"Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism," by Randall Balmer (Oxford University Press, 154 pp.; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Sondra Willobee, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, Farmington, Michigan.

I approached Randall Balmer's new book with mixed feelings: fear and curiosity. As a member of one of the mainline denominations Balmer scrutinizes, I wondered: What did he see? Would he be fair-minded, or did he come with an ax to grind?

Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, revisited 12 congregations that were designated "great churches" in 1949 by readers of the "Christian Century," a leading magazine of American Protestantism. (The chapters that make up this book were originally published in the "Century" as well.) By his reckoning, only three of the churches are still thriving 50 years later.

Describing himself as a "tenuous evangelical," Balmer studied his own origins in a book and a TV documentary based on it, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America" (1989, 1993). There he wrestled with ambivalent feelings about his fundamentalist upbringing. In the prologue to "Grant Us Courage," Balmer recalls another source of childhood ambivalence: As evangelicals, "we were the outsiders, the religious insurgents engaged in a hopeless struggle against the Protestant mainline, which had the wealth, the influence, and the status that we simultaneously resented and coveted."

I wondered if Balmer would take this occasion to get even. His careful attention to the details of congregational life, however, invites a more complex response than keeping score. There is more going on—in Balmer's slim volume and in mainline congregations—than first appears.

Deftly interweaving local history, demographic data, personality sketches, and church anecdotes, Balmer demonstrates the same powers of observation that earned his study of evangelicals critical acclaim. His descriptions of these mainline churches will elicit from almost any American churchgoer chuckles of recognition—or sighs.

"During the offertory," at the First United Church of Christ in New Knoxville, Ohio, Balmer writes, "the congregation sang Stand Up for Jesus, all the while remaining in their seats."

While trying to schedule a retreat for church youth, I remember making the same wistful observation as a member at Olive Chapel Baptist Church in Apex, North Carolina: "It used to be that whenever the school planned an activity, it would check the church's schedule first to make sure there were no conflicts. Now it's just the opposite. The church has to consult the school's calendar."

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Balmer's book offers many useful tips for ministry as well as cautionary tales. At First United Methodist Church in Orlando, Florida, a Sunday-school class for 24 shut-ins is conducted by conference call. Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, still thriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recognizes that "middle-class parents are anxious about their children and that the church needs to pay close attention to its youth program." The program at Mount Olivet, guided by a 25-member board of high schoolers, grooms the youth for future leadership in the church. In contrast, many youth at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freistatt, Missouri, after completing eighth grade at Trinity Lutheran School, begin to drop away from church, saying that they were too "sheltered" in the school.

A fine writer, Balmer can characterize a congregation with a symbol or a sentence. In Decorah, Iowa, home of Washington Prairie Lutheran Church, a Norwegian-American museum contains a pioneer cabin built in 1853 out of a single pine tree by one Erik Sellard, who was "determined to use every splinter." Likewise, comments Balmer, the Washington Prairie Church "stands as a monument to Scandinavian industry and dogged persistence." Comparing the church to a museum conveys his sense that the church's best days are history.

Letting the people and objects of the churches speak for themselves, Balmer's observations are generally balanced and subtle. Often, however, he is also snide. Quoting LoRayne Gill of First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio, who says that after a time of conflict in the church "[we] worked out our differences in a wonderful way," Balmer registers "a tinge of self-congratulation returning to her voice." His description of Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, though factual, somehow suggests sleaziness: "Rogers, wearing aviator glasses, TV makeup, and a natty double-breasted suit, strode to the pulpit for announcements."

The montage of images from these 12 congregations includes many of the issues bedeviling American churchgoers across the country: homosexuality, ordination of women, the "brain drain" in rural communities, clergy sexual misconduct, the changing roles of women, the impoverishment of inner cities. Balmer's stories also illustrate several trends in ministry, such as "hands-on" mission projects like Habitat for Humanity or men's groups that meet for spiritual support. It would be a mistake to take the book as a full picture of American Protestantism, however, because so many mainline Protestants worship in small and medium-sized churches. Their experience of "then" and "now" might read quite differently. (Though he scoffs at churches that are preoccupied with numbers, such as Adrian Rogers's Bellevue Baptist, Balmer still uses numbers as the primary standard for pronouncing the decline of mainline churches.)

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Balmer's title, from a 1930 hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick, has an ironic feel. In the context of the book, the allusion to Fosdick's hymn ("Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour") suggests that, far from being triumphal, mainline Protestants need all the help they can get. That message is reinforced by the concluding image of his book: a diagonal crack in the cornerstone of the InterChurch Center in New York City.

Balmer says that the energy and vitality of religious life in America have shifted to evangelicalism and to New Age spirituality. The details of his own book, however, show that plenty of energy still emanates from the churches he observes. Baptisms, confirmation classes, youth programs, Bible studies, sermons, choirs, soup kitchens, mission projects—somebody is doing all of these things.

Being heir to a tradition of chronic worriers (which is what Methodists' compulsiveness suggests), I did worry what Balmer thought of me and mine. After reading the book, my feelings are still mixed, but in a different way: I don't know whether to thank him for being such a careful observer or to react angrily when he is snide. What Balmer's book shows best is that, like the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, all congregations have their callings, strengths, and besetting sins.

His observations—and our inevitable comparisons—raise important questions: What does it mean to be successful as a congregation? What are the true indicators of congregational vitality and faithfulness? Might God have a different "plumb line" than human observers? (I noticed that Balmer did not ask any of the pastors about their prayer lives. I wish he had. It would have told us a lot about what sustained and guided their ministries. Perhaps his ambivalence about the piety of his childhood caused this omission.)

The Scriptures suggest that caution is warranted in lauding or judging any religious institution. The temple of Jerusalem underwent a tremendous revival during King Josiah's reign in the seventh century b.c. Under the pious king's leadership, pagan shrines were destroyed and the temple restored. The agenda of state and temple were one. There were exciting new festivals, strong and visionary leaders, and ample funds for the building campaign. Still, prophets such as Huldah and Jeremiah pronounced the doom of the nation. They said God would not protect the people from destruction. They urged the people to do justice, renounce persistent idolatries, and worship God with their whole hearts and lives.

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Good advice for church folk in any place and time.

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