As I was visiting with the Family Resource Center representative at my daughter’s school the other day, the subject of religion came up. I was a youth minister for a few years, so that happens occaisionally, especially when the subject of careers is introduced into the conversation. Religion typically follows. And, the conversation lately has been much the same. I find myself on the defensive about the church to some degree, and I find that the more recent college graduates, the twenty somethings and the social workers of our society are quick to point out that church is not relevant for them. I have a quick illustration that I think will resonate with many of you:
- Spirituality = Good
- Church = A good idea
- Religion = Bad
Religion is not just dismissed in our culture, and it isn’t that people don’t really care about the church that church numbers are declining. People are not apathetic toward religion – they are disgusted with it. When I am in conversation with church people, I am confronted with a certain language of belief. In other words, there are things like “Grace” and “Faith” and “Communion” and “Salvation” that are easy to talk about in Christian circles, but outside of those circles, it is a different story. People are disillusioned with religion and, by default, with church.
On a recent Camping trip, a friend was expressing his disillusionment about the inflexibility of the current Christian culture to accept that there is any truth other than the “One True Way.” I was explaining that, in order to have a conviction, you have to be convicted about something, and that in the Christian tradition we tend to believe that we have solid answers to the questions of life and faith. I did relent, however, that there seems to be a different undercurrent about the kind of intolerance that we are seeing in the way that it plays out in our culture.
So, what is it that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to this particular people group? I had a nice drive back from my camping trip that provided an opportunity to reflect on this question. I was thinking that the wedge that has been driving into the church in the last generation was a political one. The Right has taken over as the primary marketing engine for the Christian religion in the last several decades. That message of intolerance and strict adherance to “traditional” roles does not resonate with everyone. Then, when I got back to work today, I read an article by Dianna Butler Bass called “When Religion and Spirituality Collide.” The author does an amazing job navigating the complexities and the history of the decline of the relevance of the modern church. Here is an excerpt from the article:
For centuries, faith was top-down: Spiritual power flowed from pope to the faithful, archbishop to Anglicans, priest to the pious, pastor to congregation. This has changed as regular people confidently assert that spirituality is a grass-roots adventure of seeking God, a journey of insight and inspiration involving authenticity and purpose that might or might not happen in a church, synagogue or mosque. Spirituality is an expression of bottom-up faith and does not always fit into accepted patterns of theology or practice.
Fearing this change, however, many religious bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, increasingly fixate on order and control, leading them to reassert hierarchical authority and be less responsive to the longings of those they supposedly serve. And that will push religion further into its spiral of irrelevance and decline.
There is a peripheral correlation to the political divide that I mentioned earlier, but it seems to go deeper than just politics and intolerance. People are more inclined to relate to the spiritual than the religious, and I am one who believes that they are both necessary for a healthy spiritual walk. A friend once encouraged me to think of religion as “binding,” and that sometimes that is what we need to keep us grounded in the world and to challenge our poor behaviors and our bad choices. Religion tends to be about the rules, about the law. Spirituality tends to deal in Grace and Mercy and personal progression. Religion, balanced with grace, mercy, and progress, can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth.
Bad religion, however, can be a cancer that slowly eats away at an institution. We are seeing that cancer today. We are seeing a church ailing with an inflexible adherence to a traditional approach to spirituality that is being lost on an entire generation. I would not suggest ditching tradition. I would suggest harnessing tradition to speak to a new age of communication styles and generational differences. The church tends to fail to bend where needed, and the stress cracks that come from that kind of inflexibility eventually leads to a major break.
It is entirely possible that we will see that kind of break in our lifetime. In fact, if the church chooses to build buildings and hire staff rather than invest in people and work on social issues that are important to the communities where it finds itself, we could see it very soon.