Is There Room in the Church for Non-Believers?

I believe there is something about experiencing the ancient liturgy that can take us to another part of our being, deep into our spiritual selves -- whether one can recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience or not.
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[Photo © Michael Seufer, used by permission.]

Not long ago I was mindlessly glancing through a variety of posts on my Facebook newsfeed as I typically do once or twice a day to see what my friends and family members were up to.

My glancing stopped when I saw a post from an acquaintance of mine, a popular comic book writer/artist and designer for whom I'd proofread a few freelance book projects some years ago. What jumped out at me was the word "church" in his post.

I had no idea he was religiously inclined. It seems I have always been a believer, and in the time since we had worked together I've been on a journey toward ordination as an Episcopal priest. Now in addition to my work as producer and host of the Day 1 radio program, I serve as an assisting priest in a wonderful parish southwest of Atlanta.

So here's what he wrote on his Facebook page (shared with his permission):

"They didn't pick me up for church yesterday. Why am I bothered? I'm a Non-theist, as opposed to an Atheist. It is nuance to be sure. But these days the Angry Dis-believing is different from the Friendly Non-believing. That said, I go to church on Sundays to be part of my mother and father's community. I was married there (number one), designed their logo, buried Mom in the garden. I have been a happy non-believer for years. I don't go to church to worship the supernatural or pay homage to a 2000-year-old martyr, but to embrace friends. Knowing my father was out of town, why did they not come get me?"

I hit "like" in hopes he would sense my friendly support in his frustration.

His post not only surprised me, it also broke my heart -- particularly since he was referring to an Episcopal church. As it turns out, he and his father share a car so they typically go to church together, but this particular Sunday his father was out of town with the car. No one had thought to pick my friend up. And he, a "Friendly Non-believer," missed being in church.

But beyond the melancholy nature of his post in missing the opportunity to "embrace friends" in church was the astonishing notion that non-believers can actually enjoy and appreciate being part of a congregation. That they can take pleasure in participating in a family of faith, even without the faith.

And that makes me wonder, is the church doing enough to make non-believing people feel welcome? And why not?

I believe there is something about experiencing the ancient liturgy that can take us to another part of our being, deep into our spiritual selves -- whether one can recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience or not. Participating in the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of the bread and wine of the Eucharist can move us into an invigorating place in the spiritual stream of human history from the early church on.

Worship services provide a place not only to experience sublime peace, but to be challenged to serve. Getting involved in an active community of faith, even without faith, can help us build mutually beneficial relationships, and can also offer opportunities to meet the needs around us --to get out of ourselves and our own concerns, see the hurting world around us, and do something constructive and meaningful about it together.

A number of people added comments to my friend's post. One said:

"The best part of church is the fellowship you describe."

To be sure, in our culture today, there is so little opportunity to experience camaraderie and affiliation with other people -- men and women who may be very different from ourselves in a number of ways. To my thinking, we need all the human connections we can get in this world. Church offers this rare opportunity for meaningful fellowship, if we give ourselves to it.

This commenter continued:

"In a small town, churches are hubs for the community. In a big city, your church can be an oasis. I loved going back to [my old] Church when I was home in May, even went to a choir practice with my old choir. Felt good to see everyone again."

Interesting: Church as an oasis of peace. Church as a lifeboat in the storm. Church as a gathering place for joyful interaction -- regardless of who is part of the congregation.

Another person chimed in:

"I [go to church] to meet my neighbors. It's a great social activity. I'm not thoroughly convinced people believe 100 percent."

What better place to meet people? They probably don't believe 100 percent if they're Episcopalians! But I didn't say that.

Yet another commenter said that he and his wife had visited friends the previous weekend and they all attended an Episcopal service:

"As a lapsed Anglican, I was struck by the strength of the community bonds in evidence, and the support offered to those in need, either physically, mentally, or spiritually. Powerful stuff indeed."

Of course, one wag had to post a response to that:

"Lapsed Anglican? Isn't that like falling out of a first floor window?"

Heh. This commenter went on to say,

"I love church and synagogue. Not sure about this God guy... I think they call me religious but not spiritual."

And here we've been so concerned about the "spiritual but not religious" people! Maybe we shouldn't be labeling people so much. This commenter added a final note:

"I don't want something hippy or dippy either! I want a bunch of doubters in deep, traditional, reverent pretense."

I chuckled at the cynicism, inwardly denied my own occasional pretense, and acknowledged that there is indeed a broad spectrum of authenticity regarding one's faith. And we need to recognize that -- and perhaps even welcome it.

This is a phenomenon I'm not sure many church leaders and members are even aware is happening, or can happen. Perhaps we should find a way to open our doors wider to welcome more of these folks who may be "religious but not spiritual" -- the "Friendly Non-theists" -- without seeking to convince or coerce or convert them into belief. That is a matter between them and God, after all, whether the God they don't believe in exists or not.

The Episcopal Church is among those denominations considered to be more open to doubt, questioning, and unsettledness regarding aspects of faith than some other traditions. That sort of faith seems stronger and more authentic to me than an unquestioning, doubt-free faith. It requires work and thought and struggle and prayer. Work that I and many others find pays off in deep meaning and purpose in life.

So there is room in the church for doubters. Is there room in the church for non-believers?

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