Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor in Illinois, recently played a page from one of my favorite authors, Seth Godin.
She catered to the passionate.
I doubt this rhetorical approach was intentional, but Daniel's recent commentary on the segment of the population known as "spiritual, but not religious" stirred passion (including my own) across the interwebs addressing public relgion discourse. I had not seen such wide response to any topic in religion among my circles in a few years. Some topics in religion gain more notoriety, usually related to extremist postures, namely Westboro Baptist and Pastor Terry Jones on one end of a continuum, and Christopher Hitchens on the other end. These public figures tend to be the influence leaders in public religion discourse; their conversation paths are well-worn, drowning out thoughtful inquiry about the relationship between faith, religion and society. To find a wedge by catering to the passionate without extremist posturing, Daniel did exceptional work.
To be fair, Daniel has a lengthier post that is not quite as inflammatory addressing the same topic. It still caters to the passionate on a compelling sociological trend. Religion researchers for years have widely studied the demographic and sociological data related to relgious movements. With a growing fascination in more recent years are the anti-movements on the religion spectrum, people who disengage from religious participation. They have been known as the "Nones" or the "spiritual, but not religious (SBNR)." Daniel taps into some indignation about the commonly dreaded airplane conversation about religion. She let her audience know of her boredom with this increasingly common demographic, exhibiting a degree of indignation related to a lack of perseverance toward community. Daniel's use of boredom illicited two response trends--one saying "Amen!" The other was "but all people deserve an opportunity to connect with a religious community regardless of their attitude, and her proclamation of boredom with the SBNR crowd is not becoming of a Christian." I tend to side with the latter response, but I had to let my initial knee-jerk reaction settle a little bit more.
I believe that Daniel's use of rhetoric is admirable considering her audience. She's writing/speaking to Mainline/Oldline Protestants who continue to exhibit a degree of disorientation about their place in society. I believe that the crux of the message to her audience is that community is hard and takes thoughtful and prayerful work. There are no short cuts or community-in-a-box programs that will build strong Chrisitian relationships and groups. For those who have disengaged from religion, there is probably a story along the way (sometimes shared on airplanes) of a wound or two (or more) inflicted by a congregation, pastor, fellowship group, etc., which caused that relationship to fray and eventually sever. Sometimes congregational systems overemphasize peace and harmony at the expense of the difficult work of redemption and restoration. I believe it is an appropriate message to Mainline/Oldline Protestants that community is hard, but the benefits are worth the work. However, I'm not sure that the affirmation of the challenge of community should be over and against the SBNR demographic.
From a sociological standpoint, I think it is detrimental to relgious public discourse to paint the SBNR demographic picture with minimal brush strokes (God-in-the-sunset-love and fear of commitment). Many different variables come into play. Regional differences and other demographic variables can affect what SBNR means. There is a difference between the responses about Daniel's writing in Christian publications and websites and an internet journalism (Crosscut) commentary based out of Seattle. The Crosscut commentary reflects (anecdotally) the open religious marketplace that is the Pacific Northwest, which happens to be my particular context. Religion can work like politics and real estate; you can ignore local idiosyncracies, but at your own peril.
The core of what bothered me about Daniel's presentation depicts a prevalent attitude of "liberal" Christian church leaders observed by University of Washington religion scholar James Wellman in his research of Mainline/Oldline Protestants ("religious liberals) and Evangelicals in the Pacific Northwest:
"...while liberal leaders might complain that the [Pacific Northwest] had no tradition of church going and tended to discount organized religion per se, evangelical leaders would often comment whith excitement about untapped opportunities in the region." James K. Wellman, Jr. Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest p. 49.
Daniel's experience echoes some of my interaction with leaders in my Lutheran tradition in the Pacific Northwest (even though Daniel's congregation is in Illinois) that somehow the Christian church is entitled to a place in society as a beacon of example for what it means to be community (these PNW examples are for another post). Again, I think local conditions apply--that kind of trust of a congregation in a community must be earned, not assumed because a congregation has a steeple that pierces the skyline. I know the congregation I serve is not for everyone. But I also appreciate the opportunities I have to connect with my neighbors and proclaim the Christ I know with my words and actions. It's possible I may show that I'm bored with someone's faith experience on occasion, but I also appreciate the opportunity for redemption with my neighbor.