CHICAGO – Speaking to Christian educators and pastors gathered at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual event in Chicago Jan. 27-30, Lillian Daniel addressed the calling of the church today. Daniel, author of “When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough” and newly called pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Dubuque, Iowa, devoted her time in the morning plenary session on Jan. 28 to explore how the rise of the “nones” is shaping the church.
Daniel noted that research from the Pew Research Center has found that 1 in 5 Americans select “none” from a list of religious affiliations; that figure becomes 1 in 3 when Americans under age 30 are asked. Daniel said these “nones” can be separated into four different groups:
- No way: Will not consider attending church, often in reaction to a genuine hurt.
- No longer: Used to attend church, but doesn’t any more and doesn’t miss it.
- Never have: Perhaps grown children of one of the first two groups, have not been active in a church themselves. These “nones” might say they want their children to figure out religion for themselves. Daniel likened this to parents who want their children to choose the type of literature they prefer, but don’t ever teach their children to read.
- Not yet: Curious about church and may choose to show up. Often, the church treats them like one of the first two groups.
The church is answering questions that no one is asking, Daniel said. She said that many of these “nones” see themselves as spiritual but not religious and come to church wanting to find out what God is all about. But instead of answering their questions about the experience of God, they are directed to information about membership, the denomination or in-depth studies, she said. Instead, Daniel encouraged the church to seize the opportunity to be “rigorous, reasonable and real” in the midst of these conversations. Some of her suggestions included:
- Recover the practice of testimony – Nurture individuals in the congregation to be able to share their own stories so that talk about Jesus does not only come from the pastor.
- Role play – Practice talking about the importance of church and Christian community to the “never haves” and “not yets.” Discuss, “How do you experience God here and can you talk about that?”
- “Pump up” the countercultural areas of the church – Elements of worship like the offering (asking people to part with their money) and the prayer of confession are awkward and uncomfortable. Talk about why it is important to do them together each week.
- Reunite worship and education – “A false divide has been set up between” the two. “Worship is formation and formation is worship.” Education is formational. Pastors need to bring teaching back into sermons since many are not involved in Bible study. Likewise, Sunday school teachers need to give children an experience of God in the classroom, as they may not receive it elsewhere.
Daniel encouraged participants to consider the “needs and aching holes of culture” they see and find ways to be the church and minister in those areas. Anyone can find spirituality and see God in a sunset, she said, but “because of my faith and faith community, I can see God in my deathbed and in my failures.” Perhaps that is beginning to what the “nones” are seeking.