Church Renewal–A Different Voice

Gathered before God is the result of conviction and curiosity. Jane Rogers Vann is convinced that “God is calling the church to be renewed at its lifegiving center, worship” (p. 10). Her curiosity is expressed in the form of two questions:

“How do we learn the Christian life from the experience of congregational worship? How do renewal in worship and spiritual renewal in congregations complement and support each other?” (p. 2).

Motivated by conviction and curiosity, Vann focused her attention on congregations. In all, she spoke with church members and leaders of eleven congregations–seven Presbyterian churches, two United Methodist churches, one Episcopal church, and one Roman Catholic church. Gathered before God Vann conducted in-depth studies of the seven Presbyterian churches in five states (California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington) and less exhaustive explorations of the four additional churches.

Vann’s exploration is filtered through the lens of education. She teaches Christian education at Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. A teacher with a certificate in early childhood education, Vann has taught in public schools in New York and California. She holds an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. Consequently, she sees things differently than many who have addressed the subject of church renewal.

Vann’s is a refreshingly different voice in the rhetoric of church renewal that usually emphasizes numerical growth and quantitative measures. She writes, “Church renewal for mainline congregations at the beginning of the new century may not be seen in program expansion or membership numbers but in the living out of a deeper kind of faithfulness, seen most clearly in the deepening and broadening of the worship of God” (p. 3).

The seven chapters that constitute Gathered before God are organized into two parts. The first chapter of Part I makes the case for worship as the center of congregational life, and therefore a primary force for renewal in the church. The second chapter outlines the dynamics of experiential learning as found in the theoretical work of David Kolb. Vann creatively links each of Kolb’s four distinctive styles of learning with a specific dynamic of congregational life. Remembering and valuing, for example, are linked to the concept of “Reflective Observation” in Kolb’s model of experiential learning.

Part II of Gathered before God consists of five chapters, each of which focuses on a key element in Vann’s vision for worshipcentered church renewal: worship, prayer and spiritual disciplines, study and instruction, ministry and mission, and leadership. Each chapter begins with a descriptive section focusing on action, followed by analysis, and concluding with reflection. This chapter format reinforces Vann’s view that experiential learning is integral to a worship- centered model of church renewal. The emphasis on reflection also re- flects Vann’s belief that “The natural rhythm of congregational life is that of action and reflection” (p. 8). Essential to worship- centered church renewal is a reorientation of congregational culture that makes reflection on all the above-mentioned facets a natural and pervasive element of congregational life.

Vann is critical of the programmatic model of being a church. Renewal, in her view, is not likely to come through the expansion of existing programs or the addition of new programs. She is sensitive to the negative effect an emphasis on program expansion has on those congregations that lack the capacity to add programs (p. 6). In an endnote in the book’s conclusion, Vann describes a “surprising finding:” when “deep prayer” is not part of a congregation’s practices, worship becomes merely one more program (p. 192, n. 1).

Those looking for quick fixes and easy solutions to the problems associated with declining membership and loss of vitality will not find them in Gathered before God. They will find the author’s estimate that this form of church renewal is roughly a decade- long project (p. 179). They will discover, in chapter after chapter, that nothing less than a reorientation of congregational culture–i.e., values and practices– is required by this model of church renewal.

Vann’s findings are best summarized in the following statement: We learn the Christian life in worship-centered congregations where prayer and spiritual disciplines, study and instruction, mission and ministry, and leadership are part of the congregation’s culture. But, as we have seen, participation alone is not enough. Deep learning requires consistent patterns of reflection, where careful attention is given to all dimensions of experience and where hard questions deepen the reflection. Such re- flection is grounded in a “holding environment” of faithful relationships where support and challenge are balanced and consistently practiced. A rich vocabulary of faith–a congregational “native language”– supports the life of faith and deepens both curiosity and understanding. And these congregations have long since given up formal politeness, what some have called “the tyranny of nice,” in favor of an atmosphere of genuine caring and questioning (pp. 178- 179).

Gathered before God joins a growing number of ethnographic studies of the church by authors such as William R. Myers, Charles R. Foster, Theodore Brelsford, Carolyn E. Lytch, and Lois Y. Barrett. The book represents the helpful contribution this research methodology has to offer the church. But unlike some earlier studies, Vann does not provide the rich descriptive material that provides a reader with a feel for the wider context of the congregations she studied. The use of quotations from those interviewed in her study gives some tone and texture to Gathered before God. Vann does offer enough detail to give the reader some sense of who these individuals are, but could have made more extensive use of material from her in terviews to add depth to her description of the congregational dynamics of worshipping, praying, teaching and learning, serving and witnessing, leading, and reflecting.

The value of Vann’s book could also have been enhanced by the addition of an appendix detailing the congregational and contextual demographics of at least the seven primary congregations in her study. A brief narrative description of these congregations would have provided readers with a richer perspective on their character and culture. Lacking such a description, those interviewed by Vann are not always clearly associated with a particular location.

Methodological criticisms aside, Gathered before God is nonetheless a valuable contribution to the current conversation on church renewal. Vann’s experience and expertise as an educator lend a significant perspective on the discussion.

George Brown Jr. is G. W. and Eddie Haworth Professor of Christian Education and Associate Dean at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.