A Pastor responds to the Spiritual But Not Religious

UCC colleague Rev. Lillian Daniel has written a few pieces recently about the growing Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) community.  She has even written a book on the topic.  Her Huffington Post included in the title the words, “stop boring me,” and says most SBNR folks just want a personal spirituality rather than the messiness of faith in community.  The post does include many uses of the phrase, “these people,” perhaps too many times for my personal liking since it sounds like a form of “othering.”

I must admit that I did find some resonance in the post the first time I read it, especially the sentences,

“You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.  Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”

Sister Lillian’s September 2011 article in the Christian Century was a bit less harsh, pointing out the diversity of religious experience among the folks we meet everyday.  For the good folks that make it out of fundamentalism, very few find a good, safe, progressive religious home they can call their own.  There  just aren’t enough of them everywhere yet.  For the man who did find a warm and welcoming community, his divorce cut him off from his only spiritual home.  In response to him saying that he has now found God in nature, in experiences at feeling at one with nature, in reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, rather than hearing sermons, she writes:

“The spiritual-not-religious are likely to say they see God in their children, at least when they are doing loving things or saying something winning about God. These spiritual-not-religious adults don’t want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the e-mails with “cute things kids say about God.”

“My kid said, ‘Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.’ Can you believe the wisdom of that?” says the proud spiritual-not-religious parent. These people’s children are always theological geniuses.”

Something about her overall approach has turned me off.  Perhaps it was her response to Marcus Mumford’s cover story interview with Rolling Stone.

“I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.”

Even Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist on the Pantheos Blog Portal makes a good point:

“The problem isn’t that we look at Westboro Baptist Church, or conniving televangelists, or Ted Haggard and assume all Christians are just like them.

The problem is that we’ve seen the best of what Christianity has to offer and we still want nothing to do with it.

Too many “good” Christians still believe homosexuality is a sin.

Too many “good” Christians still believe women aren’t wise enough to make decisions about their own body.

Too many “good” Christians still believe in Satan, hell, heaven, miracles, prayer, and zombies.

Too many “good” Christians still believe Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.

Too many “good” Christians still believe the Bible reveals more truth than science and they want to rewrite school curriculums to say so. (Hell, nearly 80% of Americans believe in either Creationism or God-guided evolution.)

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned Mark Driscoll yet.”

For his part, Marcus Mumford (whose song Awake My Soul we will be singing later this month at my church) was asked in his Rolling Stone interview,

Does he still consider himself a Christian?

“I don’t really like that word,” he tells senior writer Brian Hiatt in his band’s first Rolling Stone cover story. “It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’ – they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus. I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.” Mumford emphasizes that while his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God.”

Perhaps the real issue here centers around two very different things:  God talk in America and increasingly around the world has been seen as an expression of the Christian Right, and the death knell for rock bands (even soulful rock bands) is being labelled in the so-called “Christian Rock” section.

Second question first.  What rocker with any amount of success wants to follow the path of the many promising and yet failed music careers of those whose careers was scrapped in the Christian Music Market.  I can’t blame him one bit for eschewing such a designation.

But yes, let’s admit it.  There is a genuine difference between the Christianity of rational fallacies, spiritual abuses, and political/communication empires of the patriarchal Religious Right and the Christianity of historical critical hermeneutics, inclusion of women and other sexual minorities in leadership, and progressive social justice agenda of the Religious Left.  But both groups are using the term “Christian,” a term first used of the followers of Jesus in Antioch, Syria in the first century.  After 2,000 years of schisms between East and West, Catholic and Reformed, and now Pentecostal, Mainline Liturgical, Dispensationalist, Emergent, Fundamentalist, Mainline Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Orthodox of 13 varieties, as well as the big tent within the Roman Catholic Church’s expressions.

I don’t think that Pastor Lillian would argue with these differences, but why should she attempt to make anyone take on a label that they are no longer comfortable with?

