Reaching out to the "spiritual but not religious"

In the most recent entry on this blog, the Rev. Gary Hall, rector of Christ Church, Cranbrook, talks about the gap between what churchgoers find valuable in their faith communities, and what those who don't go to church might be looking for. He writes:

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.

Is he on to something? If our church's were more overtly involved in spiritual development, would people who spend their Sunday morning with the newspaper and bagels find us more relevant to their lives than they do now?

(This excerpt starts about halfway through the item. The beginning of the item concerns the parish's work with two communications consultants. The Rev. Hall's tendency to overvalue their contributions to his parish does not diminish the validity of his larger point.)

Comments (5)

YES, YES, YES! He is on to something. Is that a serious question?
Look, as clubs go, most Episcopal churches just aren't very compelling - no pool, no bar, not even ping pong. But as a place to wrestle with God and so with the support of others - it's fantastic.

So interesting! And, I think, very true. A friend I really respect, a non-churchgoing Christian, recently challenged me with this statement:

"I’ve 'left' [church] because I don’t see the connection between what you do at a Sunday church service and what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospels, or what YHWH called the people of Israel to do in the Torah: Be a blessing to others. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and soul (and love your neighbour as yourself)...I’ve never felt the connection between going to church and accomplishing these goals."

Jesus is compelling. Relevant. Real. Challenging. I suspect if we're really consumed by this understanding, we're going to shine a much brighter light than we will with yoga programs and espresso machines. Not that I don't love getting together in the parish hall to play board games with the 20s and 30s group (programming isn't unimportant), but that the board games aren't the church's mission--and they aren't what keep me coming back week after week.

I was outside the church for most of my life; never even considered darkening the doors, believe me. All that time, though, I never lost respect for it and there's a really simple, everyday reason why not.

When I was in college, I worked one summer at a local Catholic convent. I met a man there the Sisters had hired; he was the janitor - he was mentally ill, and was under the usual before-the-development-of-modern-medication treatments. He was always giving me little laminated cards with pictures of the BVM and little prayers on them. He was at peace - as much as he could be - because he was among friends. Without the church, he might have died in the gutter someplace, unloved and alone - but the Sisters gave him love, a purpose in life, and his dignity, because their faith (and his - and ours) holds that human beings are all of great value in the eyes of God.

I don't know of another organization that could or would have done that, even now. Our culture and economic system certainly don't - and won't.

I don't have to mention, probably, that lots of churches give space to A.A. meetings and soup kitchens. Consider, too: of all the "utopian societies" that have ever been created - only religious ones have ever lasted. Nations have come and gone, ascendant and then fallen - and the church is still around. There's a story there.

We do have a purpose: we are hoping against hope to become friends of God, and to bring others into that embrace as well.

Apropos this topic (I hope):

I was at a church Thanksgiving meal yesterday.

Now I 1) love church meals, 2) am a lifelong Episcopalian and 3) was attending w/ my elderly father.

But *I* got asked, twice (by persons on either side of me), THE Question guaranteed to freaking crucify a person like myself: "What do you DO?"

HOW EASY would it be for me to run out of there, screaming, never looking back, if not for 1, 2 & 3?

We've got to do better. Do NOT ask this class bias question!!!!! >:-0

JC Fisher

As you might guess, I think Gary is on to something. I think we talk right past people who are already over scheduled and stressed out when we speak about mission. What they hear is: more to do. They don't need to come to the Episcopal Church, or any church, to be given more useful things to do. You need to build people's sense of their own possibilities, before you give them work to do. An immersion in the Christian spiritual tradition is one way in which churches can do that.

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space