There is a certain amount of credibility given to blunt honesty. This week I read two articles by the same author – Pastor Lillian Daniel. She is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and quite frankly, she is fed up. Her patience is not exacerbated because of church
members, church politics, or church decisions; all the things that church people like to discuss and get bent out of shape about these days. Her issue is with people she encounters outside of church that call themselves, “not religious, but spiritual.”
On a flight she sat next to someone on the airplane who told her why he was “not religious, but spiritual.” Her response, “Please stop boring me.” (You can read it here:
In another article, Pastor Daniel offers a bit more of a challenge to a Sunday jogger she met (who just like her travel companion on the airplane), was not religious, but spiritual.
“Let me guess, you find God in nature? And especially in sunsets? As if the people who attend church had never encountered all those psalms that praise God for the beauty of natural creation, and as if we never left the church building ourselves. God in nature?
Really? The theme can be found throughout the Bible. When you push on this self-developed spirituality, you don’t find much. God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?” (Lillian Daniel, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” Christian Century. Chicago, August, 2011. Online Available: http://christiancentury.org/article/2011-08/you-can-t-make.)
Perhaps she is a little harsh, but maybe she is on to something. It certainly is “easier” to see God in beauty than in the ugly places of life, and American life is all about making
things easier. In contrast, in the Christian tradition at least, the cross (an instrument of death and torture) is seen as a primary revelation of how God works through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is what Luther called, “God revealed in the sign of the opposite” – we don’t expect the son of God to suffer and die; and because we don’t want to suffer or die either we don’t want to look for him there. Yet that message is the locus of Christian faith that warrants our witness to it which isn’t always easy. To be honestly
blunt – it can be very difficult.
I can understand why Pastor Daniel is frustrated. I get frustrated. You probably do too. When you “get it” it is hard not to see the power of God at work “in, with and under” (to use a key phrase from Luther’s catechisms) the cross; the church; and our lives in
every way. But I think we also make a key mistake when we don’t at the very least acknowledge that not everybody “gets it” – in fact it is very difficult for some; and that requires a lot more patience than “stop boring me” can provide.
In a book titled, Spiritual but Not Religious, released in 2007 (Oxford University Press),
author Robert Fuller asserts that as many as 1 in 5 Americans self-identify as “not religious, but spiritual.” One can only assume based on church membership numbers in steady decline across most Christian denominations that the number has only grown in the last few years. “Not religious, but spiritual” is becoming American religion. The sooner we realize that reality, the sooner we can begin to think about what our faith means in the midst of such a culture.
It seems to me we as church people have four typical ways we deal with this growing population – we either ignore them, or dismiss them, or try to convince them why they are wrong, or try to prove why we are right. All of these are failing propositions. If we ignore
people we will become disconnected from the world even as we walk around in it. If we dismiss them we’ll become insulated, erecting walls to protect us from what is outside. If we try to convince people why they are wrong we judge others to our own demise. If we try to prove why we are right all we do is chase the tail of relevance as we dizzily try to save our sinking ship rather than set our sails for new horizons.
Here is a different approach. Try listening. Try actually listening. You are not selling anything. You are a person of faith bearing witness. If people are telling you that they
are “not religious, but spiritual” they are ether trying to pick a fight or have a story to tell. I’ve been in both kinds of conversations, but I’ll say from experience that more than likely than not it is the latter conversation many people seek. More than likely they were once part of a faith community and got burned. More than likely there is pain lingering around that separation. More than likely there is a cross being carried. More than likely they don’t want you to solve their problems or have all the right answers. More than likely they just want someone to listen…to actually listen without an agenda. More than likely naming that pain and getting it out in the open will help – whether that pain is caused by negligence in a crisis or disconnect over time; some form of evil done in the name or guise of God; some controversy or division that took its toll; or unhealthy relationships and/or disdain for outsiders within a community that may have rejected them. Many churches, many Christians, and many people of faith have in some way or another hurt lots of people. We call that kind of behavior sin, and we are all guilty of it. That is why the message of forgiveness and mercy is never irrelevant. That is why a living word of God will always speak to our broken lives. Many (but certainly not all) people who consider themselves “not religious, but spiritual” were once connected to a faith community but no longer are. Shouldn’t we at the very least want to ask the question, “why?” We might not be able to fix it, and that may not even be our role to play, but we can at the very least seek to understand. Loving our neighbor asks at least that much of us.
Jesus calls us to be witnesses. The root word for witness is martyr. We need to do some dying to the idols of our churchliness so that we are no longer in a privileged place to
either ignore, dismiss, rebuke or sell our version of religiosity. In Christ, God will raise us to new life – together. We are not religious hucksters – we are witnesses called to point out where God is at work in the world. I bet if we took the time to listen to the stories people outside the church are telling we would be able to name God at work all over the place. Maybe then we can add our stories to that conversation. Hopefully we will.
“I’m not religious, but spiritual.” What will you say to that statement?
I probably would say, “Me too. That’s why I go to church.” After getting over a confused look, maybe then we could have a conversation. Maybe.
Peace, Pastor Geoff
Nathaniel said to (Phillip), “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:43)
Other responses: (alphabetical by author)
Adam J. Copeland
Pam Berardinelli Garrud