As virtually any survey of contemporary American religious life reveals, one of the most popular ways increasing numbers among us categorize our faith commitment is “spiritual but not religious.” What does this mean? And why is it that so many today choose to describe their spiritual lives in this way?
In my own informal, unscientific “research” with people who talk like this, I note the ease with which many criticize the institutional church. Some have had virtually no experience with the church but may have allowed unpopular conceptions in the culture to shape their opinions. Others have had much experience with the church but negative events or personal disappointment in a particular congregational setting has shaped a low view of church generally. Several of the most popular reasons people give for staying away from the institutional church are these: 1) the church is irrelevant in today’s world; 2) the church is filled with hypocrites; 3) church people are responsible for at least as much of the world’s problems and divisions as anyone else; 4) people in the church cannot even avoid fighting among themselves; 5) church is boring and takes too much time; 6) who needs an institution to tell you what to believe? And there are others. While I would eagerly respond to each one of these criticisms, let’s face it: there are legitimate reasons why so many make such assertions.
Earlier this fall Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, wrote a provocative and much-commented-uponarticle in the magazine, The Christian Century. Her subject was on the limits of self-made religion (I encourage you to “Google” and read her article entitled, “You Can’t Make This Up”). Daniel acknowledges that a lot of the world’s indifference or disdain for the institutional church has been brought on by the church itself. But she also suspects that many who cast themselves as spiritual-but-notreligious desire God on our own terms rather than the terms laid down from sacred texts and centuries of tradition. Perhaps such realities as institutions and communities of believers are inconvenient when what we really want is to construct our spiritual lives to fit our personal preferences. After all, it is easier to believe what we want to believe in the absence of commitment to other people such as a local congregation or a national church or a worldwide Communion.
Daniel suggests that it is a matter of spiritual laziness to justify avoidance of the institutional church because it is imperfect and so obviously filled with fallible human beings: “Here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. . . But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good.”
These thoughts remind me of a parable that Jesus once told, the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. In this little story, a farmer sows seed in a field. But when the seeds sprout and grow into grain we learn there are also weeds mixed in. And the farmer’s servants ask, “Master, did you not sow good seeds in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?”
Many of us believe we are naturally gifted to identify the weeds in our midst. And even more are convinced we ourselves are wheat. One does not need to spend long in the church before facing the base temptation to wonder why the church is not better ordered to fit our tastes and preferences whether the issue has to do with worship, programs, leadership, or theology. Each of these realms of ministry is vitally important, but chronic complaining about can be a way of asking, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Why don’t we just get rid of the weeds in our midst?” Or another idea creeps in: “If I’ve got to put up with weeds, I’m leaving.”Jesus never said the life of discipleship as the church would be free and easy, without conflict or division, absent pain and suffering. In fact, he said just the opposite and rather emphatically. Any robust theology of the church acknowledges that as Christians we are called to live in relationship with other believers, not in detached aloofness. This will mean learning to live in love with those we perceive to be in error, to be difficult, to be obstinate, to be of bad taste, to be different. It is not a bad question to ask “how can I find a church community I can love.” But an even better question for Christians is “how can I love the church community I already have?”
The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat urges caution before the reality of weeds in our midst. To the suggestion that the field would benefit from some good old-fashioned weeding, the Master says, “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them,” suggesting that one way to kill the good life inside the church is to
be always on the lookout for what is bad about it. Weeding may not be the area of farming best suited for us.
Mature followers of Christ understand that the messy business of finding and serving the Lord happens not in idealized visions of perfect communion. On this side of the Kingdom such communion does not yet exist, not even in the church. And after all, our fallenness is the reason Christ comes to us in the first place.
To be a Christian is to be both spiritual and religious. The etymology of the word “religion” means “to bind together.” In Christ, we are not only bound together with God, but bound together as fellow believers who know at least two great truths: we could never make up the story of Jesus on our own, and as members one of another in the church we are part of something far bigger than our solitary pursuits and preferences. As Daniel puts it, the church lives “with the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. They come together because Jesus came to live with these same types of people. Thousands of years later, we’re still trying to be the body of Christ, and we are human and realistic enough to know we need a savior who is divine.”
To those who view the church as an irrelevancy or impediment to their own privatized spiritual lives, I cannot think of a more powerful alternative witness that Christians may offer than to suffer each other’s humanity and trust this divine savior who nevertheless makes his home among us in the church.