The Church exists, first and foremost, to be the fellowship of those who worship God in Christ. It is, therefore, in this earth, the representation of the life of Heaven. Of course, it is easy for anyone who stands outside to look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven.” Well, that is our own fault and not the fault of the call which the Church has received.
(William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today, the William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, December 17-19, 1935, boldface are the author’s own)
If people who are seeking a deeper connection to what is divine and eternal, and do not see a reflection of higher values in the Church, who is to blame? William Temple, Archbishop of York at the time this lecture was delivered (and thus a senior figure in an established church that still had some reason to believe that it had a moral and spiritual authority over the nation), hit the nail on the had–not just for his own time, but for decades into the future. The Christian message is still excellent, it was in 1935, and it remains so now (although I do think that people engage it differently, emphasizing different aspects than we did almost 80 years ago). But if it is not presented well, or by the life of the assembly, most importantly in their interactions with each other and the world outside of the time set aside for communal worship, then those outside the church have every right to say this is not where they will find the spiritual nurture and community they seek.
And who is to blame? Not God, not Jesus Christ. Those who are in the fellowship of the church who are representing the life of Heaven in ways that people outside the fellowship reject–they may be more responsible for giving the church a reputation that the church doesn’t want. Too often, church “insiders”, whether clergy, lay leadership, or the “average” person in the pew, create problems for the church’s image. It isn’t just the major scandals, like sexual abuse or financial dishonesty, either; nor can it all be blamed on the historic wrongs ascribed (rightly and wrongly) to the church. It can have more to do with a member of a church’s governing body, who regales his or her co-workers with stories of the bitter arguments that happened during the last meeting. Or the new member of the altar guild who feels bossed and belittled by the guild president–because she–and altar guilds have historically been, and remain, over 90% female–who vents to a non-churchgoing neighbor about how impossible it is to please some people, and all the new member really wants to do is serve God and the worshipping community. It can be the architect on his congregation’s building committee, whose expertise is over-ridden to accommodate the whim of the biggest donor. It can be the gossip about the young, single, female pastor who is seen holding hands in the cinema with a man from outside the congregation (clergy ethics almost always forbid single ministers from dating within the congregation). Most of all, it can be about the smugness some Christians demonstrate when they speak to non-churchgoers about the superiority of pursuing a spiritual path within the church, rather than going it alone. So much of what happens in the holy community looks hellish to those who would never enter its doors.
If Archbishop Temple were writing today, what might he have said? I imagine that the quote above could stand almost unchanged, but I will add a bit to it.
The Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are not your problem. They did not cause your church to decline in its membership or giving. They are not why your vestry,consistory, or whatever your governing body is called, is fighting. They are not why members of your congregation do not get along with one another. They are not why your building needs paint, your choir needs new robes, your organ is out of tune, your altar flowers are wilting, or your youth group is not much more than a clique with ugly t-shirts that say “WWJD”. They are not why your pastor is burned out, and taking it out on the congregation.
And that is far from saying that they are looking for a perfect church, with completely godly people who are free from human pettiness, who are always going to be able to conduct their lives together in perfect perfect harmony and flawless grace. People are realistic in their expectations about what human groups are like. If the SBNR, in all their glorious spiritual diversity, are looking for a faith community at all (some are, others are not), they are looking for a place to grow in godliness, amongst people who are also trying to do so, who lovingly help each other to come to some kind of appreciation of the classic philosophical goods of beauty, truth, and goodness than any one individual or group can appreciate. And yet, they want to do it in ways, and amongst people, who appreciate and honor the individuality and gifts they will bring to the community. They want to ask the tough questions about life in a rapidly-changing world, but they also ask the tough questions about why there need to be four churches at the corner of Main and Maple Streets, selling five different versions of Christianity, all hoping to convince people that their way is the best (or even only) way.
The SBNR are also not the solution to your problems. An influx of unchurched people is not going to help you be a better church quickly. Even a wealthy new member is not going to drop a huge pledge on you the second time they attend and solve all your financial woes. If people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they will be looking to feel their way into the community’s life, and find the places where they can participate most authentically, for their own benefit and that of the church. Rejoice at finding them, yes–but everyone (God included) will be better served if you treat them more like lost sheep than lost coins.
However, I would also want to say the following: The Spiritual But Not Religious are not your problem, but they are your concern. Listen carefully to their objections to the church, and for those things that can be changed without compromising the integrity of Christianity, work on them. We are told to “preach the gospel to every living creature.” But we preach an anti-gospel if our churches are places of in-fighting, power struggles, and blame-games where we claim that our problems have causes that don’t make any sense. If we look bad to those outside the church, that is our fault, not theirs.
Not all Spiritual but Not Religious people are looking for a church, and some are not even looking at the church. But if the church wants to reach them, and is not doing so, perhaps it is time to look inward and put some energy into making the life of the Christian community into the representation of heaven which it is meant to be.
Wendy Dackson is a regular author on the blog LayAnglicana..org, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion, and an occasional contributor to Paradoxical Thoughts. This post is reposted with permission from LayAnglican.org. Click here to read the article in its original context.