by Pastor Doug Kings

Recently I was discussing with Craig, my spiritual director (who is a retired American Baptist pastor and denominational administrator), what might be the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He told me of a conversation he had just had with a church member who told him that he no longer thinks of himself as a Christian. On the one hand, he rejects the beliefs and behavior of so many who call themselves Christian that he can’t associate himself with them. Also, he often feels close to people of other religions and finds value in many of their teachings and practices.

I thought of this conversation when I read of the newest Gallup religion survey. Gallup reported that for the first time since its survey began in the 1930s, less than half of the respondents said they belonged to a church or other religious congregation. While a landmark, this is just the latest on a long and steady decline in religious participation in the US.

The trouble with Christian identity described by the man Craig spoke with is not unusual. And if this is true for a church member, the Gallup results then are hardly surprising. If a label doesn’t clearly identify you, and for some who hear it might misidentify you, then what use is it?

Membership in voluntary organizations of all kinds has been in decline since the 1970s. The PTA, Rotary, VFW, bowling leagues, masonic lodges, and countless other groups have all seen their memberships drop, and churches have been right along with them. Regardless of their specific functions, organizations such as these no longer perform the social functions they did for our parents and grandparents.

And, frankly, that is why many belonged to churches in the past. So if people no longer need the church as a social outlet, what purpose does it serve? My sense is that the pandemic is confronting many people with that question. Lockdowns caused most church goers to take a break from worship and other activities. Did they miss them? Many certainly did but some not so much, perhaps to their own surprise, and especially if they found online options as acceptable substitutes and/or deepened their personal spiritual practices.

What is perhaps most disturbing for churches in the Gallup survey is that a significant number who are not congregational members nonetheless identify as religious or say religion and spirituality is an important part of their life. It would be easy to dismiss such claims as insincere, but I think we shouldn’t be too hasty in that judgement. For whatever reason, there are a growing number, especially among those under 50, who do not find belonging to a church as a meaningful way to express their spiritual or religious lives.

The pastor I quoted last week ridiculed those who found God in sunsets and on beaches. Yet the growing awareness of the sacredness of the world and everyday life is perhaps the most important development of modern spirituality. In short, God can be found in places other than churches. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in the Christian Century:

Last Sunday I passed a little country church with a sign out front that said, “Come on in. God has been waiting for you here.” It is hard to think of anyone who believes that anymore. If God is waiting anywhere, God is waiting everywhere. That is a big change for someone who once believed God’s address was the church….

Another way to say this is that the distinction between sacred and secular realms no longer holds. In Wendell Berry’s words, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Yet one of the unintended consequences of this more unified worldview is that more and more couples are as happy being married in a meadow as in a church or observing the sabbath on a hike with friends instead of singing hymns with a congregation. There are plenty of reasons to worry about where this is going without assuming that absence from church means absence from God.

Every time I hear someone my age ask, “How are we going to get the young people back to church?” I say, “Why don’t you ask them where they are finding meaning instead?” This is the exciting part. Not just what the next generation of seekers is doing, but what the Holy Spirit is doing in them that can enliven my generation as well.… There is new wine being poured that old skins cannot contain.

Realizing the sacred all around us also means discovering God at the core of our being. Writing in Harper’s, Fred Bahnson says this has become his focus as he tries to find a way to reconnect with his Christian roots.

Though I grew up as a missionary kid, have a master’s degree in theology, and teach at a prominent divinity school, I have more or less stopped going to church. The pandemic has provided an easy out, of course. Since March, it hasn’t been possible to attend church if I wanted to. But I find myself not wanting to go back, at least not to church as I’ve known it: an institution weighed down by a thousand cultural accretions. The parish subcommittees. The lackluster preaching that hinges on lame sports metaphors. The insufferable blandness.

Trying to understand what he craves, it’s the voices of the ancient mystics that have spoken to him.

In early monastic Christianity, that hunger was acknowledged and channeled, given shape and form and expression. It went by different names—contemplatio (silent prayer) or hesychia (stillness)—which led first to an inner union with Christ, and then to a deep engagement with the suffering of the world…. [A] certain Abba Isaac describes how the [desert] monks modeled their prayer on Jesus’ practice of going up a mountain alone to pray; those who wished to pray “must withdraw from all the worry and turbulence of the crowd.” In that state of spiritual yearning, God’s presence would become known. “He will be all that we are zealous for, all that we strive for,” Abba Isaac said. “He will be all that we think about, all our living, all that we talk about, our very breath.”

What the early monks and the Christian mystics who followed sought was union—an intense experience of inwardness that is glaringly absent in what many of us get from American Christianity today.

Experiencing God without and knowing God within is the foundation of the Bible and of the spiritual life. In fact, it is the foundation of life and discovering that foundation is spirituality’s purpose. Bahnson quotes Thomas Merton that contemplative prayer is

the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.

Wonder. Awe. Being fully awake and alive. These are the things that religion must lead people to if it is to be meaningful and genuine. This pandemic pause will be a blessing if it leads churches to reimagine themselves as gateways to discovering life in the Spirit which fills us and surrounds us.

Blessings in your life and ministry.