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.)