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Will you invite someone to church?

Will you invite someone to church?

by Robert Warren Cromey

Spiritual and formerly religious people are the church’s best bet for new members and growth.

Many people today proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. Others attend church from time to time and struggle with concepts of God, spirit, the Bible, Jesus, homosexuality, abortion, church and traditional beliefs in general. Some attended church as children and left after confirmation or when their family moved to another town, city, state or country. A remarkable number of young people today have never been to a church even for a wedding or funeral much less Sunday School or worship. Yet some say they are spiritual. I believe them.

SBNR equals I’m “Spiritual but not Religious.” When people are asked what they mean by being spiritual, the answers include:

I have a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of God as transcendent.

I want a sense of holiness and the divine in my life.

I want more love and forgiveness in my life.

We should have a better world. Food for the starving, homes for the homeless and justice for all.

I want a sense of family and community in my life.

I pray meditate, do yoga and appreciate nature.

I want peace in the world.

One of the biggest obstacles to joining a church is helping unlearn what people have learned in conservative, fundamentalist or Roman Catholic churches. They now call these teachings into question. The Bible is the big one. How could anyone believe in the Bible when it taught the world was created in seven days? Mary was a virgin and Jesus’ body was alive after he died? What does the word of God mean?

One woman said in frustration to her priest, “Just tell me what to believe.”

The priest replied, “I can’t do that, Linda. I can give you a way to look at what the churches have taught down through the centuries, then you have to decide what you believe.”

She said, “I don’t think I can do that.”

The priest said. “I see my religious belief as a work in progress. It has changed and developed over the years. It probably will refine as I get older. Belief is a journey.”

Linda joined the church, seeing it as a community of seekers.

Linda is like many people who have a sense that life is more than money, marriage, babies and accumulating. It was a vague awareness that her life’s meaning and purpose lay beyond the traditional values she had been taught in her fundamentalist church. She was taught about God, the Bible and Jesus. But it wasn’t enough. Her church gave her all the answers but did not minister to her spiritual needs. Her church also did not nurture her intellectual development and did not respond to the questions she asked about the meaning of the Bible, worship and sexuality.

At San Francisco Airport recently I got talking with a woman in her early thirties, a journalist, unmarried and pregnant. She said she was one of a growing new group Americans. She believed in some power above and beyond herself and this world. As a journalist she was most interested in the environment and thus she had a spiritual as well as political concern for the environment. Since she was pregnant she was aware of the mystical and awesome process of having a baby. She believed in love and concern for others. But she has always been skeptical of everything and did not like dogma handed down to her. Her family is Syrian Orthodox. We did not talk about that, but I assume that church has long boring liturgies in a foreign tongue. The doctrines and dogmas are set for her to believe without question.

The recovering fundamentalists and Roman Catholics and the SBNRs, those who say they are spiritual and not religious, are the seeking, searching people to whom our churches may look for new members.

The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church, retired and living in San Francisco.

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A Facebook User

I understand what you are saying Robert, but I think that issues over the biology of the Incarnation or the historicity of a bodily Resurrection are only impediments for those of us who are baby boomers or older Genxers who are still wrestling with the Modern paradigms. "Unlearn" is indeed the right language for these folks because they were once in church and are looking for more satisfying ways to live into a story that they already know. This group is the leadership of our Church, and they tend to cater to their own....unfortunately I fear that in our attempts to help this group bail some pretty nasty bathwater, we are in danger of losing the baby.

Why? For starters, most SBNR folks under say 50 though, questions of biology and historicity are moot, because they have already been trained by their culture to understand that truth transcends these modern debates. They are much more interested in what these ideas (Incarnation, Resurrection, etc.) mean to them and their lives. Further, they have never been in church, so they don't have to unlearn anything...in fact having coherent and clear theological understanding of these core parts of the Christian story is vital to meet their spiritual needs in a culture of relativism. They don't need us to help them "decide which one works for them," they need us to bear witness to our collective understanding of these eternal and transformative truths. Anything less, to them, is not really worth their time I'm not talking about a narrow, dogmatic approach...but a much clearer witness that we currently offer. For us "unlearners" this is a challenge, but I fear that if we do not do a better job of meeting it, we will be the ones to turn off the lights when we leave.-Joe Snavely

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Stan Chaz

Re Occupy &Trinity Church: You don’t need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that "Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." But many of the 1%, in blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten this. They have closed their eyes to what the word "society" should really mean, what it can mean. But due to Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured, for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires....we are now talking about fairness and justice - about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s going on in this country, and why. The attempt by OWS to occupy Duarte Square (the empty lot owned by Trinity Church) is much more than a plea for sanctuary. For like Zuccotti Park, it’s an attempt to carve out a protected space, a living conscience for the city, amid the repression. A refuge...in a city where control-freaks would sweep us under the rug, and out of the way. In a city where they would pen us in, and permit us to death. In a city that tells us to “move on, move on”..... you don’t belong, you don’t count, you don’t have a right to be here...don’t assemble, don’t block the street, don’t trespass, don’t EXIST! They would deny us, deny our lives, deny our very futures. IF WE LET THEM. But OWS responds, both in word and in DEED: it says we’ve had ENOUGH - we BELONG, we STAND our ground, and we DO matter! This IS our land, and we want it BACK! The word OCCUPY...says it all! That’s why OWS has captured our imagination. That’s why a living breathing OCCUPIED public space is important for OWS. Like Lady Liberty’s never extinguished torch that burns in our harbor, OWS needs to have a concrete, persistent in-your-face presence.. to continually remind us of what we’ve lost, of what we are, and what we can be ...to affirm, illuminate, defy...and inspire. Trinity Church, with its oft-proclaimed ideals (and its huge land holdings), should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS secure a sanctuary, a space of refuge and hope. And dare I say: a space of love - both love of country, and love of your fellow man and woman. Can thoughtful Christians argue with these simple Christian/human values? For if Christ were physically with us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain... 

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Robert Cromey

Some SBNRs cannot believe in the biology of the virgin birth. In discussion we can point out that there are many ways to look at that doctrine. The seeker can make a choice about which interpretation works for them

-Robert Cromey

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A Facebook User

Father Cromey, I very much agree that the Church needs to understand and reach out to the large number of people that consider themselves "spiritual but not religious." These people represent both a mission field and a witness to us...a reality check about how our religious answers are failing to meet their spiritual questions.

However, I do not like the seeming connection that you have made between reaching them and "unlearning" things like "Mary was a virgin and Jesus’ body was alive after he died." Helping them engage those parts of our Creedal witness is vital...allowing room to ask questions is a must...to understand what it really means to "believe" such a thing is imperative...but "unlearn" Perhaps I am misunderstanding you.-Joe Snavely

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