I have read several blogs, articles, and research data lately about the numbers of younger adults who claim the label "spiritual but not religious." Some believe the number of persons claiming this status could be as high as 1 in 5 overall and as high as 72% of Millennials (18-29 year olds). That is a significant number of younger adults claiming that status.
The first time I saw this data I was stunned by the honesty and audacity of naming who you are in these studies. While it is also distressing to some degree as a minister of a mainline denominational church, I find the truth telling important. Owning that you are not sold on how faith is expressed in the institutional church is becoming more and more common. And denominational studies show us that the number of folks in the church is in decline. So we need to pay attention to this information.
The truth is that sometimes I want to claim no connection to the church as well. There are times when the church makes me feel so badly about Christianity that I want to flee. There are too many people who feel hurt by the church to ignore that fact. And there are too many people who see the current expression on the church as irrelevant to brush that off.
So what do we need to do? Some say we should become more orthodox so that people know what we stand for (and by extension what and who we are against for way too many) explicitly. Others say we should be more flexible in who we proclaim we are so that we attract many different groups. Still others want to bring in all of the elements of modern culture to be more in tune with the very generation we are missing in our churches. All of these ideas are short-sighted and cannot alone reverse the process of decline or the leaving of church by many younger people.
Part of the problem many churches have is that they are unsure who they are. They are unsure who they are serving. And they are totally disconnected from the community around them. Many of our churches do not even know who the people are who live in their vicinity. How can a church appear relevant if they sit in isolation with no clue what is happening in the homes and businesses next door and around the block?
Another problem is that many churches continue to live in the past. They long for days gone by when they had more members or more money and they mourn that loss. Others know that “golden age” is no longer their reality but they worship, plan and live as if that was who they still were. This kind of disconnect is dangerous and misleading to all.
A third problem is that the most public event we have as communities of faith - our worship and preaching - is too often listless, not awe inspiring and lacks passion. Too many gather as social clubs to "do" worship without energy or enthusiasm about what we have gathered to proclaim. Too many are going through the motions of doing church - not truly BEing the church in the world.
I have some ideas … maybe they will spark some thoughts and discussions for you as well.
So how do we begin to turn the tide?
First, we have to leave the comfort of our pews to live and work in our communities. We have to build relationships with the people who live near our communities of faith. We have to BE the church in communities by meeting people's needs where they live. We have to be connected to the people around us in as many ways as possible.
Second, we have to create worship that feeds people from the feast that is our faith. We often come to the feast starving but the food served is not something these "spiritual but not religious" folks are interested in eating. Many are using 16th century liturgies, with 17th century building styles, and 18 or 19th century music in a 21st century world. There is nothing wrong with tradition and for many still in the church these are important things to hand on to. But we also need to create worship that enriches newer generations – that is relational, participatory, awe-inspiring, image driven, experiential, connective, and missional.
Third, we have to live out our faith in compassion and justice ministries. We have to be active in making the world a better place. Working to feed the poor by sending canned goods to a shelter without engaging those in need is good but it is also problematic. Sending in a check for world mission is noble but it does not get our churches engaged in the world. We have to do the work of living out our theology in public – calling for the end of injustice and working to make that happen. It is time we live and work missionally IN the world.
Finally, we have to be open to listening to the needs of those who see the church as irrelevant and see what it is they are looking for. That does not mean we have to give up everything to do what they want – but without the conversation we lack the option to be in that conversation.
I do not claim to have all of the answers – but maybe what I have here are some options for a conversation that is sorely needed.