The backlash of institutions (and their spokespeople) against “Spiritual but not Religious”

Another week, another study. There are some remarkable numbers here. Among those aged 18-24, 32% prefer no religion; of those between the ages of 25 and 34, 29% claim “no religion;” Among those 35-44, only 19%. But underneath those headlines lies  a more complex reality. They may have no religious affiliation but the vast majority of Americans continue to express belief in God or belief in a higher power. The percentage of those identifying as atheist (3.1%) or agnost (5.6%) remains very small.

This study, as others before it, makes clear that while institutional affiliation may be falling dramatically, religious belief and practice are not declining significantly.

Gary Laderman, chair of the Religion Department at Emory University and scholar of American Religion, points out that the rise of the “nones” means the study of Religion in America is more interesting than ever. He gives several reasons for the rise, one of them is:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Elizabeth Drescher is studying the prayer practices of the “nones” and has some pointed questions about prayer divorced from religious traditions and communities.

I’ve blogged about Lillian Daniel’s views before. Her recent book continues to garner interest. I’m not exactly sure who she’s writing for, to reassure those of us who are caretakers of traditional religious institutions are doing valuable work? Is she trying to convince the SBNR folks that their efforts to make meaning in their life are of little value? At least she doesn’t harangue them quite like Rabbi David Wolpe.

One one level, all this consternation from religious institutions and their representatives about the nones reminds me of the complaints throughout history of pastors, theologians, bishops, and other insiders about the behavior of their flocks. In the fourth century, Ambrose worried that the faithful were going out of the city to martyrs’ shrines and not attending his sermons. In the Middle Ages, preachers and priests complained that people didn’t pay attention to sermons or came only when they heard the sanctus bell that indicated the moment of the consecration of the host. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant preachers also complained that attendance at services was poor and devotion languished. Had you asked those who were criticized for their lukewarm faith and behavior, I’ve no doubt they would have responded by saying they were good Christians. They just weren’t the sort of Christians their leaders wanted them to be.

The fact of the matter is that throughout the history of Christianity, indeed, throughout the history of religion, there has been a disconnect between what institutions and sacred experts wanted in terms of behavior (and doctrinal purity) of their communities, and what ordinary men and women actually did religiously, and how they understood and appropriated what they did. What we are seeing is not so much a decline in religious practice or belief, but rather a decline in the understanding that religious practice and belief must be tied to religious institutions. They are free of the religious expectations imposed on them from above.

The question, then, is not how to get people back into the pews, but rather, how can we connect with people who no longer automatically see us as valuable experts on religion or even as valuable spiritual guides? How can we encounter them where they are, invite them to ask their questions, encourage them to enter more deeply into the rich spiritual traditions of Christianity, but at the same time recognize that they may never join the Altar Guild. It’s likely, however, that if we have concrete outreach opportunities for them to engage, they will work side by side with us. To succeed with the nones may not mean getting them to join our churches. Instead, it may mean recognizing the legitimacy of their spiritual journeys and engaging them there, rather than trying to force them to engage us on our terms.

The Changing Sea Project is exploring the spirituality of emerging adults and their relationship with religious institutions. More on the spirituality and religious practices of “emerging adults:”

This group of emergent adults says they feel close to God. They adapt religious traditions according to their own individual needs and desires. But religion has high salience for them. They really care
about the meaning of life and other deep questions. Religious attendance is medium, with some regular attending and others not. They engage in service to others. It’s a religiosity that would not exclude attendance or personal prayer.

And another cautionary note: Young philanthropists want to support causes not institutions:

They have judged previous generations to be largely motivated by recognition for their giving and want little part of it. They want to see societal change through the causes they support; they could care less about the named scholarship fund or the plaque on the wall. Christian institutions making appeals to younger donors need to show how their work is part of the unfolding shalom of God for all of creation.

And

young donors want to be engaged in the work of a cause or institution itself. As the study notes, this is a generation that grew up volunteering and believes that investing time as much as money is essential. But note — this on-the-ground service is also another way that they will assess impact over rhetoric.

“Spiritual, but not religious”

Lillian Daniel rants about the passenger in the next seat in the airplane who says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” upon learning that she is clergy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the same experience, and the same reaction, both in my earlier life as a professor of Religious Studies (when I would usually pass myself off as a scholar of European History) and since I’ve been ordained a priest.

Of course, people who say they are “spiritual not religious” can be vacuous; but worship and life in Christian communities can be vacuous as well, as Trevor Wax reminds us.

Sometimes, such people are little more than individualist navel-gazers; sometimes, they are on quests for meaning and authenticity. Sometimes, they are burned out on organized religion, or worse. They are so damaged by life in communities of hate that they cannot conceive or ever experience the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, their journey has taken them away, as in the case of a woman I spoke with this week, who after years of faithful attendance, and active involvement in outreach, finds the liturgy no longer speaks to her soul. Instead, it is painting that feeds her soul. Sometimes that phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious” is a formula they’ve learned to help them deal with the absence in their hearts that they cannot comprehend.

Sometimes, we need to listen.