I really, truly heard it for the first time: “I’m not missing something,” she said. “I don’t want you to see me as lacking. I’m perfectly fine without religion.” For some reason, I finally heard this loud and clear at a panel discussion last Friday night at the New England Synod of the ELCA (video forthcoming: http://www.nesynod.org Mad props for attempting to live stream it!)
The professional religious world has been talking a TON about “Religious nones” since the Pew study came out in October 2012 that documented one in five Americans has no religious affiliation and one in three under 30. We’ve been talking a ton. I’m not sure we’ve been listening to “religious nones” as much as we’ve been talking about “religious nones.”
I attend Church meetings professionally. It’s an occupational hazard. Church annual meetings are mostly insider baseball: committee reports, resolutions, budgets. Church annual meetings are a space where you can just print the lyrics and rest assured all the good Church people who’ve given up a Saturday to attend said meeting will know the tune.
The most recent Annual Synod Assembly of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did two remarkable things: It invited ‘outsiders’ to speak to the gathered body and it actually listened to religious nones.
After the resolutions were debated and the work of the day done, newish Bishop Jim Hazelwood moderated an 1.5 hr panel with 6 “religious nones,” sitting in daytime television style, living room chairs before a room of approx. 500 Lutherans on a Friday night. Each of the 6 panelists was invited to participate by a pastor. I think it speaks volumes about the deep and non-judgmental relationships between pastors and their non-religious friends that folks would attend and participate.
It feels reductive to summarize the careful, nuanced responses from the panelists. I hope you’ll watch the video. But some general themes I heard from the panel:
- A perception that Church is an unsafe space for doubt and questioning. The panelists spoke of their high comfort level with not having “all the answers.”
- A deep desire for authenticity. This commitment to authenticity may mean rejecting a singular religious label because it don’t adequately capture the multiple spiritual traditions someone finds meaningful. They named a fear of “being put in a box.”
- A fear of being ‘an impostor.” The panelists spoke of not wanting to do things that they didn’t actually believe in.
- Experiences of feeling overwhelmed by traditional worship services. I heard multiple panelists speak of feeling lost, unsure when to sit and stand, and intimidated. Panelists also spoke of thinking it odd to dress up for Church. As one put it “why should I get up early on a Sunday, get all dressed up, to watch people in weird robes?” This panelist found an easier point of entry with a smaller, Saturday evening service.
- A number of the panelists, though not all, had some religious background. For these people, late teens and early twenties was a turning point in questioning and ultimately, leaving religion.
- A deep, dare I say faithful, commitment to big ideas and values. The panelists had thought a lot about how they wanted to move through the world, how they wanted to live ethically, how they wanted to change their community. They just didn’t feel the need to do it within the bounds of a religious community.
- A fullness to their own life and spirituality. As one panelist said, “I bristle at someone saying ‘I’ve got this thing you are missing.’ as if I’m lacking.”
It makes me deeply sad to hear again and again the panelists articulate a perception that religious communities are intolerant of doubt.
In Bishop Hazelwood’s report the next day, he reminded us that in the mission context of New England, 75% of all people do not participate in any type of faith community. But his big, bold move was this: he challenged the Lutheran pastors to spend 25% of their time talking and listening to people outside their church. And he offered to go meet with any church council that balked at this re-allocation of the pastor’s time. Bishop Hazelwood made sure to say again and again “this panel is something you can do at your church.”
This panel is also something you can do at your denominational annual meeting. In my experience of attending annual meetings, we talk a lot about new mission starts and outreach/evangelism. We talk a lot amongst ourselves. What if 25% of our time gathered thinking about the future of the Church was with people from outside the Church?