WELCOME FOR THE WEARY- What Does the Bible Offer the “Nones?”

Searching Silhouette“The Lord God has given me the tongue of one who is taught, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning [God] wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Isaiah 50:4 (NRSV)

For those who are listening, I believe God is teaching us something these days.

In a 2012 report, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported a record-breaking rise in the numbers of adults in America who are not affiliated with any religious group:

One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30— are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics… as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.”[1]

Colloquially referred to as the ‘nones,’ because of their typical response to survey questions about their religious affiliation, this group of Americans has been growing steadily while the ranks of U.S. Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals such as the Southern Baptists, have seen significant drops. [2] [3] [4]

Some see this trend as a harbinger of “the end of religion as we know it,”[5] warning of “religious apocalypse.”[6] For others, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated heralds the secularization of America, following the pattern of Western Europe[7], an inevitable process that goes hand-in-hand with modernization and economic progress[8] [9].

But as the Pew report points out, the religiously unaffiliated are not a monolithic group. And their refusal of religious affiliation does not necessarily equate with rejecting God or reneging on spirituality:

…many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.[10]

The term “spiritual but not religious” zeroes in on those religiously unaffiliated who still pursue or embrace some form of spirituality, while not espousing a fixed dogma or denominational creed. A minister with 24 years of pastoral experience with “SBNR”s describes some of the salient characteristics of this emerging group:

“People who identify themselves as SBNR are very skeptical of hard and fast theological constructs about God… The SBNR tend to be post-modern and thus are extremely suspicious of any ultimate truth claims… They want to consider religious and theological beliefs from a variety of perspectives… They gravitate toward spiritual explanations grounded in experiences rather than toward theological explanations grounded in rational speculation… By virtue of being “spiritual,” they seek an experience of God, not thought about God or rituals that feel devoid of God…They see the practice of religion as inhibiting the pursuit of the spiritual, and of a direct relationship with God, the Divine, the Higher Power…[11]

For those who are listening, God is teaching. Those weary or wary of being part of a religious group are nonetheless seeking and finding Divine connections through experiential encounters, personal faith in God, environmental stewardship and communion with nature, and adhering to select spiritual principles and practices, including prayer.

These values resonate closely with many of the major faiths, including Christian scripture and tradition. Yet many of the religiously unaffiliated have experienced a disconnect between these spiritual ideals and standard practice in religious congregations:

The Rev. Mike Baughman, a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas, tells Greene that the church is indeed sending the wrong message. “If the church was known more for our efforts to welcome the stranger than keep them out, I think the church would have greater credibility with rising generations,” says Baughman. “For example, on immigration policies, we’ve taken the wrong stance on that, and they know. The thing is they’re smart enough. A lot of them have grown up in the church and then rejected it. They’ve read the scriptures that talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger, they’ve read the scriptures about the importance of caring for the poor, and when they see that no longer on the lips of those who are in religious authority, they see that the God we present is bankrupt, and that we’re theologically thin in our ability to even speak our own story.”[12]

How can those of us who are insiders, connected to religious groups, attune and orient ourselves and our faith communities to see and hear and reach out and welcome in these spiritual wayfarers of our time? Can we learn anew “how to sustain the weary with a word” and heartfelt deeds of kindness that genuinely embody and convey the Welcome of our God?

In Baja Mexico, a welcome mat has been woven for American expatriates and ex-church-goers in the form of a Sunday gathering called “Not Church”:

“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…”[13]

The group began as a monthly discussion group led by a young ordained Presbyterian minister, Erin Dunigan.  In a message drawn from God’s call to Samuel in I Samuel 3, she likened organized religion to “supermarket tomatoes–flavorless and tough. That isn’t a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.”[14]

In Denver, CO, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber extends her extravagantly-tattooed arms to welcome weary travelers to the House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation created to “provide a connection or a bridge to the traditions of the church [for]…urban post-modern folks.”[15]  Though House for All follows the “ancient liturgy of the church,” their gatherings are far from “flavorless and tough.”

“…The liturgy is led by the people who show up.  The pastor offers the Eucharistic prayer and (most times) the sermon; all the other parts of the liturgy are led by people from where they are sitting.  As a matter of fact, even the music is made by the community… the liturgy is a capella.  So, all the music you hear in liturgy comes from the bodies of those who showed up…. There’s also some innovation.  We always include poetry and a time called “Open Space” in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community’s Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver.”[16]

House for All is currently the spiritual home for about 180 folks including “married couples, young families, Baby Boomers and a few folks in their 70s, [plus young adults between ]the ages of 22 and 42 and single.  Maybe a quarter of us identify as Lutherans; the rest are post-Evangelicals, Methodists, agnostics, Reformed, Episcopalian, and the ever-popular ‘nothing’.”[17]

These examples illustrate a couple of the most innovative efforts of mainline denominations – those losing ground most rapidly to the rise of the religiously unaffiliated – to reclaim a generation who has disengaged from their venerable traditions and institutional religious protocols.

