The church I pastor in Colville is small. We live on the edge of survival. Today I find myself wondering how my congregation and I can grow this church, not only so we don't have to worry, but also so we can be a great witness of God's love.
Like a parent who worries about their kids, no matter the age, I worry about my church and the many other churches in the United Church of Christ. So, I ponder.
A recent study by the Pew Forum shows that one in five Americans — that's 20 percent — do not affiliate with any religion. This is the highest it has ever been! But still 80 percent do claim religious connection. What does it mean to claim connection? Other studies show people like to be connected to things but they are not as interested in “joining” where there might be commitments and guilt for not doing things. How do you describe your religious connection? Do you have an aversion to “belonging”, to “being a member”?
Remember, religion is about community; it is about human beings who decide to organize themselves around something they share or that bonds them. Many today will say that they are spiritual but not religious. That usually means that they live a life where they feel a connection to a divine being, such as God, but don't root that connection in human community or organization. Think about the journey of the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt for 40 years to the Promised Land. This was a community journey where God had called them to go together, not as individuals. Think about Acts 2:42-47 where we hear about the early Christian communities who owned nothing as individuals as all shared according to need.
Do we see ourselves today primarily as a spiritual community on a journey together, where each of us brings our individual identity into community? Or do we view ourselves today primarily as individual spiritual people who sometimes benefit from coming together in community settings for common activity or purpose?
My ponderings have led me through many questions and wonderings. I would like to hear your thoughts and feelings.
Now I bring this closer to home. It is more personal when we bring it close and statistically the news is worse. In Stevens County, 74 percent, almost four in five people, claim no religious affiliation at all. This is opposite the national numbers. We can't even claim to do as well as Spokane County where 35 percent claim some religious affiliation. In getting more personal, many of our adult children might claim some religious affiliation for historical purposes but they rarely attend or participate in church at all. We can remember when we had vibrant Sunday schools and youth programs, yet most of our kids who participated in these activities are no longer active in any church. My mother regrets that I left the Roman Catholic Church but she consoles herself that I am still active in church as minister — even if she privately she views where I am as “lesser church” than the Roman Catholic Church. We hang onto what we need to but the grieving what we have lost can be hard and the regrets don't leave us.
Our kids don't often tell us why they moved on from our church to another or to no church. They don't want to see our disappointment. They don't want to have any tense conversations. They just want to have a good visit. But I want to cry out to God, “Where did we go wrong?” “We did all the right things, our kids seemed to enjoy their time in the church. What happened?”
I don't know the answer to all this which is why I cry out to God. I feel helpless. I do feel the answers lie in sharing our thoughts and feelings as we ask for God's help. In most cases, we don't talk with our kids about this. Sometimes we don't even talk to our spouses because of our religious differences or because it is water under the bridge. We don't talk about it at church because we don't want anyone to think lesser of our kids or of us. I think this informal code of silence prevents us from unlocking the keys to our future in the church.
Does our society need religion anymore? If we had a vote in Stevens County tomorrow to defy the Supreme Court and have school sanctioned prayer returned to our schools, I suspect it would win by a wide margin. Yet most of these “yes” votes will not come and pray in our churches. Maybe religion is irrelevant today! Maybe we just need to go to the lake to be with God. Maybe we can just look at the sunset and see God. Maybe we can serve at the food bank and have done all God expects. Maybe we can read some devotional material or a good book and get all the spiritual food we need. Maybe we are beyond religion.