Thursday, October 11, 2012
Nones On The Run
The 2012 Pew Religious Survey came out on Tuesday to give their annual bad news to Protestant Christians, especially those working at churches. As it turns out, a record 20% of Americans now consider themselves “unaffiliated” ("none of the above") with religion. Although 2/3 of the unaffiliated crowd still believe in God, Pew pollsters report that they overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, politics, power and/or rules.
Many theories abound for the growth of this “spiritual-but-not-religious” group including (1) a backlash against the religious right; (2) delays in marriage (couples tend to find religion as they “settle down and have children”); (3) broad social disengagement (the title of sociologist Robert Putnam’s classic says it all: Bowling Alone); and (4) a economic-driven secularization (the Invisible Hand of the market has defeated the Hand of God in a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors).
The negative aspect of this important story of the “unaffiliated” is that, quite frankly, Americans are becoming more and more distracted and narcissistic by the day. This is the intended consequence of an American society totally saturated in corporate advertising, video gaming, infotainment “news” and a lineup of status updates, shows on DVR and Netflix Queues that entertain us to death. Addiction is the air we breathe.
No doubt, one important reason for the bloating of the “unaffiliated” ranks is that “institutional” churches have struggled to connect with this group of naysayers. In my own experiences, many faith communities do not offer a much needed critique of American society. Instead of saving people from anxiety producing pop culture, churches all-too-often baptize these addictive patterns and Christianize them (ie, hosting Super Bowl & American Idol parties, creating a plethora of apps for the iPhone, etc). There’s very little creativity and strategy going in to equip people to steer themselves out of the American morass.
Some more conservative faith communities have become too “political” in the past 30 years by falling in love with the Republican Party. This collusion has “worked” for both the church and the party, bolstering their social, economic and political power, respectively. As a result, many churches, unfortunately, have equated Christianity with an abhorrence of abortion, gay marriage, the global warming hoax and big government. Many of the leaders at these churches scapegoat, over-generalize, sloganeer and/or name-call to make their case. This kind of pulpit-driven demonizing, over time, confuses younger adherents.
I find that young people have very sensitive bullshit meters. They can smell it miles away. When church leaders adamantly reason that providing food, shelter and health care to the poor is not the job of the government—-it’s the church’s job!—-these young folks quickly experience cognitive dissonance while observing what tithes actually provide: paychecks for church staff, buildings (some of them quite large) and other faith-based amenities. Indeed, many members of the spiritually unaffiliated club can observe quite clearly that the marriage of Evangelicalism to the Republican Party is a major strategy of the church growth agenda (after all, large donors at these churches overwhelmingly vote GOP).
In my own personal interviews with unaffiliated young people (18-29), those who “go away to college” find that “the world out there” is not really anything like what was described to them growing up in the Evangelical bubble. Non-believing friends that they meet on campus turn out to be more compassionate and humble than the Christians they know back home. And behold, they meet gays and lesbians and Muslims and find out that they completely lack the “agendas” that they were warned about! In the classroom, they discover that the Bible isn’t quite the inerrant textbook void of contradictions that they were consistently taught it was growing up. In short, these young folks are learning the truth about life and “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” Once enlightened and arisen, these students are going on a spiritual journey that bypasses “organized religion.”
My own challenge for my unaffiliated brothers and sisters is that they expend precious resources (time, energy, money) on their spiritual journey: that they become more intentional than intuitional, and that they take the bullshit shoveled to them and use it as manure to enrich their growth. To be in pursuit of a spiritual tradition is an exhilarating adventure, as my wife and I got to experience during our time at Fuller Seminary 5 years ago. But to reject or delay the pursuit is to be driven by what Walter Brueggemann calls “a cacophony of rival voices:” family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology. This is a deathly mixture.
To go on a spiritual journey is to humble ourselves with the notion that billions have gone before us on this same quest. We can learn from these pilgrims, accepting some and rejecting some of what they offer as The Truth. I am convinced that both religion and spirituality are needed on this adventure. A religious tradition functions as a receptacle for the rich brew of spirituality. To be truly spiritual is to drink in what is Ultimate, Transcendent and Sacred. Each religious tradition offers a distinctive narrative about What Truly Matters, but often becomes stale and rigid. Spirituality is actually experiencing What Truly Matters.
What both religion and spirituality desperately need, however, is the prophetic: a bold critique of both American culture (entertaining ourselves to death) and the cacophony of voices (family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology) that ultimately lead to addiction, abuse, narcissism, mental illness and/or a complete indifference to the suffering of others. This prophetic strand (as found in many religious traditions) energizes us to live out countercultural virtues like humility, empathy, patience and courage.
My own cherished Anabaptist Christian tradition is part of the 11% of the American population that checks the box “Other/Don’t Know.” As the philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy wrote more than a decade ago, the Anabaptist Christian Tradition is uniquely positioned (albeit imperfectly) to curb the will-to-power (money/power/politics/rules) that so many religious organizations have been diagnosed with (again, as overwhelmingly expressed by the “unaffiliated” crowd). Murphy humbly proposed that the four-fold “epistemology” of Anabaptism—a ruthless commitment to nonviolence, simple living, the separation of church & state and what Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination” (basically, the kind of engaged, confrontational nonviolent direct action modeled most beautifully by the African-American Civil Right marches and protests of the 50s & 60s)—-gives it an advantage over all other religious/spiritual rivals. These 4 practices are surely needed, and yearned for, in this historical moment.
I continue to root, year after year, for the ranks of the American religious “unaffiliated” to swell in numbers. As this population grows in size, it stands as a gigantic question mark for Christian communities: do we have the resources to both confront our own will-to-power and offer young people an alternative that actually leads to abundant Life?