Spiritual, Religious, or What?
The longer I work in the church, the more I realize how important and challenging good communications are. Last week we had a great visit with Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson, two friends and colleagues of mine who do consulting through their company, Canticle Communications, for parishes, dioceses, and institutions in the Episcopal Church. Over two days, they worked with parish leaders and staff members to explore Christ Church Cranbrook’s core values and practices. They had made an initial visit here in June to evaluate our parish communications; they returned in November to help us do some message development for both internal and external audiences. Jim is a newspaper person and the editor of Episcopal Café, the best website around offering Episcopal Church news, commentary, and opinion. [Check it out at www.episcopalcafe.com.] Rebecca has done a lot of work for and with nonprofit organizations and churches. Together they bring a great deal of insight, skill and experience to their work.
Jim and Rebecca are also faithful, engaged Christian people, so their consulting is informed by more than mere expertise. They have a theological vision for what they do. They care deeply about the vitality and the future of the church, and they have a deep understanding of what churches need to do to be effective places of worship and centers of mission in the world.
One thing they helped us all see over the course of the weekend was the gap between what current parishioners value about a church (any church) and what prospective members might be looking for. Essentially, those of us who attend church value the traditional things that institutional Christianity has offered: worship. pastoral care, opportunities to serve, staying connected to friends. But the things we value are not necessarily what non-attenders are looking for. When asked, increasing numbers of people say they are not particularly attracted to the traditional menu of established church practices. They describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. They care deeply about discovering what God is doing in the world and in their lives. They are less interested in the traditional institutional expressions of Christian faith.
As you can imagine, this new perspective on why more people don’t come to church provoked a lot of thought and discussion. It got me to thinking about how we Christians “read” the culture we’re in. I think we have tended, in mainline churches, to under-read the spiritual interest of our culture and to over-interpret the decline of church attendance as a call to provide more (secular) services. Megachurches offer coffee bars, exercise facilities, teen dances, child care. We tend to think that if we had only more amenities like these we would be more popular. We tend to think our friends and neighbors don’t come here because they’re not interested. It doesn’t occur to us that they stay away because they don’t think we’ll help them attend to the big questions they have to ask. From the outside, we look more interested in organizing taffy pulls than prayer groups. The people who avoid us do so not because we are too spiritual but because they see us as not spiritual enough.
I must admit that I have always detested the phrase, “spiritual but not religious” because I have seen it as shorthand for a kind of laziness. I have (rather judgmentally) concluded that they wanted the consolations of a religion without the attendant obligations. But as I’ve thought about last weekend’s conversations, and as I’ve reflected on them with others, I am beginning to see that what I believe to be true about churchgoers is also true about those who spend Sunday with the newspaper. People no longer have to go to church for any reason save an inner compulsion to go there. Those who do show up on Sunday are responding to something God is prompting in them. The corollary is this: those who stay home on Sunday are no less subject to God’s nudgings. They simply don’t believe that we in organized churches have anything deep or compelling to tell them anymore.
Knowing and loving the church (and this church) as I do, I believe we do have something deep and compelling to tell those who live and work and study and play around us. We have to do a better job of letting them know that a liturgically serious, intellectually open, socially committed, pastorally engaged faith community like ours will provide a place to root themselves in the life of faith. I also know that we have to go deeper, together, on the journey of faith so that we can offer what we know with some credibility. It is my job to offer the language, the framework, the skills, and the trustworthy community in which we all can reflect on what God is doing within us and through us. It is your job to bring the depth of what God is doing within you to the conversation. Together we can find a way to be both spiritual and religious.