I admit that this is just a hunch. But for nearly fifteen years I have been saying, “I think the future of the Church is going to emerge from the dialogue between our rich historic traditions and emerging spiritualities.”
Much of my work is based on this hunch. It’s also the reason I have chosen to live in the awkward space between the institutional church and the unformed spiritual searching of many of my contemporaries.
Shortly after I was elected to this position a trusted colleague said, “It’s like you are the presbytery’s inside/outside candidate.” What I believe he was referring to was the fact that I am insider in that I have served the PCUSA for more than two decades and I am an outsider in that much of my writing has targeted people who are trying to craft a spiritual identity out of multiple religious options. It seems I have always been a person straddling divergent worlds.
Years ago I conducted a survey of one of our congregations before preaching a series on the shifting religious landscape in America. I based the survey on qualities that Diana Butler Bass had identified as marking the difference between the religious and the spiritual in Christianity After Religion. If I had done this in the broader community the results would not have surprised me. What did surprise me is that 60% of this traditional Presbyterian church saw themselves as more spiritual than religious.
I saw this as a good sign and a hopeful trend for the Church. While many people outside of the church see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” it was reassuring that regular church attendees fell into the camp of “spiritual but attending religious services.” I think the perception is that there are two distinct groups—the religiously faithful who belong to church communities and the spiritually curious who reject religious affiliation.
But the reality is that one cannot draw such clean lines between the two. There is much more overlap than our perceptions allow. Many of the people I have worked with over the years in the church feed their spiritual curiosity on their own. They tell me that they love the church for the sense of community, the commitment to service and, often, the music. They also tell me that they read books and have conversations with friends that they don’t dare share on Sunday morning. And people outside of the church often tell me that they yearn for the kind of community that they see in churches, but aren’t willing to subject themselves to having their beliefs questioned.
My hunch is that the future of the Church already exists. It exists in the overlap between those who have remained committed to the Church, but who keep their spirituality hidden and private and those whose spirituality is outside the center of the Church, but who still yearn for the kind of community that the Church represents.
Many years ago I preached a sermon series on the shifting landscape of American religion and the movement toward identifying more as spiritual than religious. To my surprise, dozens of people identified themselves as already well along in that shift.
I thought I was educating them.
Instead, what I did was liberate them.
I thought I was informing them.
Instead, it turned out, I was freeing them.
The future of the Church is not way out in front of us.
My hunch is that it already exists right here among us.
Are you the future?
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
Unfortunately, Brian, I am part of the problem. I am 85, I like the traditional worship,and I am not creative enough to know what others need. We need more discussion, with those who can see alternatives.
So keep writing. Virtual discussions?
I am very encouraged to read this, Rev. Heron. I have been part of the group for many years now of those who continue to attend church but whose beliefs are broader than those of traditional Christianity and who consider themselves more spiritual than religious. Thank you for this column and for your work in finding a way into the future of the Church.
NIce piece Brian – relevant and well written. As a pastor and therapist I see the distinctions you describe repeatedly. So many folks “outside” the church assume its a place of rote belief, shame, and unwanted political positions. They become caught in emotional reactivity and miss out on all the wonderful community and spiritual growth right under their noses!
Drew Caesar, MSW, LCSW, M.Div
Thanks, Drew. I think this is worth a further conversation. Lunch is on me!