… a minister friend of mine* was asked this question by a stranger phoning him out of the blue. It was a perfectly serious question.
After recovering his senses my friend had the discernment to not say “… we don’t that” and put the phone down. Instead he asked her if he could drop in for a chat and to put the kettle on. He discovered a very lonely lady who’s only company was her dog. They talked at length. He didn’t baptise the dog but he did pray for them (both!), and a good relationship was established.
Well I can’t compete with that! But I was once asked to perform a service of blessing for a couple’s replacement wedding rings. I too felt totally confused (and unaware that this is something our Catholic friends sometimes do), but again a discussion lead to a relationship.
We may be tempted to scoff at such stories – isn’t this just superstition? But they demonstrate something that is deep-seated in our so-called secular society. There is a desire for spirituality all around us. It may be crude, it may be uninformed, it may be child-like, but it’s where people are. People who never attend church will at times seek spiritual comfort and help..
Why do I tell these stories? It’s in response to the recent news:
UK survey reports 53% of people are now non-religious
There has been fuss and national news coverage on this survey which came out recently, stating that more than half of the population of the UK are now “non-religious”. The Humanist Society have had a field day.
But this survey was only about “religious affiliation”. People don’t associate with organised denomination such as the Church of England (CofE) any more. That says nothing about their beliefs — except that they are now being honest. In the past any good, law abiding citizen would likely answer “CofE” when asked for their religion. Today it is acceptable, normal, to say “NONE”.
Two quick observations about this survey:
First, umm … this isn’t news
We all know this. People have been leaving mainstream churches since at least the 1950s. Before that we had what we called “Christendom”, when everyone went to church, (and you could even have your wages docked if you didn’t). The social norm was to show up on Sunday. You became a Christian by inertia … you were simply born into it. Although some may hearken back to the good old days when the pews were packed, there was huge nominalism, far more than today.
You became a Christian by inertia … you were simply born into it
Second, this says nothing about people’s search for spirituality.
Yes there is a decline in organised religious attendance. The church is shedding nominal attenders and, significantly, there is less empathy with those who do attend church. People today dismiss the exclusive claim that there can be just one true way**. At the same time 9/11 and the rise of militant forms of religion have fuelled people’s fear that exclusive religious claims seem to lead to violence. You and I might not be perpetrators of this violence but when we make exclusive claims to our colleagues and neighbours, we become tarred with the same brush. People are put off church even if they have never been.
But that says nothing about their spirituality.
We have a name for folks like this:
Huge number of people are “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR)
People are saying No Thanks to organised religion. They are saying No Thanks to what they perceive the church to be. But they are not saying No Thanks to God. They are rejecting a perception – an impression that we (the church) have given.
Theologian and writer Stuart Murray says it’s like this: people have become inoculated to authentic Christianity. They have received a tiny dose of “church” maybe as a child, or via the media, just enough to stop them getting the real thing. They think they have experienced Christianity and are now immune to the Gospel. And yet they remain open to “the spiritual”.
People have become inoculated to Christianity — they have received a tiny dose of church and are immune to the Gospel
This latent spirituality, or what some refer to as “believing without belonging”, is all around us.
We see examples of it frequently. For example the church where I am now saw a surprising number of people making use of a “Prayer Tent” on a community fun day, and similarly high interest in numbers attending a Healing Mission. In both cases people came in who would not enter a church. They were swayed by a tent in a field or something that said “healing” on it. It seems people are rejecting the dogma of organised religion, but are keenly interested in spirituality whether that means Eastern religion, mindfulness, recovering something ancient, or baptising the dog.
But what do we do with SBNR people?
Ann Morisy explains that we are now in a society where we need to step back and discuss the possibility of God before we try to explain the Gospel of God. People no longer know the Bible stories and the connection with a church is distant, even lost. So our Christian witness must be even more relevant, meaningful, purposeful. We need to show this is a way of living well – it works! — before we start talking about a man on a cross.
To be sure, I would go further and say we need to stop answering all those questions that nobody’s asking. People’s questions are not usually about sin or the Bible, or what sort of songs to sing in church. More often they are: Why aren’t all religions the same? Why does God allow suffering? We don’t necessarily have to know all “the right answers”, but we do have to have thought it through so we can respond — without Christian jargon.
And we need to ensure our witness is authentic. Do we have stories of what happened in my life / your life this year, this month that we can share? Nobody can disprove your personal story. Testimonial rather than dictatorial, as someone said.
Morisy also talks about using our buildings to help convey a simple message. Of having symbols in our buildings that speak of “something other”, particularly for those of us in churches that are frequented by community groups. Not a scripture verse – that won’t mean anything — rather something visual. Murals, symbols, candles, opportunities to request prayer, anything that indicates “you have not simply rented the room above the pub, the space you are in is different”.
There are other approaches, eg courses such as Essence which focuses on spirituality, rather than starting with the Gospel, but has a Christian basis.
But most of all we have to understand that people are spiritual, just not in the way we are tuned-in to. We can dismiss these conversations — or these conversations are our opportunities.
This country is not Christian (nor will it be again — let’s get over it)
But millions of people consider themselves to be on a spiritual journey. This is good news!
When the church is on the margins like this it forces us to think in radical and agile ways – as the church has done throughout history and throughout the world in times of significant growth. Sometimes there must be a pruning back for growth to emerge.
Are you ready to meet these SBNR’s where they are at?
I sometimes wonder if the challenge to us as Christians is to ask ourselves a different question: might our churches have become “Religious But Not Spiritual”? This is the perception of the UK population. This is why they discount church.
*Andrew Pratt – former lecturer at Northern Baptist College, prolific hymn writer, and author
** Postmodern thinking is most comfortable with the idea that there are many competing truths rather than one narrative
This survey focuses on established denominations and says nothing about the many churches that are alive and well and growing. Generally, these are “off the radar”. Eg midweek congregations are growing as we face busier lifestyles. Black and minority ethnic churches and fresh expressions of church such as messy church are growing. Interestingly Cathedral congregations are growing as there is a resurgent interest in the ancient. Added to this there is meteoric growth of churches in developing countries, most recently in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.