The new normal may be, in the near future, a populace that considers themselves to be spiritual, but have no need for religion. Diana Butler Bass recently published a book that spoke of what Christianity might look like without religious trappings. For many in the "religious world," especially those like me who have gainful employment in the religious field, this is a rather scary thought. But the polls are trending that direction, so what does it mean?
This is a reality that Tripp Hudgins, a Baptist minister and blogger, raises in a recent sermon that has been posted by Sojourners. It takes its cues from Mark 10:17-21, a passage in which Jesus confronts a man of means with the demands of God. Go and sell all you have and follow me -- that's Jesus' command, but the man can't abide (and neither have most of us). This passage, as Tripp suggests, does raise questions about our own commitment to the cause. Critics from outside wonder about the church's wealth and power, and ask whether this fits with Jesus' own understanding of God's call. Tripp notes in this sermon that in my home state of California this category called "None" is the second largest religious category -- most assuredly standing only below Roman Catholicism. Tripp raises an important question about this growing category of persons:
Who are they? What are they doing? Does it really matter? I don't know. Maybe it's not for us to speculate. But I'm curious. This is an age of Do-It-Yourself spirituality. Spiritual-But-Not-Religious is no longer a trope but a legitimate expression of faithfulness. Heroes like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his "religionless Christianity" are often named as exemplars of the spiritual-but-not-religious. Religion is synonymous with institutional maintenance and doctrinal adherence; spirituality is synonymous with prophetic justice, peace-making, economic simplicity, and mysticism.
As the pastor of a long-standing brick and mortar congregation, I have to face these realities and ask myself -- what does this mean for us? What are we to do? It's clear that the old church growth adage of building a building, creating dynamic programs, isn't enough in this new world of "religionless" spirituality.
Tripp raises questions of our own orientation. Are we oriented toward preservation of privilege or embracing a call to serve. The trend in many church circles to talk missional language could be one possible response. But, how deeply is this understanding taking us. Are we simply changing terms that sound better? Like changing committee to ministry group? We may not call it a committee, but it's a still a committee by a different name.
As I ponder the question I think about the fact that this week my congregation has joined with another congregation to host a rotating homeless shelter. This shelter is housed in buildings dedicated to use by faith communities (mostly churches). I can say that this effort draws the involvement of almost all of our membership. Without the brick and mortar there wouldn't be a place for the shelter. Tonight our task forces for the Metro Coalition of Congregations are gathering in our building to plan their next step of engagement. We're working on a number of issues -- foreclosure prevention, affordable health care, gun violence, and regional mass transit. My congregation is deeply involved and committed to these efforts. Brick and mortar helps, but most importantly, the recognition of relational power is at work as well.
I understand why people check "none of the above," but I also want to raise the question -- how do we live out and sustain a dynamic spirituality without community? And while buildings aren't essential, are they not helpful for achieving these purposes?