Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reaching the "Religiously Unafiliated" (Dialogue Column 5.5.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I have a great collection of books, articles and seminar materials on reaching the “unchurched”—people who are not active in a community of faith. Generally, these resources sit and gather dust on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets, because the strategies they offer—at least in my mind—are little more than gimmicks and fads. Trends come and go regarding changing worship styles, adding certain types of programming or adopting a new strategy for evangelism. Although there may be bits of wisdom to be found here or there in this stuff, I find most of it to be fluff put out there by a thriving economy of speakers, publishers and authors. The theology in these resources is usually shallow and so are the principles they profess.

The only church growth I’m interested in is spiritual growth. If the members of a church—say, our church for instance—are growing in their relationships with God and each other, then God will provide the number of members God wishes to provide. Bigger is not always better—quantity does not necessarily equal quality, however, I do believe that if a church is striving for authenticity and doing so with humility, the number of people showing up will increase. Recent polling data regarding the religious affiliation of Americans bears out my opinions.

You may have seen headlines about the recent surveys done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which discovered that the number of people who are “religiously unaffiliated” is growing. Although it is becoming more socially acceptable than in previous years to self-identify as an agnostic or an atheist, generally the “religiously unaffiliated” are anything but hostile or indifferent towards religion. Most have a very positive view of religion in general but just have not found the right religious group to connect with. Furthermore, the surveys revealed that among people who were raised with no particular faith, a majority have chosen a faith as an adult and most of that group became Christian of one kind or another.

The results show a hunger out there for religious belonging, so why are there more unaffiliated people now than before? The respondents said across the board that their main reason for not affiliating with a religious group currently is their perception of religious groups in general—and Christianity in particular—as judgmental and hypocritical. Also, people who were raised in a particular faith but who do not currently claim one cite judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy as their main reasons for their status. In other words, the reason people without a church do not have one has largely to do with their experience of churches as hostile to them and unable to live up to their own standards.

This is why I believe numerical growth—if it is to come and if it is to have any real significance—can only follow spiritual growth. If people of faith can develop a community that seeks to be an authentic expression of the Gospel of Christ, then doing so necessitates humility on the part of its members and leaders. If people in a church—say, First Christian Church of St. Joseph—can understand themselves as imperfect people who have nonetheless been accepted and forgiven by a loving God, then I believe that humility and honesty will translate into openness towards others who likewise are aware of their own imperfections and need for God. The understanding that one has been accepted by God, in spite of one’s mistakes or inadequacies AND not because of one’s achievements or material possessions, leads to an acceptance of others under the same conditions. This type of openness and acceptance is what the “religiously unaffiliated” are looking for.

Furthermore, I believe it is the job of any church that is worth its salt (pun intended) to combat the perception of Christianity as a judgmental and hypocritical religion, and that can only be done through a humble approach to one’s self and a gracious approach to others. There are people in our community who only know churches to be condemning and hostile. Are we as a church willing to show them a different face to Christianity? Doing so may literally be a life-saving or at least life-transforming enterprise for everyone involved.

This week, we continue our Season of Prayer by praying for God to show us what groups of people in our community are without a church and could use a community of love and grace. We are asking for God to show us who these people are so that we can be such a community to them. We do so not for the sake of numerical growth but because our own spiritual growth demands a faith that embraces people who are “religiously unaffiliated” but who wish to belong to a community that will accept them as they are. Will First Christian Church be that community for them?

Grace and Peace,


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