"Christians," I said, "seem to be engaged in a postdenominational second reformation. Traditional mainline church populations are shrinking while nondenominational populations grow."
Mr. Ault did not disagree. "People register their disapproval by leaving and going to another place and being attracted by another, and that puts pressure on everyone to try to change."
"These 'new' churches," I said, "seem to become families for people in ways that older mainline denominational churches do not."
"Well, I think you're right, that these congregations that are more loosely defined doctrinally are a flexible way to build a personal community. Certainly, that's one thing that they do."
"The church about which you write, it seemed, became central to the congregants' lives."
"True," said Mr. Ault. "There are more services during the week and there's the school and the weekly home Bible studies. It adds up to encompassing your life."
"I was wondering, in these postdenominational churches, what kind of theological orientation they have. Like, for instance, the church that you attended in San Diego."
"Well, they vary considerably. There was a bitter split in that church."
"These splits seem to happen often in these churches."
"That's right. The independent church is much more volatile than the mainline churches. There isn't the stabilizing force of the denominational office, overseeing you. Everything is up for grabs."
"I was interested," I said, "in the distaste, which seems both aesthetic and theological, some independent fundamentalist churches show for Pentecostal groups." I asked, "How do you explain this distaste?"
"Well, there are two things. I remember, in my book, the music minister's wife's story of a Pentecostal salesman who came to her door. They fell into conversation about the Lord. And she quoted out of her Scripture verses that seemed to indicate that speaking in tongues was not just for the apostles. And then she said he quoted all this other Scripture that, as she said, 'We never even look at.' She just threw up her hands in consternation.
"The other event was the pastor's father-in-law throwing up his arms. They were discussing the scriptural basis for rejecting Pentecostals. There were people in the congregation who had family members who were involved in Pentecostal churches. So they didn't agree with a pastor drawing a sharp distinction between true Christianity and Pentecostalism. They didn't feel the case was made. Some people ended up leaving, without giving that as a reason the pastor was too hard on Pentecostals.
"So one day there was this conversation going on, and one gentleman threw up his hands and said, 'I don't care what you say. You're not going to find me waving my arms around.' And it's like many things in that world: people have strong roots in their culture, customs, and conventions.
"They weren't like an African-American community where that kind of expressiveness is de rigueur. In terms of worship, what's happening in Africa now is that all churches -- Presbyterian, whatever -- they're all Pentecostal in worship."
But to get back to the independent Baptist church in his book, Mr. Ault said, "They would find in Scripture support for things that they just didn't feel comfortable with. Like the holy kiss, greeting each other with a holy kiss. In Scripture, you know, they speak of greeting members of the congregation with a kiss. 'Not in modern-day America,' one fundamentalist pastor said from the pulpit, and everyone laughed to relieve the tension."
We talked then about the casual ease with which many members of postdenominational churches speak with and about God. I said, "I can't imagine walking up to someone and chatting with them about the Lord. It seems so odd to me."
Mr. Ault noted that in the church on which his book was based, it was not unusual at all for one of your fellow parishioners to walk up and say, "So, how has the Lord been treating you?"
"I was reminded of this, when I was at the Southern Festival of Books in Memphis this year. A woman, a fiction writer, who lives in Boston now, said one thing she misses about the South is if she would go to a grocery store, even if you met a stranger, you could talk to her or him. In Boston she went to a Stop 'N Shop recently and remembers she was having a hard time because her father was dying. She caught the eye of a woman in the produce section, and said, 'I'm having a hard time because my father is dying, and I don't know what to cook for dinner.' The woman looked at her as if she was crazy and hurried off. Whereas, in the South, she might have gotten a hug, an engaging conversation, and then another hug."
"And a recipe for making dumplings out of refrigerated biscuits."
"That's right. I think that's why fundamentalism, though it wasn't invented in the South -- it was invented in the North in the 19th Century -- why it eventually becomes part of the Southern phenomenon, because it fits into Southern culture, with ties to kin and place and tradition. That presumed familiarity, that is what people who came to that church in Massachusetts took to right away. They never felt alien in that environment. They just took to it.
"It's the presumption of familiarity that was part and parcel of the texture of their lives. Once they saw the church as a kind of home, like that home in the small town where they're from, they did not feel alone. They did not feel in, for instance, Jerry Falwell's huge church, that everyone was acting as urbane people do, waiting for an introduction. There was a presumed familiarity of a small-town life, a village life. It's a way of finding that in the city."
"Did you find that when you went to the Community Church in San Diego?"
"There was some of that there. It wasn't as pronounced, as strong. But it was there. It can work on a different scale, but people in the larger fundamentalist churches, the Jerry Falwell kind of church, find their community in their Sunday school class."