March 23, 2012
Sounds sci-fi right? Sorry – it’s current sociology. A few months ago the Wall Street Journal published a story on the growing percentage of people in America who check “none” as their faith category in recent surveys. Time Magazinepublished a similar report in a recent issue:
“The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called ‘the nones’ by social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major surveys put them at 16% of the population. But as the Not Church (*) community shows, many of those who have given up on organized religion have not given up on faith. Only 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic.” (Amy Sullivan, “The Rise of the Nones,” Time. [New York: Time & Life, Vol. 179, No. 10, March 12, 2012], p. 68.)
Add this report to another published in the same issue of Time. In 1950, 4 million people lived alone, making up 9% of the U.S. population. In 2011, 33 million people lived alone, accounting for 28% of the U.S. population. (Eric Klinenberg, “Living Alone is the New Norm,” Time. [New York: Time & Life, Vol. 179, No. 10, March 12, 2012], p. 60.)
So here is the backdrop of the early 21st century – more people are living by themselves and more people fit into the “spiritual but not religious” category where people are open to faith but not necessarily the institutions that traditionally support them.
How does the church operate in such a context?
Many traditional congregations still use a model developed by religious institutions to worship, serve and develop faith and fellowship in stable, multigenerational communities centered on families. That is not to say that families still don’t need support, fellowship and faith formation in today’s culture, of course they do, but by and large churches have ignored this growing population of people living on their own who are not connected to churches while asking spiritual questions. Many of them are young adults leaving their home communities to start life on their own. It seems almost by design – there is not a place for disconnected singles in our congregations. We need some creativity to help bring people together who are not connecting in traditional settings.
So what do we do?
Here are three suggestions. Please add your own to this list.
1. Keep the Message the Message.
Our institutionalism is killing us. I’m not scolding us here – just naming an elephant in the room. Institutions are good and necessary for organization, order, and communication, but they need to stand behind the message we share with those around us through word and deed. Let’s be honest, many of our congregations and ministries simply would not exist if institutions did not start or promote them. However, sometimes “promoting the institution” becomes the message in order to advertise its programs or ministries, even at the congregational level. Sometimes “preserving the institution” becomes the message when we feel like things are backsliding or unless we double our efforts to keep something going or it will all fall apart. Remember that the church started as a group of misfits with very few resources at their disposal that brought the gospel with them wherever they went and whatever they did – work or play. Communities formed around the gospel, because Jesus changes us. The best institutions cultivate creativity and keep the message the message. If the hope of our shared calling as Christians is to connect people of various walks of life unconnected to our institutions with Jesus – our message has to be Jesus, not our institutions. Our confessional heritage often states, “This we believe, teach and confess.” The pastor is not the message. The church is not the message. Our institutions are not the message. Jesus is the message, and we carry that message as a group of misfits God calls into the world.
2. Welcome Questions.
It is my observation that the great people of faith in scripture, and people who have been pillars of faith in my own life are people who keep asking questions. Too often we are seen as answer people – too eager to tell people what we think they need to know, what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to assimilate. Many people leave institutions, including churches, because of their authoritative nature and lack of ability or space to ask questions. Claiming our authority matters, but in an age when our authority is either rejected or unrecognized, a way we can honor that authority is by opening up the possibility for others to engage it with their questions. Sometimes, and my guess is often times – the questions we attempt to answer are not the same questions others are asking. Are we listening?
3. Keep Exploring How to Connect People Together.
Churches have long been centers of connecting people together, around wider communities and across generations. In our changing world where there is much activity outside our congregations, and too often we remain either torn between so many opportunities to be involved in, or remain cloistered in our churches. It is a false choice to separate the sacred from the secular or categorize our lives in silos. The connections we make to help others see God is working too is our real evangelism (sharing good news). We are not converting people – we are helping them to see God already at work around them, and we are called to that task with them, together, wherever community can be found and formed. The work we do as congregations should empower us for the work we do everywhere else. That includes forming community. With as many people living on their own and as many people who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” there is a lot of connecting we can do!
“Nones” No More
There are no “nones” – only people created in the image of God. The very name “none” somehow implies we have God and they do not – kind of a new name for “the heathens” around us (which is not a helpful dichotomy as history has shown). We should be clear that we are not bringing God to people – God is there. Our task, perhaps the greatest task of our time in the life of the church – is to notice and name God at work among us. Where we see suffering and pain, God is at work. Where we see guilt and shame, God is at work there too. Where we see creativity and renewal, generosity and helping hands, people coming together, those lingering in estrangement and where we see it end, God is at work. Where we see hope in the midst of despair, where we see life in the midst of death, where we see community forming out of the ashes of what came before it, God is at work and is working hard.
Our call as the church of this age, perhaps it is our primary call, is to connect what God is doing in and among us with each other. Perhaps that is why communities like “Not Church” have a draw – people are connecting what God is doing in and among them, and are open to explore it together. Gathering together is not just talking; it’s doing and reflecting, something we in the church struggle with at times. The difference is – we have something to say about it, and it is something important. We can name God in suffering because we know the God of the cross. We can name God in creativity because we know God makes all things new. We can name God in estrangements and in reconciliation because we have not only experienced it ourselves but have stories that we continue to share in scripture that make sense out of what is happening in our own lives. We know the difference between repentance and just trying to be a good person because we know one opens up faith while the other ends in futility.
Now is a time of more questions than answers; and listening is key. Now is a time to explore: to do; to act; to reflect; to go, and do some more. Now is the time to trust God to guide us – and name God guiding us now and into the future.
Our models will change. Our wisdom will become foolish. Our mission will be the same.
God calls us to connect people to the promise for Christ’s sake. God sends us to those around us. God is with us along the way.
This is not sci-fi – its real life, and we, like God, are a part of it!
“So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
(*) Sullivan identifies “Not Church” this way, “Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a congregation often does – engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor.” (Sullivan, Time, p. 68.)