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.