by Pastor Doug Kings

Last Sunday’s USA Today had a front-page article titled, “One in four Americans identify as Nones. Why are millions leaving organized religion?” (Hat tip to Ellen Orr for alerting me to this.) The piece is actually a series of articles, prepared in conjunction with and where it can be found online.

The first article tells the now familiar story of church decline. As the title says, a quarter of US adults say they have no religious identity, with the proportion much higher for those under 40. And for the first time since it began asking the question eighty years ago, Gallup reports that a majority of Americans say they do not belong to a religious congregation (continuing a 20-year downward trend).

After the lead article are three, more interesting, ones, telling the stories of people who have left their religions. Included are stories of Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians. The common themes are either being unable to abide extreme belief or behavior requirements or having experienced abuse in church. What isn’t told, however, is what I suspect is the most common story: young adults who simply never affiliated with a religion after they left home.

The last article is about what various churches are doing to try to attract disaffected young adults. Alcohol seems to be one strategy, as with the ELCA Lutheran Kyrie Pub Church in Ft. Worth and a Jewish Holy Hour-Happy Hour in Manhattan. Other approaches focus on non-religious needs and interests, like job search services and ways to engage with social issues.

A problem with these efforts is hinted at when it is noted:

No collection plate was passed around — donations are a turnoff for young people, the church has found — but tips for the musician were encouraged. 

The pub church’s pastor, Kristin Klade, is also chaplain at a local hospital, which I suspect is her primary source of income. In the past, I have read enthusiastic stories in ELCA publications about new cutting-edge ministries, only to read a year or two later about their being ended due to lack of funds. The path from these outside-the-box ministries to financially sustainable congregations is not an obvious one.

The article also quotes a Jewish law professor, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, who is skeptical of such “gimmicks” (her word). The author of Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World says religions simply need to do what they have always done, but better and more personally.

Religious leaders instead need to focus on celebrating their traditions “with consistency and emphasizing the joys of observance rather than the prohibitions,” she said. “They need to show them that religion can provide a path and direction for life that people find meaningful.” 

From reading reviews and comments on Kwall’s book, it seems she is trying to help unconventional Jews to maintain their religious identity while adapting traditions and rituals for their personal life situation and preferences. Or as one Amazon reviewer described it, “A non-judgmental, creative approach to doing you, the Jewish way.”

I may have to pick up Kwall’s book (one Catholic commented that she found it helpful). The reviewer’s description might be a good way to describe our quest, also: finding a “creative approach to doing you, the Christian way.” The emphasis, however, I am sure, needs to be on that word “creative.”

One advantage Judaism has over Christianity is that it has always been more personal and family oriented, rather than organizational. While synagogues are important, they are one aspect of Jewish life among many others. Christians have tended to put all their eggs in the one basket called “church.”

That’s a problem because church and congregational experience today seem to be the root of people’s problems with Christianity. Interestingly, Jesus actually had very little to say about organized religious life and made no effort to create his own. Yet very soon after, being a follower of Jesus was essentially equated with being a church member.

I’m not proposing abolishing churches, of course. But it may be time for them to eat some humble pie and recognize that the Christian life is more than having one’s name on a church roster. Historians now agree that the early emphasis on the ancient institutional church was really an attempt at religious and imperial control.

Which doesn’t sound much like Jesus. When early Jesus followers named themselves, they said they were people of “The Way.” And by following the Jesus Way they didn’t mean joining a church and going to Sunday worship. For them it was profoundly personal and life changing. I’m afraid Christianity has moved a long way from that.

Yet if we listen carefully, I think that is actually what the Nones are saying they are looking for. Rather than religious belonging they are seeking spiritual meaning and even transformation. There are ample Christian resources for that. We need to find where we put them and dust them off.

Blessings in your life and ministry.