Do we need spiritual community anymore?

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.

I wonder.

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Eric Blauer

Thank you for your words Jim, I share your questions, pain and longing.

I find comfort and hope in: Matthew 12:20:

20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;

There are seasons and place where ‘little flocks’ dwell and the wolves and dangers of life take their toll. I pray for you and your pasture:

“May the sheep be fruitful and multiply,

May God drive out predators,

God help you with staff and rod,

May fresh and reviving waters break open in dry places,

May spring rains soften souls and the hunger it provokes spread over your hard ground.

God grant you friends to labor with who lift you up, strengthen your vision and carry the load with you.”

Sam Fletcher

Jim, thanks for writing this. It’s something I think about a lot.

I think that you’ll never see people not need spiritual community. (“Spirituality” is a concept that even atheists and agnostics sometimes acknowledge the need for. The word can cover a broader range of human experience than simply the metaphysical or supernatural definitions.) In fact, I think that while people are going to church less and less, they’re still finding friends with whom they can informally discuss matters of the heart and soul.

Isn’t it weird that what one generation considers really important, the next considers to be folly? This is a cycle that has been going on for thousands of years. Younger generations just do not see the importance of religious gay-bashing, sexism, and teachings that simply inane to most anyone with a basic grasp of natural history, like young-earth creationism.

That offends today’s fundamentalists, and really, it’s neither here nor there. In a few decades or less, no one will be left alive who believes that gay sex is a sin, women are inferior, or that dinosaurs and mankind lived together. What fundamentalists don’t grasp (and it does confuse me sometimes why they refuse to grasp this important truth) is that this mechanism that discards old beliefs is the same mechanism that, for the baby boomer and older generation, discarded notions such as the inferiority of black people, the importance of church-led censorship in popular culture, and reticence to accept innovations like organ transplants and birth control pills. Those were once ideas that were really important to people! The current generation of Christians that is “the establishment” almost never sees those ideas as worthwhile ones (yet still hold fast to their ideas about gays, women, and cosmology).

So what I see happening in spiritual communities is that the current model of church will die. Sure. You’d be willfully blind to not see it happening.

But a different church will replace it. People will look for, and establish, spiritual communities that put importance on the things that they consider important. They will talk about a different agenda. They might even be structured differently. But they will still be churches! And they’ll still continue to talk about the gospel story. They’ll still speak prophetically to a hurting and broken world. They will find a way to “Be Church” for the world of living people who need spiritual community, despite making mistakes along the way.

We live in a culture where mistakes are avoided because a lot of times, society punishes us for making them. But mistakes are an opportunity to do something better. I have a lot of hope for the future. Is believing in values that many people now know to be foolish a mistake? I would assert that the answer is an unqualified Yes, because it’s such a blatant contradiction not only of reality, but a willful ignoring of the hurting and needs of people who are alive today. Strife over gays, women, and cosmology are the concerns of the dead, or those soon to be dead. But is it a mistake to be out there, trying to minister to a hurting world? No. The correct way to Be Church to the world today is to acknowledge that the world is different, that science has revealed a truer picture of human nature and the cosmos, and to hold fast to this one idea, and this idea alone: Love one another.

Bruce Meyer

As someone who really doesn’t have a religion at this point, I agree with Sam. I see a fundamental shift in society underway. The mythology of how we define ourselves is changing. (I use mythology as a description of how we see ourselves as a people and in relation to God). Where we once thought of ourselves as “Christian”, we are now seeing ourselves more and more as scientific. Higher criticism of the Bible and teachings on the historical Jesus (based on Albert Schweitzer) are now common knowledge among young people (and even the middle aged). It’s difficult for them (and me) to go into a church and listen to the religious dogma of the Trinity and virgin birth and see it as relevant or me. It’s amazing to me that most churches still close their eyes to these issues and refuse to acknowledge them. It’s like the music industry refusing to see that mp3 downloads would change their sales model, or book companies who won’t acknowledge electronic sales. I see fundamentalism and the megachurch phenomenon as just this kind of cultural backlash.

I do believe that people are spiritual by nature (Sartre’s God-shaped vacuum) as Sam also pointed out and fully expect that another religion will replace Christianity. Hopefully something more universally accepting of Islam, Judaism, traditional Christianity and many of the issues Sam listed above will emerge. Worse, we could be facing some kind of Caesar or Hitler as people try to fill the vacuum within them.

Sam Fletcher

I dunno, Bruce.

I think you’re overestimating how much people know, or care, about biblical criticism. That’s more of a thing for theology nerds like us. I don’t really know anyone in my fairly broad social circle who would even know who Albert Schweitzer is. Most Christians haven’t even read the Bible, much less people who don’t go to church.

I don’t think Christianity is going to disappear. If you’re on the very, very liberal side, or the very, very conservative side, or anywhere in between, you have to admit that the Christ story is a very compelling one. People read into it a wide variety of meanings, sure, and I don’t see much of a future in conservative theology in the United States and Europe for at least a few decades, but Christianity is by no means going to completely die out for quite a while yet. It’s one of the most powerful stories humans have ever told, and it’s ability to last and stay relevant to people for 2,000 years is a testament to it.

Fundamentalist communities formed in response to real needs. Weird as it may sound now to some of us, they were actually making a religion that was extremely relevant to their time, and consequently, extremely popular. They were taking the mysticism out religion at the same time that science was taking mysticism out of nature and replacing it with rationality. They were addressing the fears and needs of society at the time. Personally, I think we should cut them some slack. They did manage to do some pretty interesting and compelling things throughout small communities in the US.

