Monday, September 19, 2011

Spiritual, But Not Religious: Local Differences May Apply

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.


  1. One of the more thoughtful posts on this "controversy" that I've read.

    In the end, whatever the intent, the basic message of a piece like Daniels' is "I/we am/are better than them." In my opinion, that attitude is a big problem for Mainline churches. My own church is currently struggling with problems and issues that are, I think, to a large degree due to being taught and internalizing that "better than them" message. There is nothing wrong with being proud of oneself or one's community; in many cases we have reason to be. But when that pride begins to be expressed in comparison to what we as a community or individual (guilty!) think others lack, Gospel becomes Judgement, and the opportunity to invite or be invited by others to the party is lost.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tracy. Rhetoric is tricky. Audience and context matter. We have some interesting intersection of contexts in this episode of religion public discourse. I think it's a net win, if only that in this topic we've moved away from polarities for but a few days. I hope Daniel publishes some sort of follow up. I must admit, I'm more interested in what she has to say since she wrote these pieces. She pulled off inspiring a good public discussion without completely alienating her readers. That takes some serious skill and a level of public trust--which are good leadership qualities. The compelling question is the trajectory of SBNR discussion, if there is any.

  3. I agree that it's a net win. And "rhetoric is tricky" gets my vote for Understatement of the Week. ;-)

  4. Good analysis of the issue, Joe. Fair and balanced, as FOX likes to pretend but you deliver. Lillian's writing can be snarky at times, which is something of the style of the prophets. She's confessional too, even to the point where it makes one cringe a bit. Like the comment about being bored by the SBNR crowd. She actually grew up without strong church identity and was drawn into community by the Mainline. Her own path shows the hard work of loving people who took her in and continued to give her opportunity, even though she didn't grow up with the pedigree. She has a quirky voice and a poignant pen for the church. Even when it causes a sandstorm, the dust settles and the path seems clearer.

  5. Thanks for reading and commenting, George. I can relate to the Mainline (Lutheran) pedigree issue--I've felt I've lacked it at times because I haven't been a Lutheran all of my life, nor did I attend a Lutheran college. I've even received grief during my seminary training and service in the Midwest because I came from the Heathen West. I've operated with a chip on my shoulder at times because of it, and I've been known to deliver some snark. I can also relate to generous Mainline people taking me in and giving me an opportunity to experience grace and faith in community. I think Daniel and I have more in common than differences, and I am thankful for the discourse in general. Though SBNR live everywhere, I've learned that in comparing serving in the Midwest to the Northwest that I could survive in the church and ignore SBNR in the Midwest. In the Northwest, that seems impossible.

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