Let’s admit it, there is a problem with the Church.  It’s not just that the church is dying, but there is such diversity among religious experience for so many people that finding a community that will usher someone into an experience of the divine is not always available right around the corner.  As a Pastor of a local ecumenical congregation and the Executive Director of our local Interfaith Council, I’ve seen some unique religious communities become regional rather than local churches.  But because it is difficult for congregations to survive without meeting the needs of their local communities, this has made it harder for these communities to survive in our latest depression.  (Ask your local church Treasurer whether this is a depression or not, I won’t argue it here.)

Apparently, after leaving the Vineyard movement’s dispensationalism Marcus isn’t willing to be associated any longer.  Still, you can’t escape the inherent spirituality that gets expressed in his music.

We also have to admit that for the last 50 years the church has been at the center of one of the largest cultural and religious wars we have seen since the Second Great Awakening (1830-50’s).  This time around, instead of arguing around just “historically theological” issues we have allowed the churches to have been drug through the wedge issues of the political parties on the issues of evolution, creationism, civil rights, abortion, immigration, women’s rights, housing rights, employment non-discrimination, marriage equality rights.  Some churches have even been conscripted into these debates by arguing that their “Religious Liberty” to discriminate in the public square has been restricted when they lose their federal grants for social justice programs when it doesn’t agree with their doctrines.  Can you tell the difference between the freedom of religion and imposing your doctrines on the whole country?  Social justice for all people is a different thing.  Keep doing that, but make sure it’s for all people – even LGBTQ families.

I think our culture has hit the height of its pendulum swing toward individualism.  I see good signs that we are ready to ride the pendulum back towards communitarianism.  Unfortunately, it is the economy that is forcing us into bartering and community sustainable agriculture, but perhaps we will use these new economies as a way to teach us how to create new communities.  Ironically, this has been the fodder for many Emergent communities who have found the call toward smaller, more informal and accountable communities so attractive.

We can admit that most of our churches are really country clubs full of the same kinds of folks.  But when we are ready to create truly inclusive communities with people of diverse thoughts and feelings, we may really then become the Church.  Pretending that this is available everywhere, especially for the musical child of Dispensationalist Pastors, is ludicrous.  While Lillian and I may pastor progressive congregations that have a history of social justice, liberation theology, and is conversant in inclusive theology, I have found that the group that has the hardest time being welcomed into my congregation are the newly out LGBTQ people from Fundamentalist and very Conservative church histories.  They love seeing other Gay and Lesbian couples worshiping together with a diverse racial-ethnic mix.  They experience our radical welcome, but some of them don’t know our theological language.  Some of them don’t stick with us long enough to learn it.

Church isn’t just a place where we “put up with each other.”  It’s a place where we are challenged into being the best follower of Jesus we can be.  If that’s the only title someone can accept at that particular moment, then so be it.  It took me six months of ministry to recognize that what I was being asked to be was an Interfaith Chaplain.  It opened a window into my ministry.  Titles don’t matter.  I can love the Taoist as much as I love the member of the Jesus Seminar.  I can minister to those who do Yoga every week as much as I can serve the traditionalist who cries when Mozart sings from our organ.  I can do Christian centering prayer along with my Buddhist friends.  I can love the Republican as well as the Democrat – though both groups have issues with me as a Green.  It’s all church to me and I don’t have to demand that any one of them calls themselves a Christian in order to be a part of the family.  I don’t think Jesus had such labels, and I don’t think we should either.

But here is the kicker for us at this moment in time.  How we talk about the SBNR will be a greater indicator as to whether they will feel welcomed in our midst when the pendulum swings back towards community.  We are in the midst of significant cultural, scientific and narrative change.  All of our institutions are in the midst of momentous change and transformation.  Perhaps when we have a common cosmology again there will be an opportunity to win back some of these hearts and minds.  Perhaps when the Church stops the physical and spiritual abuse of our colonial predecessors we can earn back the trust necessary to do real ministry.  Perhaps when the Church becomes followers of the ways of Jesus again – both as individuals and as congregations – then we will not have to endure the words of Mumford and Ghandi:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

It’s up to us, not those who struggle with us.  We must be the Christ, living for others and serving the world if we expect anyone else to take on the title.

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