Religion -- None Specified!

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?  


Unknown said…
I've had your blog open on my computer for over a week now - going back to it several times with the intention of commenting - but not doing so because I do not want to offend. I have a problem with the clergy/laity SYSTEM - but I've been on both sides of the divide. I think your questions are very important and I'd like to discuss them - if you are willing.
Robert Cornwall said…

Yes, let's talk!!

I struggle with this divide as well. I'm clergy, but I believe ministry is something that we all share in. There is a place for leadership, but how do we understand this? Is it hierarchical or something else?

I'm finishing up a book on spiritual gifts in which I wrestle with this very dilemma!
Unknown said…
Where to begin ...? I grew up in the Brethren Assemblies (sometimes known as Plymouth Brethren) which, as you may be aware, rejected the idea of clergy. Later, my dad became an elder in the Berean Fundamental Church which did have a pastor. I quit the church for some time, but began meeting with an Assembly meeting in a home after I got out of the army. I was 'commended' by two different assemblies to move to Wyoming and start a fellowship in Rock Springs. Several years after starting a "house church", I was given a letter of commendation by that assembly in order to take a full-time volunteer position as the Police Chaplain. I was an active member of the local clergy association. I didn't quite fit the mold - but our softball team beat the socks off the other church teams (which really gave me some status! :)

I'm trying to make this brief, so I hope that provides some background. Presently I am in the category which is the subject of your blog. I no longer apply the label "Christian" to myself. My worldview is strongly influenced by Process Theology. (more to follow...)
Robert Cornwall said…
Don, I look forward to more of your story -- since you mention Process, I'm interested in knowing who has influenced you and why.

I should note that I grew up Episcopalian, became Pentecostal, and ended up with the Disciples. There is anti-clericalism in the history of the latter -- not so much in the first!
Unknown said…
I can't remember the exact route I took to get to Process Theology. I do remember that it was through Liberation Theology. The first book about Process I read was _The Living God and the Modern World_ by Peter Hamilton. Of course, before all this I had become an arrogant 5-point Calvinist - which fell apart when it didn't produce answers that I, as the Police Chaplain, could use to comfort those who had suffered from the consequences of evil events.
Unknown said…
I guess what most attracted me to Process Theology was its Theodicy. God's power is not power in the mode of domination and control. I'm sure you have read Bernard Loomer's views on Divine Power.

I believe the clergy system is based on an understanding of Divine Unilateral Power. Do you agree?
Unknown said…
Seems to me that just as there are two forms of power - Unilateral Power and Relational Power, there are also two corresponding forms of authority. Several years ago I created this doc to try to show the difference:
Unknown said…
Another strong influence in my thinking has been the writings of Letty Russel - particularly, _Authority in Feminist Theology: Household of Freedom_.

And, then there is my understanding of Native American leadership:

So, I'm not sure where to go from here. I guess I'm confused. Is there any way to reconcile the traditional idea of church and the clergy system with these ideas?
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for sharing your journey. Interestingly I too found a movement toward progressive Christianity through reading Liberation Theology. I've not been as attracted to Process, but find aspects intriguing. I find Moltmann to be a good medium point in all of this.

Since yoiu speak of unilateral power versus relational power, I think that clergy can be participants in either form. I think we got caught up in unilateral forms, but many seek to move toward a more relational form.

Bruce Epperly who writes regularly for me is a strong advocate from a Process perspective. If you've not read his books, I'd suggest it.

As for your final question -- whether we can reconcile traditional forms of church with new visions, my sense is that the new visions will transform the church going forward. That is, I think, Diana's point. I know that it's a direction that Bruce is taking.
Unknown said…
I thought at one time that it would be possible, by becoming a member of the clergy class, that I could move the church toward a more relational form. I no longer believe it is possible.

The problem, as I mentioned in my first post, is not with the people who are playing the role of clergy. It is the system. If I were to use the language of Ken Wilber, I would call the system a "pathological holon". I could also compare it to a cancer which is killing the organism. The only way to heal the organism is to either remove the cancer or cut off its food source.

The pathology can be described as differentiation leading to disassociation rather than transcending and integration. A 'self' emerges from its environment and, if healthy, both transcends and includes its environment. "The Many become One and are increased by One." The pathological 'self' becomes disassociated from its environment. The clergy/laity system could be described as a system in which the ego of the clergy person depends upon being fed by the laity in order to survive. As the laity sits passively in the pews while the clergy delivers his monolog, it is not hard to imagine feeding tubes attached to the members of the congregation supplying ego food to the preacher.

