This past Wednesday our youth group began planning for Youth Sunday (Feb. 13th) which is always a time where I am incredibly proud of how grown up they are. For example, Lizzie, who came to the church as part of king singers (and used to be so shy) quickly took charge of organizing a shared document and coming up with ideas or helping other members of the group process their thoughts. After a few minutes of silent consideration I could tell the group was feeling stumped and growing frustrated. I gently prodded and said "what is about God that you - the youth - want the adults to hear?" Lizzie ran her fingers through her thick curly hair, slumped on the table, and said "I just don't even know what to believe about God? How can I ever know what's right? What if I follow one path and find out it was wrong? Why can't we just be spiritual, but not religious?" She looked to me with honest despair (and perhaps even a tinge of guilt) and the rest of the group sheepishly nodded along. Then Wilson sweetly looked to me and said "am I allowed to believe in reincarnation? I don't want to go heaven. I want to come back as an animal. I like animals."
So I smiled at each of them and said (perhaps to their annoyance) "you can't ever know. You might be wrong. I don't know how God feels about reincarnation but I do know my uncle came back and visited my mom in the form of a duck after his passing. (he was an avid duck hunter - which still makes me laugh that God would bring him back as the very thing he would kill, but thats an aside.) As for spirituality - chase what makes you happy. God has a way of meeting us where we are. But, promise me to never go alone. It's never good to go alone."
So, I thought that today we could spend some time reflecting on the musings our overwhelmed and overly curious youth group and perhaps offer them some solace in return. Today we'll turn to a tremendous book written by a previous professor from seminary who had a massive impact on my life: Linda Mercadante's "Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious."
To begin allow me a moment to share a brief snapshot of her life and experiences that helped influence the work of her career. Prof. Mercadante grew up as a "none" in regards to religious affiliation. Her mother was Jewish and her father Catholic but neither of them practiced. As such their home was a "no religion" zone that left young Linda (and I suspect for some of our youth whose parents do not participate in church) a yearning about those grand questions of the universe. As such she became baptized in the Catholic faith (a practical choice rather than informed. There weren't any Jewish centers near her.) This was a stressful decision for her parents as her mother felt abandoned (and was still mourning the recent destruction of the holocaust) and so they instructed Linda to keep her religious practices private. As such she took with her a "take what you like and the leave the rest" mentality with faith. She took the love, hope, peace, and joy and largely ignored the orthodoxy. Throughout high school and early college she experienced a wealth of mixed messaging about the "evils" of the different respective faith groups which led her to openly welcome a rejection of faith when the spiritual movement flourished in the 70's. After a stint of atheism she came to have a revelation of faith while on a hiking trip in the alps. "Intellect must be married to heart, and heart needed to be nurtured in community. Christ promoted reconciliation, not alienation. Spirituality and religion were not opposites, but integral to each other." She would return to the states and pursue a masters degree in Biblical studies in pursuit of her questions, not in fear of them. However, she never completely forgot the world of spiritual but not religious and sought to do a comprehensive study on SBNR people and come to a conclusion on what drives it and what implications it will have on mainline faith traditions. Thus, the book. It's amazing. AMAZIINGGG. It's also something we as a church community must wrestle with. She writes at the conclusion of her introduction "Whether this will be the next Great Awakening, a religious reformation, the launch of a new age, or our belatedly joining Europe in its increasing secularism, is not clear. What is clear is that we cannot avoid or ignore it." With that said, let's consider the merits and values of the spiritual but not religious movement.
"Nones" are officially the fastest growing "faith group" in the country with the present numbers sitting around 24% of the population. It's worth mentioning that "none" does not mean "no faith" (atheist, agnostic, etc.) it simply means "no affiliation." There are a MASSIVE population of people in the US open and searching for God that are open to any and all messaging - ours included! Young people are estimated to be between 1/2 and 3/4 "nones" which seems supported by our own youth group. Further, this is supported by the evidence that diversity and inclusion are the driving motivations for Generation Z. In other words, most young people see churches as a barrier to inclusion/diversity and shun them. While it true that churches are homogenous in belief they are one of the few uniquely heterogenous social places left that is multigenerational, volunteer driven, community driven, and offers wide exposure to different social contexts - poor, rich, emotional differences, etc. The loss of organized religion isn't as much a threat to "morality" as doom sayers might argue but it is a massive loss to this one aspect of the 'market' that churches do better at than anything else.
Spirituality vs Religion?
Religion today is a social construct more than in the past where it would have been inseparable from culture and national identify. Thus, religion is defined by a group of like minded individuals with similar beliefs. Spirituality refers to ones spiritual practices and also the vitality of ones faith. For most of history it went hand in hand with ones "religion" which makes the divorce of the two so facisnating to consider. In interviews, most SBNR people would argue that spirituality is the "interior" of faith whereas religion is the exterior focused more on the organization and aestics. In other words, they are all chocolate cakes but with different icing to "mask" what kind of cake is inside. A SBNR person just wants the cake without any icing. But at the end of the day we're all enjoying cake. (mmm....cake.)
