church (2014), and most recently author of Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.