In other parts of the American Christian landscape, where innovation, participation and experiential encounters with God have been part of religious tradition and ethnic culture, the faith is persisting, even flourishing. For example, in contrast to the widespread fall-off in religious affiliation among White Americans of all regions and socio-economic strata, the “nones” phenomenon has not affected African American and Latino communities:

When it comes to race, … the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites. One-fifth of (non-Hispanic) whites now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up five percentage points since 2007. By contrast, the share of Blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years.[18]

And whereas mainline (historically white) denominations have experienced precipitous decline over the past generation, Pentecostalism, a highly experiential expression of Christian faith, has experienced explosive growth in the United States and around the world, particularly among African Americans, Latinos and other global peoples of color:

Pentecostalism and related charismatic movements represent one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity. At least a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians are thought to be members of these lively, highly personal faiths, which emphasize… spiritually renewing “gifts of the Holy Spirit”… Even more than other Christians, Pentecostals and other Renewalists believe that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continues to play a direct, active role in everyday life.

Pentecostalism, and its related “renewalist” or “spirit-filled” movements, was one of the most influential developments in global Christianity in the 20th century, and it is poised to have an even greater influence in the 21st century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “global South,” where Pentecostalism is reshaping the social, political and economic landscape of many countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.[19]

Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity’s experiential emphasis, free-flowing worship, and personal encounter with God via the Holy Spirit fit part of the profile of what today’s “Spiritual But Not Religious” are looking for. But these movements have been weighed down with the baggage of rigid fundamentalism, social conservatism, and anti-intellectualism that refuses to wrestle with some of the complex questions confronting those seeking spirituality in the post-modern world. To gain long-term traction among the religiously unaffiliated, these deficiencies in Pentecostal-Charismatic faith have to be addressed and overcome.

On this front, progressive mainline denominational congregations have the edge and point the way forward. As House for All elaborates in their core values:

House … is experimenting with new ways to do church which make sense to urban postmodern folks. It is a place where:

The Gospel matters, liturgy is recontextualized, and we are free to reclaim the word “Christian”

Scripture is honored enough to be faithfully questioned and struggled with

We no longer have to culturally commute or bracket out parts of ourselves to be in Christian community

We are co-creators of liturgy, [not] just passive participants. Aesthetics and theology both matter

The community is both intellectually and spiritually stimulating   (my emphases).[20]

The Bible gives us a great story of how Jesus modeled welcome for one weary “none” of His time:

Zacchaeus… was aZacchaeus chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [21]

Like Zacchaeus, the “nones” of our time are pursuing a wide range of vocations and often amassing substantial material resources. For all their professional success and personal wealth, however, there is still a yearning for meaning and significance that these post-modern pilgrims are seeking. Like Zacchaeus, these seekers are “trying to see who Jesus is” in a way that speaks to their experience and makes sense in the postmodern world. “But on account of the crowd” of denominational, institutional, creedal and outdated religious cultural barriers, Jesus is obscured. Individual spiritual pursuits inevitably come up “short” in providing sustainable spiritual nourishment which, even in this age, takes place most effectively in community. Running ahead of institutional lethargy and ingrown denominational insensitivity, the spiritual wayfarers of our time are ferretting out a wide array of spiritual systems and practices to get a better vantage point on the Divine than the tired platitudes of the past. Whether through communing with nature, community service or prayer and healing practices now associated with so-called “Eastern religions” (and which were part of primal Christian faith – itself once an ancient Eastern religion), the Spiritual But Not Religious, like Zacchaeus, are going to great lengths in pursuit of Divine encounter.

When Jesus came to the place where Zacchaeus was, “off the beaten path,” he looked up. Jesus observed. He noticed. He stopped. He looked. And He engaged Zacchaeus right where he was, extending him an empowering Word of Welcome: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus didn’t have a house. So he created space for Zacchaeus to welcome Him to his house. For those of us tightly aligned with religious groups, this is the approach we need today. Rather than expecting the religiously unaffiliated to come to us in the fortress of our “houses of worship,” we can create an opportunity for encounter by moving out of our comfort zones, where we rule, and coming as guests into the living (and working and socializing) spaces of those who don’t or won’t come to church.  Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus, because Jesus was happy to come to him. Though our religious sensibilities may grumble at the thought of being the “guest of one who is a sinner”  and encountering God outside the box of our accustomed liturgical paradigms, Jesus shows us that this is just where the action is.

In his own space, Zacchaeus showed Jesus his heart. His philanthropic actions showed the sincerity of his intent and pursuit of God. Likewise today, many “nones” encounter the Divine and show their spirituality through their giving, their community service, their social action.  Jesus recognized that Zacchaeus’ actions showed evidence of his “salvation” – a changed heart, a changed life, a changed relationship with the Almighty. Jesus claimed Zacchaeus – despised by religious insiders – as a son of Abraham – part of the family of believers. And Jesus identified Zacchaeus – and those like him who were “lost” – not to God, but to the religious establishment – as the heart of His mission in the world.

May those of us who have been enriched by the scriptures and traditions of our historic communities of faith seize the “teaching moment” of this time. The religious and spiritual transition in our nation and world has given us a golden opportunity to re-align ourselves with the agenda and approach of Jesus so that we – and those we’ve “lost” along the way—may awaken afresh and discover anew the sustaining power of God’s living words for the weary.

[11] N. Graham Standish. “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual But Not Religious” in Congregations. Issue 1, 2013 pp 6-9.

[14] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[21] Luke 19:2-10 NRSV


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