Christianity in America is experiencing a time of crisis and upheaval. No big surprise there, right?
No one is shocked that in American churches the pews are becoming more and more empty, and the people occupying those seats are becoming more and more gray. This is not a new phenomenon — I remember the old folks in church back in the ’70s and ’80s bemoaning the same thing — but social media, the vox populi of our time, continues to shine a spotlight on this growing concern within the Church.
But it’s not just about the Church or church people. It’s about everybody who is “looking for more” than what is being served up in local churches.
Rise of the “Nones”
Recently, the term “Nones” has become popular in discussing the demographic in the U.S. who do not identify with any religious affiliation. And their numbers are growing. In 2017, a Pew Research Center poll found that roughly one-quarter (27%) of Americans identified as “Spiritual but not religious” — up 8 points since 2012. And the number of those who thought of themselves as “Religious and spiritual” dropped 11 points from 59% to 48% in the same period. Interestingly, Pew also found that nine out of ten Americans still believe in God or some other higher power.
What these numbers suggest (and declining church attendance confirms) is that while Americans are still largely a “spiritually” attuned people, a significant percentage are disenchanted with institutional religion, particularly Christianity.
In the past, from what I heard growing up in church, this was largely blamed on liberal or anti-religious trends in higher education. But “secular” public education can’t be the scapegoat anymore. More recently, the main reasons appear to be doubts and questions about religious teaching, opposition to the social and political positions taken by churches, dislike of religious leaders or organizations, or a disbelief in a tribal or religion-specific God.
Given the overall general disgust among non-conservatives over Evangelical support of President Trump and his regressive policies, it is not difficult to see these reasons in action. When approximately half of white mainline Protestants (and nearly 70% of white Evangelicals) continue to support Trump (after 80+% of white Evangelicals voted for him in the 2016 election), the anger and distrust of people who claim to represent a loving and compassionate God seem justified.
What spiritually-minded people see when they look at this country is a nation-politic that is corrupt, devoid of decency, full of greed and self-interest, feeding a hotbed of bigotry, fear, xenophobia and civil aggression. This, at a time when the Evangelical church is at the height of its dogmatic influence, when it boasts an absolute clarity and certainty about what it believes, what is right and what is wrong.
The problem is not simply a matter of shrinking congregations, nor even the negative light in which Christianity is perceived. These are symptoms of the sickness. The problem – the cause of these symptoms – is a lack of authentic spiritual depth on the part of people claiming to represent God. They have a propositional knowledge of Scripture and the faith, and even a liturgical loyalty, but demonstrate an almost consumerist superficiality when it comes to a spiritual “way of life.” This is one of the recurring themes coming out of interviews with millennials and “nones.” When religious belief is separated from ethical behavior, all that results is a deadly form of rigid legalism and a hollow spirituality that satisfies no one. Those outside the Church see the problem clearly even if those of us in the pews and pulpits do not.
For example, one article making its rounds in social media recently written by a self-identified “millennial, Christian, Ex-vangelical” describes her (and her friends’) distaste for the faith she grew up in. She labels herself “Anything But Christian.” This is a particular flavor beyond simply “None.” It represents an openness to religion or spirituality, but a distinct rejection of Christianity. Why? She wasn’t rejected from church or family. She doesn’t identify herself as LGBTQ or atheist, nor were her reasons particularly political.
It was the faith’s lack of transformative power and authenticity which she (and her friends) could no longer tolerate. Emma Copper writes:
Why should we be Christian? We see Christian fathers who still verbally abuse their sons. We see Christian women so shriveled and insecure we wonder if there’s still a person left in there. We see Christian pastors who molest girls and boys in their congregation. This is what we see: Christ has done nothing for them — or at least, not enough.
Many of the non-Christians we know are far more loving, far more alive. If no-Christ has made them people we’d love to be, while Christianity creates people we beg to never be… then why should we be Christians?
