Preparing for a modern church in a post-modern world pt. 2

In my last post, I wrote about the way my seminary education is preparing me to do worship, and, largely, my problems with it. These posts come out of a pretty extreme frustration with the fact that what I am learning in seminary today is not much different from what I learned in seminary in 2001 and, likely, not very different from what and how the pastor I grew up with learned in seminary. I love Jesus, I am a child of God commissioned to spread the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and to be a representative of God on Earth. What I am learning in seminary is preparing me to use telegrams in the age of Twitter. For the moment, I am complaining – letting it all out so that I can have empty space in which I can ask constructive questions and, hopefully, come to some solutions of my own. But, before that, I have more to dump.

Spiritual but not religious vs. Religious but not spiritual

We are in a time when the church is declining but a majority of Americans still claim they believe in some kind of higher power, and many call that power God. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 92% of Americans believe in God. In a 2009 Newsweek poll, 48% of respondents described themselves as religious and spiritual and another 30% said they were spiritual but not religious. Most important for those of us thinking about the future of the church: a study by Lifeway Christian Resources showed that 72% of Millenials say they are spiritual but not religious.

Spiritual but not religious gets a lot of flack. Some in Christian leadership see it as a cop out or a symptom of our individualized society (see here or here). They rightly observe that this is often a pretty self-centered look at spirituality and can neglect important Christian ideals like helping the poor (both of these could be critiques of Christianity, BTW). Those critiques might be right but, here’s the thing: that’s the reality of our situation. Mock spiritual but not religious all you want, that’s our mission field. And we’re not prepared.

Another effect the industrial revolution and the enlightenment had on churches is that, in mainline Protestant churches, God became a thinking game. We thought a lot about God, pontificated a lot about God and talked a lot about God for generations. We threw out mystical things (or things that were “too Catholic”) like the laying on of hands, personal prayer, icons, chanting and things we didn’t understand fully in favor of activities of faith that fed the mind.

As the enlightenment fades we have begun to enjoy mystery again. As science (and with it, humanity) learns more, it learns how much it doesn’t know. Yet we have stripped mystery from the daily practice and education in most of our congregations. Where do people go to deal with this newfound appreciation for mystery and their desire to connect with it? They go outdoors to see God in the sunset, they go to yoga to be with God in the silence, they read books that connect them with worlds of fictional magic (most excellent worlds of magic, I might add). Like Fox Mulder, people want to believe. They go to these places and not church there because we have little to offer them in the church outside of talk about the mystery and wonder of God.

Back to what seminary is not teaching me: how to have a spiritual life. I am learning how to be religious without learning how to be spiritual. Maybe there is some kind of assumption that because I am in seminary, I have it down. But I don’t. We don’t. In conversations with fellow seminarians, it is clear that few of us have active, disciplined prayer lives. We have never been taught how, and most of us don’t know where to begin. We are often terrified at the idea of having to pray out loud with another person outside of the pastoral role. As long as we are in charge, we can pray with others. We can take classes at the Catholic or Unitarian school on prayer, that’s their thing (Protestants, in my experience, fear the Holy Spirit and seem to ignore it past Pentecost). We learn how to lead prayer in worship. But we don’t learn how to dwell in the mystery of God. In my pastoral care class, it seemed like I shocked most everyone (including the professor) by suggesting that we make room for the possibility that God actually can (and sometimes does) cure people. We don’t learn how to use a labyrinth or chant or do liturgical art or even have a non-intellectual conversation about God. Some of us know how to do this inherently, but many don’t. For the most part, we are pushed further and further into the intellectualization of faith, and, while that is important, it seems to be the opposite of what God’s stray sheep are asking for. We don’t have to agree with our context, but we have to understand it. God’s people want to know the mystery that is our creator. Let’s help them. But we’ll have a hard time helping them connect with God if no one helps us.


About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

7 responses to “Preparing for a modern church in a post-modern world pt. 2

  • John Dornheim

    Looks like things haven’t changed much in 35 years or so. Sad.

