For my Doctor of Ministry seminar this semester, we are exploring books on ministry and culture. I have been particularly challenged to think differently about church and ministry by Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). In it, she suggests that the church and people of faith are in the midst of an Awakening or a Great Turning that signals that profound changes to Christianity and other faith traditions are upon us. This spiritual discontent, according to Bass, is not necessarily cause for alarm, but rather a strong spiritual attempt at bettering the failing religious institutions in our midst. Bass says when presented with more choices, though, people still need to find out the answers to life’s largest and most basic questions such as What do I believe? How should I act? and Who am I?
For so many Christians, the business of the church has long overwhelmed the mission and kingdom work of the church, leaving its now choice-laden community choosing to leave it for more substantive faith. Bass describes this kind of spiritual longing as a kind of “protest vote” against all kinds of churches – from the most conservative evangelical to the most liberal mainline, and for good reason:
Somewhere these young adults have evidently heard that Christianity is supposed to be a religion about love, forgiveness, and practicing what Jesus preached and that faith should give meaning to real life. They are judging Christianity on its own teachings and believe that American churches come up short. Thus, their discontent about what is may reflect a deeper longing for a better sort of Christianity, one that embodies Jesus’s teaching and life in a way that makes a real difference in the world. (87).
Faith as an obligation is no longer a viable means by which individuals are seeking faith, and being more religious than spiritual is going the way of record players while being both spiritual and religious is coming into vogue. For Bass, this means a deeper introspection that needs to happen for Christians, and she suggests re-imagining what “religion” means in the context of its Latin root (religio, which encapsulates not a list of beliefs or dogma, but an awe and wonder of the spirit in the hearts of humankind).
So – what do we do as people of faith in community?
Bass says that faith cannot simply be dismissed, but perhaps better religion, or new forms of old faiths, can become the vehicle by which we seek our meaning and care for others. Bass suggests that we re-order our faith to better capture this idea of spiritual religiosity. We need to change the order of our expected steps toward becoming full faith community members from believing, behaving, belonging to belonging, behaving, believing. This means a fresh look at each of these steps:
Belief has become a set of doctrines and dogma based on intellectual assent in the last couple hundred years, but some more ancient understandings of belief were much more an idea of trust or “beloving” Experiencing faith from a spiritual perspective means putting away tired habits of doctrinal assent and allowing room for the beauty of reason – a deep understanding, a journey, or a practice – not rationalism with its ideas of a finished doctrinal or philosophical end game to which all must pledge allegiance.
“Behaving” has become the “dull habit” of institutional Christianity that needs to be moved toward better behavior that will reach those disillusioned by faith groups, but it requires an intentionality of practice, purpose, and community. The intentionality of practice will come with some changes in tradition, including borrowing from other denominations and faith groups (which requires careful spiritual discernment by the community, but nonetheless offers a plethora of new ways to approach faith that appeal to a changing culture).
Belonging is the crux and starting point for faith groups (or should be), according to Bass. This is because people are more mobile and fluid with their identities than at any other point in history – we move, we change our name, we live on or off the grid, we choose to change our faith or denomination, we discover and rediscover our roots and our very selves. Bass suggests that this means as faith communities, we must be available to seekers, pilgrims, travelers – not simply assume those with the heritage of this congregation or this denomination will return.
The search for self will never end with science, for we know that we are so much more than our genes or demographics. Bass also suggests that in addition to finding ourselves in God (and God in us), we also find God through the journey and in others. For Bass, much like her feminist foremothers and a myriad of other theologians (including Martin Buber, who famously wrote I and Thou), she recognizes that we can never exist in complete isolation; instead, we are communal creatures, and thus our faith communities should mirror those needs. The spiritual work of the relational self is to recognize that much as we are in, with, by, through (etc.) God – we are also in, with, by, through (etc.) our neighbors.
If, then, we belong first to God and to one another, we begin in a place of desire to belong to a community. Once in this community, one can begin to imitate Jesus through careful watching and learning from others, tradition, and their own parsing of Scripture. Then, belief becomes a declaration of fealty and trust in a relational God, and no longer an obligation to a set of dogma and doctrines.