Christianity hasn’t changed those Christians’ lives.
Or as a Christian friend told me recently, his Buddhist neighbor is a better “Christian” than most Christians he knows.
It is the lukewarm, milquetoast experience of Christianity sadly all too common in the U.S. these days that offers nothing of value to those looking for “the Real.”
A few years back, Evangelical Gen-X darling, Rachel Held Evans said something similar. She recounted how she was frequently asked to speak to pastors and church leaders about why millennials are leaving the church:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.
I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.
According to Evans, it is Evangelicalism’s country-club ethos, its callousness to the needs of the world around them, its rigidity, sex-negativity, and exclusivity that turns away younger God-seekers.
(In an almost comical afterthought, typical of the church’s clueless response to this information, she adds, “Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …’”)
As the “Ex-vangelical” put it, “We don’t want social circles. … We want our lives to be overturned. The world is cruel. We battle with fear and hurt on a daily basis. We tread water, desperate for the answer to life. We want something that will finally give us the answer. We want something we’d suffer torture for. We want something more real than a thesis in our heads.”
“We crave the divine. We crave power. We crave something infinitely-beyond human. We crave God.
When we walk into your churches, we are on tiptoe, dying of thirst, willing to die for a finger-brush with the divine.”
In other words, they want what is Real. “We crave the divine. We crave power. We crave something infinitely-beyond human. We crave God. When we walk into your churches, we are on tiptoe, dying of thirst, willing to die for a finger-brush with the divine.”
Hungry for Ritual
There is another component to this dissatisfaction that must be identified as well. It is the lack of ritual, of lifestyle that matches an authentic spirituality. Social justice and an eco-sensitivity, of course, are part and parcel of that all-embracing lifestyle they are expecting. But more than that, born and raised in a culture which emphasizes individuality, independence, and freedom from restrictive structure, millennials and young adults are seeking that very structure which gives their lives definition.
Peter Senge, a world leader in organizational management and systems thinking, once asked a conference of pastors why the most popular books sold about spirituality related to Buddhism and not Christianity. In response to their blank stares, he offered his opinion that it is because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, while Christianity is presented more often as a system of beliefs. “So I want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life, because that’s what people are searching for today. That’s what they need most.”
This insight, though stated over a decade ago, is just as valid these days. A recent New York Times article about a project called “Nuns and Nones” where “religion-free” millennials move into convents with nuns, reveals that these millennials often find what their souls have been hungering for. They were drawn to the discipline and the notion of sacrifice demonstrated by the nuns. They even began looking at the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in a new light that had implications for their secular convictions. As one of them put it, “It’s less about building anew; it’s more about remembering.” These millennials were looking for “a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system.” One of the nuns expressed amazement at what drove these nonreligious adults: “So many of the millennials would say, ‘I’m looking for rituals. I’m looking for rituals to work in my lesbian community or social justice or I need rituals for this other thing….” They wanted a “road map for life,” not just good biblical theology.
Again, there’s nothing new to this. It is what fueled the creation of the “Centering Prayer” movement back in the 1960s. Father Thomas Keating recalled how so many young people would stop by his monastery asking directions for a nearby Buddhist retreat center. When he asked what they were seeking there, they would inevitably respond (in the lingo of the Sixties), “A path, man! We’re seeking a path.” Many of them raised in Christian homes seemed unaware that Christianity even offered “a path,” yet they instinctively knew what they were looking for: a spiritual practice that actually changed the way they perceived reality and lived their lives.
If we take the combined testimony of these various stories seriously, the church in America is in grave danger, and has been for quite a while. General dissatisfaction with institutional religion has been on a slow burn for quite a while, but it’s now reaching boiling point. American Christianity has failed as a transformative force on the cultural and individual level. It has failed to produce change in the lives of its adherents, and it has failed to offer a genuine sense of community, belonging, and lifestyle necessary for forming a healthy spiritual identity.