If we look at the clergy/laity system, we see a class of clergy that has become disassociated from the Body. The clergy person, because of the role s/he must play becomes part of a separate class - a privileged class at that. I discovered some of the privileges when I was invited to spend a few days at a Christian camp that I went to as a teenager with my family. But this time, I went as a 'pastor'. I was put in a special area of the camp with other 'pastors', ate food with the other clergy, and went to separate meetings. We were treated as aristocrats served by peons. Our clergy association in Rock Springs functioned like a support group. Many of the men (there were no women) complained that they were uncomfortable with the role that the laity put them in - as a representative of God. Some also complained of having a lack of fellowship or a sense of loneliness. They couldn't "fraternize" with members of the laity or they might be accused of having favorites. They were expected to be 'on call' at all times of the day if a member needed their services, and yet they had no one to turn to during troubled times of their own. In fact, they found it difficult to be transparent and to show their own weaknesses or they would risk losing their credibility and authority.

The clergy system has its roots in patriarchy and now, even though women are allowed to speak, are not required to have their heads covered with a veil to demonstrate their submission, and can even function as clergy, they must copy the patriarchal patterns of the past in order to do so.

Just as the split between the mind and body must be healed in the human 'self', so also the split between the clergy and laity must be healed in the Body of Christ before the next phase of evolution can occur.

Unknown said…
"For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance..." - Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand, 77

"Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine what an absence of clergy would be like because the pattern of male domination is extensive and has existed for a long time. True, there are women who have moved into positions of leadership in the churches, but they have mostly been forced to conform to the tradition. Many feminists have given up on the institutional church, finding it a hopeless task to transform the power structures. As far as the problem with the "most vocal" people is concerned, it is a problem which is found in almost any conversation between more than 2-3 people. And there are ways of addressing it. I don't happen to think that the solution is to give total control of the conversation over to the most vocal person (the clergyperson)."

"The opposite extreme is autonomous authority, which projects an image of strength by appearing to be totally self-sufficient and invulnerable: needed by others but never needing others. This form of individualism is actually a valued and envied trait in white Western society. It is small wonder, therefore, that we seem to forget that all persons are interdependent. Growth in self-dependence is part of a maturing process that leads to full interdependence. Self-dependence is not an end in itself, either for those in ministry, or for any other persons."

"In preaching or teaching. An autonomous relationship of authority with the listeners would most likely involve a display of the speaker’s skills and knowledge in such a way that the person appears self-possessed and all-knowing. The bond of authority is formed through this image of superiority, in which everyone assumes the speaker is so powerful and full of wisdom that he or she cannot be challenged openly. This may reinforce a sense of inferiority and dependency among many of the listeners. They, in turn, withdraw from any attempt to develop a healthy independence of thought and action in the life of the community."

"Although all persons need to develop self-dependence in their lives, subjection to autonomous behavior by pastors, employers or government officials is more likely to reinforce feelings of inferiority and dependence. Therefore, the exercise of autonomous authority is not a creative alternative for ministry because it leads persons to deny their co-responsibility with God for their neighbor and for the world. Nor is paternalism helpful to the life and growth of the Christian community. Paternalistic authority continues the use of patriarchal imagery to justify the need for laypersons, and especially women, to remain dependent. In my view an alternative paradigm of authority that would foster interdependence in a household of freedom is partnership."

Letty M. Russell, _Church in the Round_
Unknown said…
I wrote that I wanted to have a discussion ... and then I filled posts with my story. Sorry. :(

There are a few more things that I feel compelled to write about.

>I struggle with this divide as well. I'm clergy, but I believe ministry is something that we all share in.<

1. Why, if 'ministry' is something we all share in, is the title "Minister" only given to one person?

2. Assuming that 'ministry' is serving, and that the Spirit calls us to serve one another, and further assuming that serving one another is meeting the needs of others through gift-giving, why do those who are labeled as 'ministers' put their gifts on the market to be sold to the highest bidder? If a gift must be paid for, in what way is it a gift?

3. If Jesus is the model for Christians - why is there even a suspicion that leadership might be based on hierarchy? What was the example of foot washing the disciples feet about anyway?
Unknown said…
>As for your final question -- whether we can reconcile traditional forms of church with new visions, my sense is that the new visions will transform the church going forward.<

If the new visions are about transformed structures of thought, then it seems that the new visions cannot be fit into old structures anymore than new wine can be put into old wineskins. What is the "vision" that most people are presented with when they walk into a 'church'. They will see pews or chairs set up in rows facing a podium. They see a hierarchical structure, a separation between a speaker and his audience; one 'giver of gifts' and many receivers.

If this structure stays in place, how will a new vision be effective?
Robert Cornwall said…
Don, your questions are good ones and don't have easy answers.

I could say that I prefer the title pastor to that of minister. I believe there is a place for leadership in the church -- it's clear that it was present in the first century church. But, we have allowed the ordained ministry to become a hierarchy at times.

You shared how you were at a camp where clergy were segregated. That has rarely been my reality.

I guess I prefer to believe that every situation is different and that some situations are reformable and others aren't.

Tony Jones has written about how the church should be flat. That is a premise worth exploring.

Ultimately, I hold out hope that if we're open to the Spirit of God things can happen!

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