It’s a good lesson for us science-loving, religious liberals. We think of ourselves (at least I do) as strong, vital, and ready to be relevant to communities living in an information-rich, affirmation-seeking society. But I think it’s just as likely as not that in a hundred or two hundred years, people will think of what we hold dear as Old and Busted, and new communities of faith will try to take apart what we are doing to make something New and Relevant to them.

Sam Fletcher

It’s also really okay if people don’t want to go to church. The kingdom of god is like leaven. We don’t need to force it to happen. God certainly isn’t forcing it.

Bruce Meyer

College courses on biblical criticism and the historical Jesus have been available for a long time now. More and more people have taken these courses, and the general understanding is growing. This kind of knowledge bubbles it’s way through society, if not in the actual understanding, then in the general attitudes towards the church. Popular books have been written and rewritten. I’ve seen many of these articles published in major magazines in the such as Time, Newsweek, etc. The Dead Sea Scrolls and and the Nag Hammadi library were major discoveries that made big headlines, and much of it shed further light on historical criticism and the apocalyptic nature of Jesus. My point is that this knowledge is only going in one direction, and that is up.

I see in general the church’s response to this sea change as mostly denial. Taking a cue from business, companies that deny their business model has changed usually go out of business, sooner or later.

But I do agree with you, it’s okay if people don’t want to go to church. It’s God’s church, and we don’t need to force it.

Bruce Meyer

I even forgot to mention the Da Vinci Code just a few years back. Not that the book changed very many minds, but I think the book was popular precisely because it illustrates my point. The book sold because it tapped into attitudes about the historical Jesus which were already changing.

Liz Backstrom

“ 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?”

I think the answer I would give is, honestly both, it depends on the person.

I’ve felt both of these things at different times and in different places in my life, depending on what I’m doing.

That’s a great question to ask ourselves, but I think God will continue to be there no matter which way we answer it. I believe God exists outside of the boundaries we try to put him in as people.

The best communities I’ve been a part of (religious and otherwise) are ones that truly demonstrate Godly qualities to me –love, selflessness, humor, acceptance and honesty. The details of their particular doctrine don’t stand out to me as much as those things.

Susan Austin

I don’t want to over-generalize, but I have to agree with much that is written above. When people who present themselves as being religious use religiosity as an excuse for homophobia and misogyny, and the churches and/or denominations they belong to support and encourage it, the inevitable outcome is that they chase away young people, for whom such prejudice is anathema–I have had many, many conversations with friends who have run into enough of such prejudice that they want nothing to do with *any* church. Speaking from my own personal experience, I have always been involved in my church (as well as attending other churches and taking my children to synagogue, so they could learn about that side of our family, my children always loved to go with me, until our lovely neighbor children in Garfield beat the crap out of my son and broke his glasses (he is blind without them) for being a “Christ killer”–after their strongly anti-Semitic and anti-gay pastor gave up on converting my son as deemed him a sinner at the church youth group; my daughter was bullied both in and out of school because I am openly gay (strongly encouraged by a teacher at the school and the afore-mentioned pastor) and finally my daughter and our two little dogs, who she was walking at the time were–literally–stoned by a gang of our local kids (fortunately,she got away). Now, I knew what had happened to my son, but I had no idea what had been happening to my daughter–at the time of the stoning incident, she told me that the dogs had been barking at the kids, who responded by throwing the rocks at the dogs, because she was afraid that if I called the police it would only make things worse (our town cop belongs to the other rabidly anti-gay church in town). All I knew was that she hated the school here and that no matter how many times I reported that she was being bullied NOTHING was ever done about it by the school, so I transferred her to Pullman and have been making the 98 mile-for-two-round-trips a day drive ever since. She did not tell me the whole story about the stoning incident, which happened five years ago, until last week.

I am still shocked that this happened in this millenium! And although the viciously bigoted pastor mentioned above has since been fired, I am also very worried for the pagan family that just moved in up the street.

I never understood why my daughter had suddenly become an atheist and had started hating both church and synagogue. Now that I know what happened–and there were many less serious incidents that are too numerous to cite here–I have switched around which days she is with her dad, so that she can attend the Unity Church (which has a big, friendly youth group) with us. She is finally warming up a bit, but after all that has happened, it will take time for those wounds to heal. If they ever do.

When things like that happen, courtesy of children who are too young to have any understanding of their own being brain-washed by teachers and pastors, who can blame our young people for turning away from organized religion?

Sam Fletcher

What a heart-breaking story, Susan. It frustrates me to no end how hurtful religious people can be, and how stubborn they are about owning up to the hurt they cause. There is no value in dogmas. I hope your family finds healing.


Susan, I wish I’d read this post before I answered your attack on me in the other thread. Even though every story has two sides I am sorry for your experience as well. I disagree with the homosexual lifestyle, I have the right to my convictions just like you do, but would also defend your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just like mine, and would never condone such anti-Christlike behavior as you have described. I do think that the labeling of all conservative Bible believing Christianity as equivalent to your description of these particular individuals is wrong. I know I could dig up just as many of those types of stories from the opposite vantage point but wouldn’t purport to lay that on all gay people.

I know that the true church has a future because it is Christ’s church and He said that the gates of hell itself would not prevail against it. On the other hand Paul taught that in the last days violence, ungodliness and false teaching and doctrine would run rampant. So I don’t see the decline of religion that denies the faith once for all delivered to the saints as defeat but as the fulfillment of God’s own will and plan as He brings about the consummation of all things in the return of His Son, The Lord Jesus Christ. In fact just hearing talk of a religion that synthesizes all world religions into one makes me think that we’re right at the door! My heart is that all people would come to Him and not a religion while there is still time.

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