A colleague posted a link to the NPR series on the rise of the Nones (spiritual but not religious, no religious affiliation). The articles simply document a trend that we’ve been living and affirmed the truth that we are facing in church today. My own perspective had mirrored my colleague’s comment, “this is exactly why there is a need for outspoken progressive faith communities.” In fact it is precisely for these reasons that I’ve been so intentional in our crafting of worship and why I’ve been encouraging our congregation to be a leading and visible presence for this alternative vision. We are the church, I have preached to anyone who will listen, for those who’ve given up on church.
The article names four salient and familiar features of this growing demographic:
- comprises atheists and agnostics as well as those who ally themselves with “nothing in particular”
- includes many who say they are spiritual or religious in some way and pray every day
- overwhelmingly says they are not looking to find an organized religion that would be right for them
- is socially liberal, with three-quarters favoring same-sex marriage and legal abortion
Reading the article I realize that I am mentally penning a letter to my soon-to-be former community, building them up for the work that lies ahead, championing the cause of being church in an unchurched world, bearing witness for our “Still Speaking God”. But as I read the list today, I see what is hidden in plain sight. “Overwhelmingly… they are not looking to find an organized religion.” Right after the spiritual connectedness and before the embrace of same-gender marriage, an open secret: Not Looking. There is no felt need and no current market for what it is that we, as progressive Christian churches, have to offer.
Perhaps this is an overstatement, but certainly there is much to consider. In recent years I have felt the pressure of moving the institution from within (writing new liturgies, championing the cause of change, letting go of members who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the changes). Too I have felt the pressure of needing to market a particular way of being Christian that is quite different from that presented by the media. We worked to remove barriers (language, pews, vestments, even our name!), believing that what we offered in community would be welcome if it could be seen. But what if the issue isn’t simply that progressive Christianity is hidden under the cloaks of both traditional and evangelical Christianity, what if the fundamental challenge is that those who would appreciate the intellectual rigor and social sensitivity that we offer are simply actually fundamentally not interested?
In recent years as our community has continued to be attentive and adapting, we have consistently had a tremendous number of visitors and many have become committed members. We have also experienced a curious trend of folk visiting for a time, truly lauding the experience, but then drifting away. Even a decade ago I would be quick to point out that when people left our church it was to go to another (more conservative) expression, or (more sadly) that they felt unwelcome in our community. While this may have been true in part, most people who come and go now do without adversary feelings. The losses are not about failures or mismatches but rather disinterest, low priority, or lack of relevancy. Increasingly progressive communities like the one that I have been privileged to serve rely on a small group of dedicated ‘regulars’ who support the community with dollars and (even more importantly) time, ‘regulars’ who provide the foundation of community that allows a revolving door of the curious “spiritual but not religious” folk who stop by for a time.
While I have no less passion for the witness of the spirit in our midst, I am weary of the effort to force it’s hand each Sunday morning. Believing that we, as humans, have spiritual inclination, I am curious to discover how it is that the Nones are experiencing and expressing spiritual truth without dogma. How is it that our spiritual selves can find nurture and community apart from the traditions of church life? Whether or not I share their conclusions, I am deeply respectful of the offerings and I look forward to the learning process.