What will it take for Christianity to survive in the 21st century? I think it will require a complete change in popular understanding of what the faith actually means and what it does. Life in the church must change. It must recover what it has always struggled for, and what it has only occasionally lived up to: offering a way of life that encounters the Divine and is transformed by it. A life that demonstrates that transformation by how it is lived in the world.
To accomplish this, I believe only a few adjustments are required:
1. a shift toward a more sacramental, incarnational theology in the church — a faith and worldview that experiences God in all things, in all areas of life, and understands that we are embodied expressions of that divine presence; that God and earth are not separate realities; and
2. a return to the historic spiritual practices that can not only change the individual but also provide a greater sense of connectivity with each other — that is, connect with God, form a sense of self and identity, and find place within community and the rest of the world.
The goal is a more deliberate centering on the dual commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus, confirming the common rabbinic belief of his day, stated that upon these two concepts hang all the Law and the Prophets (Mt 22:36-40). They are the epitome of what it means to be godly, what it means to live a spiritual life.
At the heart of Christianity’s “authenticity” issue, as with any religion for that matter, is its claim to have direct access to God. No spiritual exercise or system of exercises can promise that connection. All they can do is create a receptive space for us to make ourselves available for the presence of God to meet us.
The Bible records a number of such encounters – theophanies – from the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden, to the Patriarchs and Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and the New Testament saints. God shows up, often unexpectedly, on the scene, usually terrifying the person involved, and the encounter leaves an indelible effect on that person’s life — think, Moses and the Burning Bush, Gideon hiding in a pit, Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. In later Christian contemplative traditions, these encounters are invariably described as “favors” or “visitations” of God, initiated at God’s pleasure and by God’s grace. As Brian McLaren, one of the fathers of the emerging church movement, explains, these mystical encounters are gifts from God,
never tricks conjurable by magic incantations or esoteric arts. They are mysteries that can never be reduced to equations or formulas or techniques. And this distinction—between gifts, mysteries, favors, or visitations on the one side and tricks, magic, equations, formulas, and techniques on the other—makes all the difference in the ancient way of spiritual practice.
This at the same time is both a source of great frustration and great relief to those seeking a deeper encounter with God. There is nothing a person can do to “make it happen.” All we can do is make ourselves ready and available. The rest is up to God.
The practices which lend themselves to these types of divine encounters fall into a certain “contemplative” category of exercises. However, other activities cultivated for transformational effect help condition us for a more mature and spiritually attuned life, and involve improving self and directing benevolent action toward others. To round out meditation and contemplation, three other types of spiritual disiplines are common in forming a holistic spiritual life: examination (as in the examination of our lives), denial and simplifying life, and action (like social justice, and just being a decent person in society). Together, they form a complete “path” for an authentic and transformative spiritual lifestyle.
The good news is that these types of exercises fall more readily under direct human control. These are things we can do, and – another positive – there is benefit in the exercise of these spiritual practices in their own right. While they cannot conjure God, they can have a transformational effect on us when practiced consistently, and they can create a heightened awareness of the presence of God already active in the world and among us.
We can effectively reshape our own thinking, our perspective, our desires, our way of seeing and interacting with the world. It’s not magic; it’s neuroscience. It is the way we are designed.
Reprogramming our brains
Our brains are constantly forming new neural connections in response to learning and training, even into old age. This “neuroplasticity,” the ability of the brain to physiologically change itself as a result of stimuli, occurs through introducing new experiences and activities. And the more we intentionally repeat the new activity, the stronger the new neural networks become. We can literally change how we think and how we see ourselves by changing what we do.
Current research in neuroscience and spirituality, particularly in relation to prayer, meditation and mindfulness practices, consistently show that long-term contemplative practices enhance neural functioning of the brain in ways which improve physical and emotional health, generate a sense of peace and compassion for others, increase social awareness, improve memory, control mood, give rise to conscious notions of self, and shape sensory perception of the world. In short, what we do shapes us.
