by Pastor Doug Kings

Over the years, I’ve heard lots of whining about the decline of Christianity from religious conservatives. But I was stunned the first time I heard it from a minister of a mainline denomination (UCC), which usually is accepting and accommodating of contemporary culture. It came in the form of a devotional piece shared a few years ago by the minister of a church in a Chicago suburb.

The essay was titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Its author apparently had been traveling a lot and getting stuck with a lot of annoying seatmates.

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? 

Yikes! I pity the next person who sits with this minister on a plane, especially if they’re not an active church member. Perhaps she just needs a vacation.

I quoted most of her piece to get its tone because that’s what I think is important. The content is primarily sweeping and unsupported generalizations, both about “spiritual but not religious” people (hereafter “SNR”) and about the church. On the Facebook forum where it first appeared, most comments were supportive, but a number were from people taken aback as I was. These echoed my thought that many are not religious today specifically because of negative experiences they’ve had with churches.

The essay presents an idealized, and even romanticized, conception of the church, especially as it’s expressed in actual congregations. The ongoing exposure of clergy sex scandals, the screeching judgmentalism of fundamentalists, and the stories any Christian can tell of congregational fights and schisms provide ample explanations for why people could be alienated from organized religion.

Also, I can only dismiss as nonsense the assertion that there is no challenge to “having deep thoughts all by oneself.” Oh, that more people would have such experiences! I hardly think we are over-supplied with deep thought. Nor can I accept the implication that the church is the only community where one can genuinely put spiritual thought to work. In fact, I think most spiritual work is hammered out in the crucibles of the family, the workplace, government assemblies, and the countless informal “non-religious” communities of which we are apart.

Most of this is so obvious it hardly needs explanation. That is why I am left wondering what is really going on with this pastor, who ought to be aware of all this. While I joked about her needing a vacation, I do hear burnout, frustration, and discouragement in this rant—not a rare condition among clergy.

While fundamentalists have been complaining for decades about the decline of Christianity and the rise of secularism, it is the mainline churches that have really taken it on the chin. I guess it’s not surprising that this would occasionally lead to this kind of venting, but it’s the wrong target.

Of course, SNR folks can be superficial and shallow in their thinking and behavior. Yet they are hardly unique in that, even when compared with religious people! The SNRs I meet are a mixed bag, but many are as sincere, thoughtful, and socially engaged as the religious people I know. The reality ignored here is that the nature of religion is changing around the world. For those committed to traditional religious organizations and religious activity, this can be difficult to understand or accept.

Yet understand and accept is exactly what we must do, even and perhaps especially if we are in the church. Nothing in the world stands still, including religion. Recent scholarship has emphasized that Jesus lived in just such a cultural moment, with ancient religions increasingly unsatisfactory and ineffective.

Jesus accepted the religion of his time but was hardly committed to it. Indeed, some scholars believe he anticipated the end of traditional religion, believing there was no need for religious institutions acting as go-betweens for God and humanity. Indeed, it’s hard to make the case that the church, which came into being after him, is not something he also would have railed against.

The Bible shows again and again that it’s the religious outsiders who usually have the best insight into spiritual truth, not the folks invested in the success of religious institutions. For that reasons alone, rather than lecturing the SNRs we need to be listening to them.

Blessings in your life and ministry.