This blog is a departure from my usual storytelling and I hope you’ll bear with me. One of the websites I check in with frequently is Sojourners online magazine. They have a published a series of articles on the rise of “The Nones,” those Americans who don’t identify with any religion, or who would say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It has caught my interest and although I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.
Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.
As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.
As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them. Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.
I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.
In the New York Times best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown identifies a phenomenon she calls “the disengagement divide,” or values gap. It is the space between our “aspirational values,” those we claim to live by and our “practiced values,” the way we actually live. It’s the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The gap is inevitable, on both a personal and ecclesial level. But while the first one is manageable, the second is unwieldy to say the least.
On a personal level, we can take responsibility for the gap. We know that perfection isn’t possible, that we fall short each and every day. But if we are healthy and self-aware, we seek forgiveness and make amends. We get up and try again. Though it is a Sisyphean task, a majority of us strive to make the breach as small as possible.
Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.
I think it is the “disengagement divide” that the “nones” are fleeing more than anything. A few “nones” might have left the church because of bad music, or a lack of parking spots. A few more might have left because it wasn’t convenient, either to their psyche or their schedule. But I imagine that most “nones,” especially those who identify as spiritual, but not religious are leaving because “the disengagement divide” has become a chasm.
We call ourselves Christians. Right there in our name, we claim whom we follow, Jesus the Christ. That gives us a certain set of “aspirational values” to live up to. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but it does mean we mean have a lot to strive for. Above all, we have to love God and we have to love our neighbor as we have been loved by Christ himself.
Institutionally, we have not done that very well and we have not apologized very often, or taken the necessary steps to correct it either.
Instead, churches have created another sub-group: the “RBNS”s, who are “religious, but not spiritual.” Despite its best efforts, or perhaps because of them, religion has a way of becoming legalistic, of creating in and out groups, and when you are on the inside, it’s awfully tempting to let go of the struggle that true spirituality requires. Belonging to a religion can make it too easy to follow a list of rules and regulations and claim the perks that come with membership.
Spirituality on the other hand is a relationship, an encounter with the Divine that calls us to transcend this material world and the hold it has on us. It asks us to go deeper. It is through spirituality that we struggle with despair and hope, love and fear, doubt and certainty. Journeying with the Holy Spirit in this way allows us to transform ourselves, our relationships and hopefully the world around us, in a way that mere religion can’t.
Ideally, churches are there to hold us while we engage in this life-long process, but when filled with members (or leaders) who are “RBNS,” our struggle is looked upon as a failure on our part. We are told we just need to “get saved,” or “confess our sins,” or simply trust that they’ve got it all worked out for us from a place of authority. If we would just fall in line, everything would be okay and if we can’t, because we are gay, or divorced, or want to talk about women’s ordination, or whatever is taboo in our religion, that’s when we head for the door.
I haven’t done so, not yet and it saddens me that so many of my peers and the younger generation have done so. I understand it. I am not surprised by it, but I think we will all be sorrier for it. Our churches get more rigid without the leavening yeast of youthful creativity, passion and resources. The “nones,” and the SBNRs relinquish the hard-won wisdom of their religious ancestors, forcing themselves to reinvent the spiritual immunizations that will keep their children mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this difficult world.
I think it comes down to community, another word that gets tossed around a lot in these conversations. Churches are crying out, “You need us! You don’t think you do, but you really do!” The “nones” are shouting back, “I’ve got my own community, thank you very much and it’s way less hypocritical than yours!” There is truth in both of those statements.
We were made for connection and belonging. We need community to hold us together, to remind us of whom we are and what we are about, to lift us up when we falter and praise us when we succeed. Church communities can do that better than any other when the gap between their “practiced values” and “aspirational values” is small. When Agape is the operative word in theory and in practice, we see Church and Community at their finest. But when the gap is large, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world to be in free-fall, knowing that the people who were supposed to love you in God’s name are nowhere to be found and are perhaps even the ones who gave you a shove off the ledge.
I know there are churches out there that do it differently. I have read hundreds of comments from men and women who want the “nones” to know that their church isn’t like that, that they love with their whole hearts and work earnestly to welcome and include everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, sure and not-so-sure. I’ve listened to sermons from their pastors, been witness to their diversity and cheered for the life-giving work they’ve done. I like to think my church falls into that category as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we have the word “Baptist” or “Catholic” or even the word “Christian” in our name, we are going to have an uphill row to hoe. Despite our protestations, we are associated with leaders who have not walked the talk and institutions that have allowed the “disengagement divide” to flourish for too long.
