Last year the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey that created a huge buzz in religious circles about a group that could now be categorized as "spiritual but not religious." One of the findings that piqued the interest of many was that the decline in traditional church membership was not leading to people rejecting faith at the magnitude that many had expected. In fact, "faith," in its many manifestations, was still a significant element in many people's understanding of self.
When the report came out, many of us involved in the church were not all that surprised. Any church leaders who listen to the whispers and shouts of life around them know that spirituality is alive and well in American culture. Of course, being able to place those spiritualities into clean and neat boxes is impossible. So, for a society that has traditionally needed to have very clear delineations around faith communities, this vague spirituality that many claim creates an interesting dilema to those who see the need for faith to be BOTH spiritual and religious.
For many traditions, the spiritual and religious lives of a person are not mutually exclusive, in fact they are dependent on one another. In my case, being a Christian means that my understanding of a spiritual life cannot be fully understood unless I am connected in some way to a community of people who profess similar beliefs and engage in common disciplines. As many put it, "one cannot be a Christian in isolation." While it is difficult to live in community, we need one another to discover and grow fully into who God has created and called us to be. In community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.
Now, that's the flowery way to put it, and it's how we experience community at its best. But really, being in community and committing to a religious life, for a Christian or anyone else, is hard. Diverse personalities mixed with a variety of life perspectives can lead to interactions that run the gamut from simply not liking one another very much to engaging in emotionally or physically destructive behavior. We see it all the time. History has shown that religious people have done some crappy stuff. Speaking only for "my people," Christians have massacred thousands in the name of God, we have remained silent in times when our collective voices have needed to speak out for others, and many of us still hold views about race, class, gender and sexuality that I believe lead to emotional and physical pain every day around the world. And on top of all of these things we add on a layer of bickering and pettiness that does not exactly scream, "You who are spiritual, come on in and be religious with us, it's great!"
Of course, I am being hard on my own family. I suspect that most folks who explore the Christian faith for the first time or look at revisiting it in their life might even give a local church the benefit of the doubt and visit. I think folks who are truly exploring know that the church has also been about the business of feeding the poor, standing against that which is unjust, and generally trying to live differently and better. But I tell ya, the first time that church argues about something that is petty -- no matter how you frame it, justified or not -- that visitor is out of there.
Basically, understanding that we have a natural need to control our surroundings, protect that which we possess and avoid conflict, combined with knowing what I know about many churches, it is no wonder at all that the "spiritual but not religious" set is on the rise.
This has all become important for me because for the past three months "spiritual but not religious" has been my own category of choice. After being a pastor for the past 15 years and ending my time as the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, my family and I find ourselves in a unique time in our spiritual lives. Now, we don't HAVE to go to church -- and we haven't. Now, before my detractors scream, "See, I knew that Bruce was a Godless liberal!" in our defense, we travelled quite a bit over the summer and we have attended some services when we have had the chance. But we have also chosen to stay home and do other stuff. And by stuff, I mean we have chosen pretty much anything else to do besides getting our butts to church: work, sleep, play, eat, tweet, etc. Yes, these choices can certainly be acts of a religious discipline -- I can probably justify anything as Sabbath -- but believe me, they have not been. We have simply chosen not to feed and nurture the religious part of our life.
Again, I get why people would create the dichotomy between spirituality and religiosity. Engaging in a religious life that demands being part of a community is often difficult and frustrating. But, as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming. In my tradition, Christ calls us to be the Body of Christ made up of different parts, no one better than the other, and calling us to be community in a way that the world would not want us to be. And, while many Christians interpret and express this calling in different ways, most would agree that to be part of the Body of Christ, you actually have to gather with a body of people to engage in the calling to which we have been called.
While there are certainly some short term benefits to not being part of a church, I also know that it's important for our family to find and commit to a community that will help each of us to grow in our spirituality. For this reason we have recommitted to the search for a church home, a place where our call to be spiritual AND religious can be nurtured and formed. We will do a little "church shopping," looking for a place where we are genuinely welcomed, that has programming in which we can take part and has an approach to theological exploration that both nurtures and challenges. We're not really tied up on size, worship style or the right answers to a theological litmus test, we just want a place that is faithfully being church in the world.
In a day and age when ideological, political and theological clustering is far too prevalent and accessible, our short stay, as refreshing as it as been at times, in the land of the "spiritual but not religious" must come to an end. It's time to leave and find a new home; a community where we can work on the difficult but meaningful call to be spiritual and religious.
We'll let you know how it goes.