Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?