by Julia Duin
180 pp. Baker Academic, $12.99
What makes books by journalists so fun is that, when they’re actually being journalists rather than amateur psychologists or philosophers, there’s usually no overarching thesis to such a book. Instead, the news story becomes the paradigm, and chapters can inform one another, contradict one another, and in other ways make such a book a very different sort of read from a tightly-argued academic treatise. Julia Duin’s Quitting Church is that sort of journalistic book, one moment pointing to Brian McLaren and Mark Driscoll as the hope of American Protestantism because their Sunday services are driven by the big personalities’ (lengthy–in the services Duin visited, both men preached for more than 45 minutes) sermons and the next pointing to American pastors’ tendencies to make themselves the main event on Sunday morning as a prime reason that the faithful are splitting the evangelical scene and going Orthodox or house-church. In some moments an abandonment of Biblical literacy in the vain pursuit of being “hip” is the main problem with the way that evangelical congregations teach their members, and in others preachers are upbraided for preaching sermons about 1 Kings (which I just did this last Sunday) rather than giving talks about topics that are “relevant.”
The picture that I took away from this interesting and wandering book is one in which consumerism, once a force that drove the growth of denominations, then of post-denominational megachurches, but a force that ultimately does not sustain any form of Christian life for more than a generation or three, is starting to change the shape of Christian life once again. This time, if Duin is right, the space that megachurches once shared with small congregations is going to be split unevenly between the megachurches (which, in Duin’s reports, were largely religio-entertainment experiences, both in conservative and liberal varieties) and the house church movement (which Duin is careful to describe in its complexity–because of its decentralization, it often lacks good teachers and the ability to check itself when someone with a gift does rise up). The future is going to be really big or really small, if Duin is right, and in my own estimation, that seems about right. Even though I’d not heard of Duin until recently, I’d been saying to people for a while that the megachurches were only going to leave room for home-churchers by the time the dust had settled, and it’s vindicating to see that a respected religion journalist came to that conclusion before I did.
Duin is at her most confusing and her most enlightening when it comes to the Charismatic movement. On one hand, she writes of the Jesus Movement of the seventies, with its outpourings of the Spirit and its lively gatherings, as someone who was there and longs for a return to the same. On the other, she can turn a journalist’s critical eye on contemporary movements like the Toronto Blessing without flinching. Again, I took her willingness to hold both in tension as a strong point of the book: Duin is no apologist for everything with the label “Charismatic,” but she also does not hold back from self-identifying as Charismatic and narrating the courses of various church movements in terms of Charismatic expectations. Realizing how strong Duin’s Charismatic background is in the penultimate chapter made much sense of her criticisms of controlling pastors, strange attitudes towards single people, platitude-riddled sermons, and the exclusion of women from significant spoken ministries in contemporary congregations, and Duin’s own time away from congregational life, which she narrates frankly and without excuses, has a particularly Charismatic shape. When Duin finally does get to suggestions on “What to Do about It” (as the subtitle promises), her recommendations are local rather than large-scale, pointing to her preferences for house-church democracies over megachurch monarchies, and as someone with some sympathies that direction myself, I found them both humble and thought-provoking.
I’ve said a number of times that my own failures, because I try to confess them as they happen, make me gradually less judgmental. I used to look around the English department at UGA and wonder when these people were ever going to finish their dissertations. That’s before I was staring down year four on my own. If ever I thought that other people weren’t all that great at raising their children, two of my own have cured that in a hurry. There was a time when I looked down upon those who “bailed out” of congregations when things got rough. Now, two North Georgia congregations later, I have less of an elevated platform from which to condemn. The point is that, as I read Julia Duin’s book, I still find myself wondering whether the folks who are leaving traditional congregations might have hung in and worked a bit harder for change from within, but thirty-four years of my own failures keep me from passing judgment. Instead, I took on Duin’s book in the spirit that it sets forth, that of inquiry rather than of superiority, and for that, it was a good read.