Questions from the Nones

I wrote earlier this week about my concerns about what I’ve seen from the Church’s attitude to religious ‘nones’, and more specifically to those who identify as ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’ In this post I’d like to take a more positive approach, and look at some of the important lessons we might take from the rise of the ‘nones’. If we dig further down into the Pew survey results to the factors motivating the increase of religious nones, we find some interesting data. And I think it’s well worth thinking about it in detail as we consider the questions we Christians might ask ourselves in response to these critiques, for the sake of our own spiritual health more than for any hoped-for ability to draw nones back into the fold.

About half of nones who reported being raised within a religious tradition described “disenchantment” related to their churches’ posture towards science and critical thinking. Even if our churches don’t have a fundamentalist anti-science position, it’s still important to ask ourselves some hard questions about this. Are we able to articulate ideas about the relationship between scientific and spiritual truths? Are we able to talk intelligently about the Bible as both a sacred text and as a collection of historical documents? Do we make space for people to ask difficult questions? Does our worldview allow for the world to be the complicated and messy place that it is, or do we force easy, simple, pat answers onto the questions life in this world demands? These need not be ‘liberalizing’ questions. If we believe our faith is true, then we need not be afraid of any truth.

Connected to this, I’ve had several friends say something to the effect of “I don’t need Sunday School answers anymore.” It makes me wonder how on earth they could have left twenty years of Church life having only heard Sunday School answers. There is a sense in this response that people feel they have outgrown their faith. This is a big problem, and suggests some even more urgent questions: Do we have a faith that is robust enough to grow with people? Even more pressing, do we have a faith that encourages, promotes, and facilitates this kind of growth and development? Is the God we preach a loving parent who longs for his children to grow up to be healthy, mature adults? An adult life requires an adult faith, and a vision of a God who is not intimidated by that.

Another group of respondents in the Pew survey reported having a crisis of faith. Now, this doesn’t make them particularly special: who among us hasn’t had a crisis of faith at one point? (I’ve had at least four in my adult life.) These are significant inflection points in our spiritual journeys where suddenly everything is up for grabs. But how do we as a Church respond to spiritual crises? In my experience, there’s a lot of very unhelpful “conventional wisdom” and platitudes. Like Job’s friends, well-meaning Christians often (unintentionally) put the onus or blame on the person who is suffering. The problem with conventional wisdom is that it almost always amounts to telling you you should have done the opposite of what you did, even if you’ve already tried that too. When I was putting in effort to resolve the issue, I would be told I needed to “let go and let God.” But when I eased up just a bit, I’d be told I couldn’t expect God to solve my problems for me. It felt like there was no way I could ‘win’ with the people around me. Platitudes are similarly crazy-making. They’re too easy, too glib, and are almost entirely about the needs of the person offering them rather than the needs of the recipient. Even if the spirit of the platitude may be true, it may take a journey for the sufferer to get to the point where they can see its truth, and that journey can’t be rushed. For example, it is a courageous, faithful, and empowering move for a person in crisis to stand up and say “You intended this for evil, but God intended this for good.” But it is incredibly insulting, frustrating, and disempowering to be told in the midst of your suffering that God intended whatever trauma you are experiencing for good. It’s just one of many ways I have seen Christians try to silence suffering.

There needs to be real space for people who are experiencing spiritual crises — or any kind of crisis, really. And this space needs to be more than just a name. I remember during my darkest spiritual crisis, people telling me that I was experiencing a ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’ This is fine, and in hindsight, my experience could legitimately be described as such, but the problem was that there was a sense that by labeling my experience as something known, that would make it ‘okay’ and nothing to worry about. Far from being a call to action, love and support, the label felt like cause for my fellow believers to dismiss the extremity and severity of what I was experiencing.

The third major thrust of the feedback from religious nones is a distrust in institutions. This should come as no surprise. We are certainly in a cultural moment where distrust of institutions is a major concern all along the political spectrum. And the church is an easy target of this distrust, often by its own fault. The church, not entirely unjustly, is viewed as hypocritical, self-righteous, and self-seeking, a place that is more concerned with its own reputation and stability than the safety of its members. No matter how much we might cringe at it now, we cannot deny that the church was complicit in the cultural genocide that marked and motivated the Residential School System in Canada; that it consistently protected sexual predators and allowed them to have access to children; and that it allowed sexual, physical, and psychological domestic abuse to continue in the name of ‘the sanctity of marriage.’ It’s no wonder people on the street who don’t see all the good things that the church does in our communities want nothing to do with it. But in the face of this distrust, we as Christians have an opportunity to revitalize our own institutions and community life. On the one hand, we could just brush off the criticism and say that our institutions are just like any institution — filled with broken and hurt people who do broken and hurt things — but the point of the Church is that it isn’t supposed to be an institution like others. It’s supposed to be an anti-institution, an institution where the rules of human institutions are flipped on their head: where the least among us is the greatest, where service is leadership, where we bear our fruit in dying. Do our institutions and communities embody and integrate our values? Or are we hypocrites? Do our churches bear good fruit? Do they foster real connection and conversation? Are they really welcoming? Do they stand up for justice? Are they more excited about what they can give the world around them than they are afraid of what the world might take from them? Are they excited about what they might learn from the world?

These are all difficult questions, and the thing about having infinite values is that they are impossible to live out perfectly. But I think these questions are important for our spiritual health. If the conversation happening at the cafe across the street is more genuine than the conversation happening in the parish hall, or if Christ is more apparent to people in the breaking of a scone over coffee with a friend than in the breaking of the bread at the Eucharist, the Church has far deeper problems than empty pews on a Sunday morning.

All of these critiques point to a frightened and insecure Church: afraid of critical thinking and honest conversations about the limits of religious knowledge, afraid of raising up adult humans with an adult faith, afraid of our complicated world that defies simple answers, and afraid of the vulnerability required to create a true community with integrated values.

But the good news, or I should really say, the Good News is that we don’t need to be afraid, of any of this or anything else. Truth be told, I’d far rather be a Christian today than at any other point in history. The Church can’t be the Church when our buildings are full primarily because that is what is socially or politically acceptable. The Church can’t be the Church when it professionalizes ministry such that lay Christians abdicate responsibility for ministry. The Church can’t be the Church if it’s just a social club.

Far from the bad old days when Mammon and privilege blinded us to the classic spiritual traps of packed buildings and full offering plates, we have an opportunity today to create something new and exciting. We live in a culture of spiritual seekers. This should be exciting for us! Why would we be dismissive of them and their experiences? The fields are as white in the world!

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