- Really? An airplane? Would that be first-class or coach? I meet with people (young adults, mostly) every week who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They tend to be underemployed, live month-to-month, and are doing their best to find meaning in their tumultuous lives. Sure, the phrase “spiritual but not religious” needs some unpacking for pastors whose livelihoods depend on people’s public religiosity, but I’ve never heard it as “rebellion against the religious status quo.” Rather, the phrase is more a humble testimony that they just don’t seem to connect with fancy churches. And who can blame them?
- As opposed to what Daniel suggests, the “spiritual but not religious” folks I talk to yearn for community. I have not found one who wants simply to have “deep thoughts all by oneself” as Daniel accuses. What might be true, however, is that the community they seek isn’t offered at most mainline churches with our endowment funds and dress codes and judgmental matriarchs and patriarchs. You see, some “spiritual but not religious” folks sense a certain righteous attitude from these institutions (go figure?). Many were once burned by hugely negative experiences with the church and it’ll take the church reaching out — in love, not in snark — for healing to begin.
- God is working in the lives of the “spiritual but not religious.” I happen to believe they have a huge amount to teach the church about connecting to God, supporting true community, sustaining spiritual practices, and living out St. Augustine’s call for a “faith seeking understanding.” Daniel asks, “Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?” I say, Yes, feel free to do that in your church. But also be brave enough to listen to those encountering God in ways you don’t fully understand. Learn from them.
Copeland does have some points to make, but I can't help but agree more with Daniel's original snarky response, than with Copeland's defense of the SBNRs. Maybe part of it comes from being in ministry a bit longer than Copeland. Just a few weeks from my 42nd birthday, I'm not the angry young man I used to be. Things that I thought were just the bees knees are now seen as sheer foolishness. I'm not whining as much about how unfair the world is and more willing to say that we need to develop a spiritual toughness against the harshness of life. The people inside the church are not as stupid and backward as we thought they were. The folks outside the church are not the fonts of wisdom we once thought they were.
I tend to think that's what's going on with Daniel, who wrote a much longer piece on the same topic in Christian Century. If you listen to a lot of younger pastors, there is this big emphasis on the "spiritual but not religious" folk. People act as if these folks are the true Christians, while the folks sitting in the pews each Sunday are charlatans.
But things aren't that easy. I think there are some folks who have nothing to do with church and yet are better Christians than those inside the church. But there are also people like the lightweights that Daniel encounters. There are Christians who are homophobic, racist, sexist or what have you and have done great damage to the Church. And there are folks in the church who are wonderful examples of Jesus.
Daniel goes to the heart of the issue that concerns SBNRs and their defenders- that the church has hurt them and others:
In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church." In other words, you people are stuck with each other.In my encounters with folk, I've met people who will tell me their interest in church. They might include that they have been excluded for some reason, more often than not, sexual orientation. They seem interested in being part of this faith community or at least a faith community. But when it comes down to it, they never delve any further and seldom come back. In my earlier days I might think this was the soley the congregation's fault, but now I think some people are just lazy when it comes to faith. I'm more than willing to present a tolerant and inclusive faith. As a gay man, I want to show that yes, we are part of the church and that we are loved by God. But I am not interested in playing games or in trying to make the church fit someone's shallow faith. Following Jesus is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.
Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur'an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It's no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.
The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.
But—here's a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don't want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.
But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don't get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It's as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn't have access to a shower and didn't bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn't seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It's as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It's as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It's as close as the preacher who didn't prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.
It's as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.
Suddenly it hits that teenager: I don't need to invent God, because God has already invented me. I don't need to make all this up for myself. There's a community of folks who over thousands of years have followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he was raised from the dead to show there is much more to life than you could possibly come up with. And as for the resurrection, try doing that for yourself.
On the other side, I've met people in church who are not perfect, whose lives are falling apart and who come and encounter Jesus and be the church. They may not have all the answers, but they have a sturdy faith.
As a pastor, I want to be open to those who are interested in following Christ. Christ did welcome all, but he had no patience for excuses. When a potential follower wanted to follow Christ, but said he would come after he buried his father, Jesus told him to let the dead bury their own dead. Not nice, but Jesus was serious. He didn't have time for niceties.
This has probably made me sound like the most bigoted pastor around and that's not my intent. I want to welcome all as Christ did, but I don't have time for games anymore. I'm too old for that.