    • ERW

      There are rays of light. The Seattle School for Ministry and Psychology has a great program, I am really impressed with some of the work coming out of Fuller and Claremont. But, as far as I know, the schools in my denomination are still dragging their feet behind the times. This is one of the reasons I write. If we want there to be an institutional church in another 35 years, we have to change. Thanks for reading!

  • martiannation

    Very well stated, Tripp! I continue to work among church averse men, some of whom have legit complaints, others probably less so. What I am appreciating more and more is that the Enlightenment, as you said, turned Christianity into a ‘thinking man’s game.’ Salvation by cognition/confession, if you will. i.e. ‘I think/confess (rightly), therefore I am saved,’ if you will. The additional attraction to that reductionist arrangement is that it made it easy to categorize and control people. Moderns liked that. As you said, they have no room for mystery or, I would add, messiness. To confess meant you were saved. To not confess meant you weren’t. It was that simple. Faith was a noun and not a verb for a reason. For, verbs are slippery things, hard to measure, inefficient, too messy for moderns. To be fair, those of us who find post modernism more congenial to life and faith than the modernity which preceded it are prone to make the same mistake in the opposite direction. That is, making faith a-confessional is not the proper remedy for making faith only-confessional. To site another example, Just bc Jesus is not (or supra) Republican doesn’t mean he is, therefore, a (or sub) Democrat.
    In the end, it seems to me like authentic faith is, as is the Trinity, both/and. That is, both noun and verb. Maybe what I am saying is that faith, the Christian faith, is supra confessional. Anyway, your comments are really insightful and provocative. Many thanks!

    • ERW

      Actually, this is not Tripp — but I am flattered that you would think it is! I’m a colleague of his from Berkeley. There is definitely a balance to be found between thinking and feeling — the middle way, as the Buddhists would say. I feel like I am going through that initial transition stage right now where everything modern annoys me and I just want to burn it all down and start again. But I know this will pass. The same thing happened to me when I discovered the Jesus Seminar in college and then decided that I honestly don’t care about how much was most likely said by Jesus and what wasn’t. I like the story. It came from God somehow. It feed me and millions of others — it is just my job to help people interpret it through a lens of love and grace (and to consider the context, audience, etc.). Thanks for your thoughts!

  • annamporter

    Hallelujah, Elizabeth! You get it…too bad so many others do not! Boy do we need spirituality now more than ever. Especially with this Millennial generation that has grown up having mystery stripped away (e.g. knowing how “magic” in films is actually created for instance). And believe it or not, apparently for those of us women who are deep thinkers and feelers menopause brings a whole new unexpected perspective: too deep thinking that leads to questioning God’s existence at all. Thinking religion helped me in my work in the church and raising my children but spirituality is what I need most now.

    • ERW

      Anna — This first occurred to me when my dad was sick. We had this amazing conversation about how his faith was not helping him with his fears because his faith was so intellectual. He had never learned to feel God’s presence; he only knew how to think about it. It took a lot of work with an amazing pastoral care professional in our home congregation to help him lear to feel God. The changes that came forward in his life as a result of his cancer were amazing — and I think a lot of it had to do with knowing God in a radically different way. I to do the too much thinking thing that brings up tons of doubt — but that doubt is relieved when I sit to pray and can feel God’s light moving through me. It is a wonderful gift that we are just not taught to bring into our congregational work.
      Also, I’m really glad you’re doing so well 🙂

  • Tripp Hudgins

    Hi. This is Tripp. LOL…Wow…Okay.

    Yes. Yes and again yes! This is why my PhD is in Liturgy, Ethnomusicology with a tangential comp in Spirituality. This is where we’re headed, are, have been in our most productive moments in history. It’s not that Modernism is going anywhere. It’s going to be around forever, but the pendulum needs to balance out. Head AND heart. The academy has left the heart behind to some degree and for a variety of reasons. EWR, when you get back to town, gimme a holler. We’ll talk. I got your back. I do. And you can do this.

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