By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005
On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.
Mainline Protestants sometimes refer to themselves as the "frozen chosen," a reference to the reasoned, non-emotional approach to religion followed by many Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and other non-evangelical Christians.
But what's happening in some mainline churches today is anything but cool spiritual detachment. In its place is a heavily devotional, even mystical approach to spirituality that often calls on ancient Christian practices.
At St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, 30 parishioners have formed an "urban abbey," a kind of monastery without walls. Participants promise to follow a "rule of life" that includes daily prayer and Scripture reading, community service at least once a month and the pursuit of a new form of spiritual development each year.
At Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pa., a needleworking group meets regularly to knit prayer shawls for members who are ill, bereaved or otherwise in need of prayer. When people are given a shawl, "it's like wrapping them up in prayer," said the ministry coordinator, something they wouldn't experience if they were simply told that the congregation was praying for them.
And at Iglesia Santa Maria in Falls Church, the first free-standing Latino church in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, worshipers hold hands and sing Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" -- in Spanish -- before taking Communion. The pastor, the Rev. Jesus Reyes, and most of the congregants are former Roman Catholics who find comfort in the use of incense and other Catholic ritual elements in the service but also like the Protestant aspects, such as an open invitation to the Communion table for anyone who wants to partake.
What makes these churches distinctive from others? The greatest difference is "intentionality," a communal decision to return to traditional Christian spiritual practices or to adopt practices of other religions, said Diana Butler Bass, director of a two-year study of reemergent emotionalism in these and other mainline Protestant churches.
In the 1990s, individuals who felt spiritually bereft complemented their church experience by spending a week in silence at a monastery, taking yoga or meditation classes or looking for the latest place to walk the labyrinth. Now mainline churches are bringing those practices into congregational life, and individual spiritual seekers are realizing they are not alone, said Bass, a senior research fellow at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and author of last year's book "The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church."
"I thought I was the only one out there until the urban abbey happened and suddenly there were 29 others saying, 'We want it, too!' " said Angela Churchill, 45, a businesswoman and former Peace Corps volunteer who helped organize St. George's urban abbey.
Raised Southern Baptist, Churchill became an Episcopalian 20 years ago but found herself disenchanted with what she perceived as too much routine and too little spiritual direction. "People get so busy doing the church they forget to be the church," she said.
At the heart of the urban abbey are monthly "listening groups," where five to six members gather to share personal concerns and sit quietly until God speaks to one of them -- much like a Quaker meeting. "These groups are very powerful, providing a bond that promotes our spiritual growth as a community," Churchill said.
Many mainliners view the religious objectivity long valued by the country's oldest Protestant denominations as a liability, noting that it is one of the reasons Americans give for leaving organized religion -- or for switching to the more highly charged, rapidly growing evangelical Protestant movement.
Mixing tradition and modernity in mainline Protestant worship is one answer, said Bass, who just turned over her 800-page report on 50 such congregations to the Lilly Endowment, which funded the study.
Other examples cited in the report are Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal) in Memphis, which offers evensong services featuring Celtic music and the glow of 500 candles, and Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, Fla., which celebrates Communion to the accompaniment of a praise band and dual video screens showing images of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic icons.
Another is Church of the Epiphany in Northwest Washington. The congregation seeks to give full meaning to the Christian tradition of hospitality, not only serving a hot breakfast to 200 homeless people every Sunday morning but also inviting them to participate in a worship service. The service is followed by recovery group sessions and prayer and Bible study groups.
David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said that congregational growth is directly related to intentionality and an emphasis on spiritual practices -- a conclusion he reached after sifting through the profiles of more than 14,000 congregations in a Hartford-directed study.
According to the study, released by Hartford in 2000, 75 percent of evangelical Protestant churches experienced growth in the last decade of the 20th century, while about half of mainline Protestant churches did so -- rates that remain about the same, Roozen said. Most of the congregations experiencing increased attendance had developed spirituality-based programming, he said.
To determine whether an increased use of spiritual practices would affect the viability of declining mainline denominations, Roozen plugged hypothetical numbers into a computer model that measures congregational vitality. This statistical simulation suggested that the adoption of spiritual programs would increase the number of growing mainline churches significantly -- enough to cut the growth gap with evangelical churches by half, he said.
Bass agreed that the change makes a big difference. "When a congregation takes on these kinds of spiritual practices, it creates an overall sense of vitality and growth that has not been in the congregation previously," she said.
In contrast to the typical scenario facing mainline congregations, none of the 50 congregations in her study is declining, and none is suffering money problems, she said.