I attended a very intellectually stimulating discussion about the Religious Nones and the Emergent Church movement last Sunday and decided to add my own voice to the discussion!
As I listened yesterday, I began to realize that too often, these connected but also wildly discrete topics miss some subtle but also foundational elements. For instance, we are learning a great deal of statistical information about the “nones”—they are not politically active (often they do not vote, in part because of the shift in this country that has led to politics and religious affiliation becoming more visible bed-partners); they are not comfortable with labeling of any kind; they are as likely to come from conservative as liberal, Orthodox or Catholic backgrounds; they are connected socially through technology; they have probably been there for a very long time (Gallup polls and the like only added the category “None” on their religious affiliation questions in 2007! It simply was not an option to check before that.) In general, it is simply more socially comfortable to say “none” than it was back in the 1950’s and even then, specifying church affiliation did not equate with church participation. As interesting as all this is, we folks who are “churched” tend to see this group as those we can “bring back into the fold” without understanding that this stance is equivalent to a missionary going overseas to bring Christianity to the natives—we would rather make strategies and impose our way on this population instead of stepping back and listening to what the fringes are finding out there on the borders and wild lands of what has gone before.
I once asked a church I was working with to seriously open their pulpit to religious “nones” once a quarter and just honestly listen to why folks opt out of any church (and in many cases, ANY religious affiliation or practice). The congregation was horrified, in part, because they could not control what might be said to them. That is a very telling sign of what current writers might call “first half of life” reactions—the stage when we are concerned with the “bowl” of our religious lives. That bowl is made up of tradition, authority issues, identity issues, boundaries and laws (doing it “right”). If we are to meet the religious “nones” on their own turf, it must be in a spirit of second half of life theology and practice: inclusion; boundary-breaking; community service without sense of reward and taking many unusual shapes; selflessness and with a lack of tribalism; and a firm and mature experiential and even contemplative acumen.
Christianity has always been about the fringes, as Richar Rohr so beautifully points out time and time again. It has indeed been the fringe-folk and marginalized that have actually determined the new shape and theology that Christianity has and will take over time, not the established tradition and its heavily invested professional staff. Ministers and other “churched” folks will have to take seriously the injunction to become as “little children” or as Suzuki-Roshi once said, “put on the beginner’s mind” to sit at the knee of the “nones” and allow them to lead us, not the other way around! There is precious little evidence that this is being done, perhaps in part because it leads to a much more difficult question: what is church actually for?
And, ironically, this is perhaps the central question driving the Emergent Church movement as well.
At different times in history and in different theological veins, this question has shifted and changed. Each generation must ask it again, for their time and place in the development of humankind. Certainly, for some, it was the primary way to insure a safe and happy afterlife and stay out of hell. In other times and places, it was primarily an agent for social aid and action (once churches were the cornerstone of healthcare, education, the arts, public assistance and what have you—all elements taken over by our governments now to ensure a broader and more fair and equal delivery of such services). Sometimes, it was a membership card for an active citizen in a community—and unless you were churched, you suffered very real economic oppression and social shunning. Another face the church has worn is the tool or partner of a given political system, a trend we are currently experiencing again as American government tries to identify itself as Christian alone.
So I ask again: what is church for today, here and now, in America?
I hope you will notice the “reasons” for church above are all first half of life constructions—identity, safety, authority, “doing it right”, boundaries and laws. In any given population, these will usually be the main driving force behind most organized religion, but currently, many people are actively challenging and calling into question these old “reasons to be” religious. And in this time of change, both church members and those on the outside are asking, in essence, “is this all religion is?” For some, the clear answer is yes—this is all religion is--and they opt out of the entire enterprise. But many of those who are choosing to stay in the faith (if not necessarily under a given Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic label) have one very important thing in common that most people scratching their head at the externals of the Emergent Church movement miss when they try to understand or even implement the ideas of the Emergent Church in their own pre-existing systems and buildings: It will not matter how much you change the externals of worship, participation, music delivery and membership! First and primarily, you must change the theology of the faith from first half of life concerns to those of the second half of life realizations!
The theology of the best examples of the Emergent Church tends to reflect selfless service not done for God or the Church but because it simply needs to be done; a more interactive, constantly evolving and thinking/feeling theology versus a pat set of answers based on church creed, doctrine and dogmas; a willingness to step back from tradition and open one’s self to new “breaths of the Spirit”; and a commitment to deep inclusion where none are rejected or outcast. This lead to some very real changes—taking the experiences of people of other faiths seriously and even joyfully without losing the touchstone of one’s own spiritual journey; union and walking with the way of Jesus and the consciousness icon of Christ (the Wisdom Jesus movement for example), not merely worshiping or thinking one’s self “less than” or “beholden to” or "glorifying" a savior figure; taking seriously the arts, new media forms and music as avenues more powerful than words and abstract verbal ideas; dispensing more and more with the cult of the personality—the minister up front and exerting control and influence over his or her flock; children as active participants in all the parts of church and not relegated to Sunday school; taking seriously the personal practices and disciplines of a life of faith such as meditation, body prayers, art and journaling; on and on. This emphasizes the importance of a looser ego structure, silence (rather than doing all the talking “to” God), inclusion and boundary breaking. In a sense, this is the deep call of “standing” that is such a critical part of the Gospels and works of a more ancient Christianity like the Gospel of Thomas. It is not about membership, social and political correctness, tribalism and law or personal identity building. The Emergent Church is, I think answering the great question of “what is religion for” with a resounding and exciting idea: just as it is said that the Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath, religion is for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is for the experiential framing of a mature thinking and feeling life, lived in communion with God and others, so it once again becomes true to its roots: Religio: To Bind Back. Bind back this fragmentation, alienation and the tender fears of a new Axial Age people to a center that holds, always and forever, far beyond the vagaries of this building, this tradition, this label, this denomination, this pastor, this nation, this political system, this race, this dogma and creed.