There is an article floating around my Facebook page that suggests the near death of spirituality in the protestant churches of the United States. In one way it is just another clergy clickbait article. It has one of those titles, after all; "5 Reasons Spirituality is No Longer Important to the American Church!" Also, it comes from a long line of "this is why we are shrinking" complaints and it--although the author points out that we haven't ever really be that good at spirituality in the first place--at least implies a fix . In these ways it fits just the sort of church-story I warn people about.
However, it does underline a problem and it is a serious one. Here is an example; my dad, who isn't a church person at all, told me the other day that he had noticed that a certain type of institution was "picking up the slack" from declining churches. Guess what they were. Were they new age bookstores? Retreat centers? Martial Arts and yoga? Nope. He said they were libraries.
Libraries!? What could he mean by that?
The problem is we know exactly what he means. Libraries are another place--just like churches--that provide non-religious and non-spiritual services. They are a good gathering spot to talk about issues and to get to know people. I have a great one a block from my house. I love it. Dad's implication, of course, was that what libraries do is also what churches do. That is, not spiritual services, but community services. It is hard to view something as a spiritual place or a house of worship if you aren't interested in what those terms might imply. Secular society frequently sees a community center where some of the people engage in magical thinking. To a large extent, this is exactly how we sell ourselves to the world.
That is the problem. Folks inside and outside the church see the congregation in pragmatic terms. It does what libraries do. Or what the salad bar did for single people in the '90's. Where can I meet people? What is the best way for me to impact and improve my community? Where can the kids get that little bit of enrichment--often with very little home reinforcement--that comes from Sunday school? I could go on. We see church as an avenue for good works. What we frequently miss is the spiritual grounding that is supposed to go into those works.
Isn't spirituality supposed to be what the church does best? In my previous post we learned that for Frederick Henry Hedge the "north pole" of the church represents mystical connection to the Divine. The south is for rituals to help us get there. The west draws us to adventure and exploration of ourselves and of the great and wondrous world. The east grounds us in our core beliefs. Many people work hard to situate themselves and their communities on this compass but we are so distracted by the practical bits--rental agreements, the big fundraiser, the fall fair or the new initiative--that we can lose track of why we are doing these things. Church isn't just a place to be busy or to be in some sense a good citizen. We do these things through a congregation because we are spiritual beings trying to live lives that are in some sense religious.
Sometimes I wonder if all our activity actually is part of the problem. Most of the ministers I know work hard to develop their own spiritual paths. Some of them are involved in rituals and pilgrimages. Others are more likely to study or discuss. Virtually all of them try to pray and meditate. They offer these options at their church from time to time. They try to provide explicitly spiritual opportunities for children and adults. Rarely do these programs become popular. There is a small core in each congregation who has the interest and can make the time. There are others who would like to participate as well. Yet we instinctively know what will bring the most people out and the emphasis goes there. When we do this we risk becoming a library without books. Which is to say a library you might visit but are unlikely to join.
I do wonder what the new church will do to lift up this central element of church life. The challenges are many. People cannot (or will not) make it to worship on Sunday morning in the numbers they used to. Other times all seem problematic. Clergy are expected to be a resource on these topics (and are) but few people ever ask them a question. Some people feel that there is so much "important" stuff to think about (like the acquisition and maintenance of money and stuff) which leaves little time to consider the reason we exist, and what makes a just and holy life. The new church will need to find a way to reach out to those folks.
Also, the church needs to figure out a way to cast a line to those people who try to be part of the spiritual life and cannot do it on their own. These are the people who grace our pews when they can. They may think they are there for the coffee and the committee meeting but they aren't. They chose the church (or synagogue or mosque) over the library (or rotary or diner). There is a hunger that may not be fully understood and articulated in each of them.
How does the new church find that hunger? And how do we feed it?
Here are some links...
First, to the article I mentioned: 5 Reasons...
Next, here is a link to my local library. Frankly public libraries are struggling, too. In fact, most places where people gather together for free are having a hard time. Patronize them, and drop some money in the plate. They do good work.
Here are links for other articles in this series
The first one is a "Prequel"
Here is Chapter 1
Here is Chapter 2
Here is Chapter 3