Though I’ve been on the ledge and even felt a nudge or two in the back, I’m not letting my “church” get rid of me that easily. I’ve benefitted too much from my religious background, education and traditions to let it go. My community is the church and the church is the people of God. I have far more faith, hope and trust in them as individuals and as a group than I do in an institution, whose leadership is charged with protecting tradition and the status quo.
Through his work as a community organizer, President Obama observed in Dreams from My Father that “communities are not a given in this country… Communities need to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expand or contract with the dreams of men” (and women I have to add).
I have big dreams for my community, the people of God, but I am pretty sure God’s dreams for us are even bigger. We have a garden before us, a plot of land to tend. I don’t want to fight against SBNRs, people who aspire to something beyond themselves. I want to fight with them to uphold the values that transcend our differences in religion, culture and language, values like Love, grace, beauty, compassion, mercy, justice and equality. I know that wherever those things are found, God is.
I am happy to tell you that Sojourners decided to use this blog as part of their Meet the Nones series. You can check it out here, and read other perspectives as well.
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Oh Ali I LOVE this post. August and I were just talking about this last night. Disappointed that a family has walked away from the church, but given their experience we weren’t surprised. Yet, in their shoes we wouldn’t have walked out, or would we? Ugh. Anyway, this speaks to me so much. Thank you!
I was wondering if any Catholics that I know and love would relate to this. Churches bring so much good and so much pain and sometimes, we just want to have our pain acknowledged. Perhaps that is what your family/ friends were looking for? But when the apology can’t be followed up with any real “change” because the institution won’t let it, it’s hard to feel that it is worth much. Hope to see a new post from you soon.
OOHH MMYY!! I feel as though you have a “Nan Cam” on me and have been watching me as I attend my Sunday service at “The Center of Spiritual Renewal”! I am totally Nan the None! Ernest Holmes, The Science of Mind is my go to! The service I attend never has more than 25-30 people, but they are all between 55 to 85, which I found quite telling. I even looked up “Sisyphean”….love it when I learn something new, can”t wait to slip it into my next conversation, I know that sounds vernacularly contrived but what the hey! Love you and to you Sweet Friend! XO Nan
I love that “Nanette the None” – sounds like a superhero and I think that is exactly what keeping the faith can require sometimes. I am so glad you found a place that feeds your spirit and I would love to join you some time.
If my faith is worth anything, it’s worth remembering that God gave me a vocation along with my baptism. I’ve got a job to do! Do I think God called me into His Church to ‘get’ something out of it; or because He wanted me give something to it, to give something of myself? When I see the failings in my Church, I don’t see reasons to leave it — I see what needs doing. I see what I have to do to fulfill my vocation.
The master wouldn’t have gone out to hire laborers for His vineyard if that vineyard was perfect already.
Thanks for commenting Paul; there is always work to do and it isn’t easy, but we’ve got to keep showing up!
Good for you,Allie!!!
Excellent viewpoint! Our parish is trying to address this very problem right now…how to make church relevant again in our parishioners lives. That is not to say that it is not, but that we may not realize or demonstrate the ways that it is…. I’d love to know if you’ve found any concrete ideas on how to implement change, particularly in a Catholic parish. We’re trying to discern how to re-engage those who are leaving or have left. Daunting, sure, but also so exciting!
Great post Alison – I look forward to following your blog. I spend a great deal of time thinking about this topic as a deeply spiritual woman who has changed from referring to Catholicism as her religion to her tradition. I love the Mass and the community…the lifelong bonds of Catholic schooling and the anchor of Christian beliefs. But ironically, it was finding the Tao de Ching some six years ago that saved my relationship with Catholicism and allowed me to return to worship. I released a great deal of the judgement I was harboring in my heart, and now I take the good of my childhood faith and blend it with respect for many other religions and traditions. They fill the gap that was otherwise left in my heart for many years. Last night at Mass, the pews were too empty, as they often are, in my Parish that offers only two masses a week. I personally believe radical change must come soon or the church will never be able to recover. As someone who blogs and speaks on the topic of spirituality as well, I hope to bear witness to positive changes for our religion and others in the years to come.
What a great comment Lisa. I appreciate how our “truths” have found each other and hope that we can keep our religious traditions alive and fruitful for the next generation.