Long-term contemplative practices enhance neural functioning of the brain in ways which improve physical and emotional health, and generate a sense of peace and compassion for others
Just as an athlete can change the shape and performance of the physical body through training and repeated physical activity, so can the spiritual athlete shape and condition her own character and soul through repeated spiritual exercises.
It is important to note here that we are not talking about methods of self-empowered “salvation.” From an Evangelical perspective, salvation – restored eternal relationship with God – is a gift of grace from God made possible through the work of Christ, not of human effort. What we are talking about is cooperating and participating in that grace, or as the Apostle Paul put it, “working out our own salvation.” From the perspective of the “Anything But Christian” millennials, this is the part most conspicuously absent from American Christianity.
So what then are these missing spiritual practices that cultivate an authentic spiritual experience and lifestyle?
A wide range of spiritual activities have been practiced since ancient times, some going back 5500 years or more. Wall art in India, for example, depicts people in meditative positions with half-closed eyes, dating from approximately 5000-3500 BCE. The Hebrew Bible records Isaac “meditating” in a field when his bride Rebecca arrives from Haran. After the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews were commanded to contemplate (keep in their hearts and repeat) and “meditate” on God’s instructions day and night, so ruminating on holy texts also has a long documented history. Prayer, of course, to God/gods is as old as humanity, as is the practice of sacrifice – though in more modern times, sacrifice is viewed more as a form of giving up something valuable for a greater good than the blood ritual of animal slaughter. Routine times of self-denial, particularly fasting and dietary restrictions, as well as commemorating holy days and honoring holy places are all religious customs worldwide dating back to ancient times.
Many of these cultic customs, especially as inherited from the Hebrew/Jewish traditions, were continued by the early Christian Church. And as the Church spread from Judea to the Greek-speaking world, other practices from the Greek philosophical schools were gradually absorbed.
These activities – whether cultic, ethical, or philosophical in nature – appear across all major world religions. So what makes them particularly “Christian” is when they are situated and redefined within the Christian theological narrative. That is, God/Spirit/Truth/Totality is viewed as “God, the Father” of the Christian Trinity. The presence of the divine in the world is understood as the “Holy Spirit.” And the model of human perfection who lived out this fully-connected state is Jesus Christ. Beyond being and doing what aligns with “the Good,” these practices are “Christian” when they are pursued in conformity to the person and teachings of Jesus. They not only awaken us to greater moral and ethical consciousness, but also reaffirm and strengthen our connectedness to God-in-Christ. For the Christian believer, the ultimate goal of these exercises is to conform/transform us into the image of Christ who is the image of the Eternal God.
From its earliest days, the Church has practiced a wide variety of spiritual practices for the purpose of enhanced communion with Christ and personal transformation. But since the Reformation in the 1500s, Protestants (and particularly Evangelicals) have eyed these practices with suspicion. It is as if human exercises designed to enhance spirituality were seen as either “magical” or even a form of “works-based” righteousness – two perspectives largely attributed to the abuses of the historic Roman Catholic Church. In recent decades, this suspicion has shifted to association with Eastern religions and the New Age movement which consistently include some of these practices as a way of life.
But after years of neglect and suspicion, spiritual practices made a resurgence on the American religious scene after the introduction of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline in 1978. It was as if he’d invented them specifically for the modern church. His book has undergone a number of editions, and was named among the top 10 religious books of the 20th century by the evangelical Christianity Today magazine. Foster lists 12 specific practices beneficial to the Christian’s spiritual growth: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration — all evident in the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels.
So, for the Christian, this seems like the best place to start to build for ourselves a healthy “spiritual lifestyle” — imitating Christ. In Part 2 of this post, we’ll take a quick look at the some of the Spiritual Practices of Jesus. The goal is to recreate for ourselves a Christian spirituality lifestyle that is so painfully absent in American Christianity — and so desperately sought by those hungering for a deeper, more meaningful life.