Both spirituality and religion consist of four basic components:
Belief in some kind of larger reality, some transcendent or sacred force, something greater than the individual.
A desire to connect with this larger reality or greater force
The promotion of rituals and practices as an aid or witness to this connection
The expectation of particular behaviors that foster or demonstrate the desired connection.
For us, the religious, we might find comfort in knowing then that this separation is more a semantic or even rhetorical separation than a true divorce. We can learn from the "spiritual" and they in turn can learn from us. Further, these sepeartoins from the traditional mediums have been common throughout history - in fact - we wouldn't even be here if John Wesley had not broken away from the Anglican church to start his new movement. He wouldn't of been there if Martin Luther hadn't broken from the Catholic church. Some of these movements offer spiritual revitalization to stagnant churches while others turn into destructive chaos like Jonestown or Waco, Texas. We must not only focus on the bad apples of the spiritually curious and be willing to be open to those eager to find new revelations of God.
Should we abandon belief?
Many have studied the declining numbers of churches and offered their specific reasons, criticisms, and encouragements about what could change all of that. But few have focused on the popular belief held by all people. Perhaps because it is fuzzy to specifically define or too large a topic. In fact, it's almost impossible to define what a specific denomination of a specific faith group universally believes! I mean just look at what's going on in the UMC right now as we fight over scriptural interpretation and authority over LGBT+ people. On the other end, many on the left are overly critical of those on the right (theologically speaking) about putting too much focus on 'right beliefs' over ' right practices.' How much more difficult is it to define the beliefs of those outside a structured and organized faith? If so, what is the point of belief anyways if it is so open ended? For this reason, some scholars are willing to suggest that we're about to enter a few era of faith where belief is abandoned and we embrace "right faith" instead, which is essentially a focus on morals, values, and practices rather than any one truth claim. However, I should be clear, for the spiritual but not religious it is less of a desertion of belief but a mutation of belief. I think of this way...consider a ladder vs scaffolding. A ladder sets up easier but requires a community to hold it down while you climb up a narrow pathway. (religion) Scaffolding is wider and can be accomplished solo. (Spirtuality.) There is a still an innate urge or "belief" to climb higher, but instead of ladders being the more common way to climb, every is now using a different medium to climb. Therefore, they are not abandoning belief - they are abandoning certainty represented in exclusive truth claims. This new belief still remains coupled with practices and behaviors, but is more of a wandering without a map (for better and for worse.)
So what now?
I think back to Lizzie and the youth group as they stressfully held themselves admitting their skepticism of embracing the "religious" side of youth group. Yet, I see a community of kids that love one another. I see kids that are responsible, compassionate, empathetic, and eager to make a difference. I see kids that forgive one another, help one another, and encourage one another. I see kids that are respectable to myself, Jackie, and the adults they interact with. In other words - I see kids that God loves, that Jesus affirms, and that the Holy Spirit has embraced. They might not name it the way you or I would name it, but they live it out and they are deeply curious. I regret not being more accountable with the mentorship program for youth group and forcing those interactions more with their sponsors. I am the product of a church where I was best friends with adults twice, thrice, and four times my age. I LOVED Sunday not because of Jesus the wizard boy (as I used to call him) but because I got to see Patty, Norma, Barb, Norm, Doug, Clarence, and countless more. I wish I could get our youth to come to church more to experience that same relationship that I had (and still have) with those people. Maybe you, the faithful readers of this blog series, will want to become pen pals (or texting pals, haha) with one of our youth? Not sure. Would love your thoughts on ideas.
I'm still not sure what their message will be for us on Youth Sunday but I do know that it will be authentic, it will be beautiful, and it will be God inspired even if they don't yet realize it.
What is your relationship with spiritual but not religious? What keeps you at religious organization? What frustrates you about it? What scares you about the increasing "non affiliation?" How have you been impacted by the multigenerational and varied cultural experiences of religion?
As always, thanks for reading. All my love to you. God's blessing to you until we chat again!
Praying through Music
Leonard Cohen (may he Rest In Peace) had such a gift for exploring the themes of religion, politics, love, and depression in every song he wrote. While Cohen wasn't a religious artist, he was Jewish and wrestled with his faith in his most powerful music. Two such songs, the ever popular, Hallelujah, and My Secret Life, do such a good job at capturing the essence of spirituality. Hallelujah is a song about praise even in the faults of human kind. Whether that's praise in loving a partner made in God's image or praise in a religious space. Hallelujah challenges its listeners to say it in all times and in all spaces. It's profoundly beautiful and widely covered for good reason. My Secret Life isn't one of this most popular tunes but carries a similar message about what happens when we give into apathy and put all of our belief behind a secret life. While the first verse is clearly about sex, the remaining verses are so potent for our cultural and religious climate. I invite you to listen to whichever song (or both) that moves you as we close out this day.
My Secret Life