I hear it a lot: “I am spiritual but not religious.” When I was a full time church pastor, these words bugged me. They don’t so much anymore. Now that I am retired, I don’t always go to church and I see things from a slightly different perspective.
I am familiar with all the arguments against church participation. The church is full of hypocrites. Truth be told, few of us are completely consistent in our actions and professed beliefs. The church can be petty. The church often bears witness to people at their worst, especially when there are conflicts. The church can be exclusionary. Often the church is not a place of hospitality for those in need but a place where you have to conform to be accepted. The church is sometimes irrelevant. The more the church stays the same, the more irrelevant it becomes. As the old saying goes, “the church fiddles with her skirts while Rome burns.” The church and its language are anachronistic at best. It’s hard for many to get excited about worship when most of the music is by people who have been dead for two hundred years, and the dust in the rafters is almost as old as dirt.
Still, there are things about the church that I value. For example, learning from people I don’t particularly like isn’t easy. However, the only hope we have of learning to live together in the world as a whole begins with the people who get under our skin. Being with people who are different than we are is a lesson in unity which is not to be confused with uniformity. I value the sacraments and the reminder that I my life is about more than “me and mine.” In baptism we become part of a wider community. Every time I witness a baptism I commit myself to the child and family to help them grow to maturity in faith and actions. Sitting at the communion table, sharing cubes of bread and thimbles of grape juice is a reminder of the community of people around the world who are joined together by similar beliefs and commitments. In communion we re-member and put together what has been broken apart. We focus on what makes us one and not what makes us separate. The church at its best is a community that calls us beyond the hypocrisy, pettiness and irrelevance to become the beloved community.
Sure, all of this may be just nostalgia and BS on my part. Let me know what you think about this. But I think there is more to church than the nonsense of the institution and the pettiness of its people. At its best the church is a gathered community where people come to be encouraged, challenged, comforted and spurred to growth. If we “do” church “right” we see that all the great religions of the world lead to the same place. The message is universally about love, care for one another and God’s creation and a world where everyone has enough. Most of the time we don’t do it right, so we build walls of prejudice and misunderstanding instead of bridges of commonality and a shared vision for humanity.
There is a danger in going our separate spiritual ways, because there is little to challenge and ground us in something larger than our own beliefs. We are set adrift in a complicated world with just our own little rubber raft floating in the small sea of our own understanding. Church is one answer but there are others.
I believe we need communities of practice where we find the kind of nurture and confrontation that helps us see our blind spots. I believe we need to be with people who are like us and people who are different from us. Consistency in what we believe and how we live matters. Being spiritual but not religious has its strengths and limits. The church also has its strengths and limits. We each have to find what is right for us. Anyone who seeks a vital faith needs others to keep growing.