Spiritual but Not Religious

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
November 14, 2019

Last week I was privileged to spend some Continuing Education time, together with Tammy, learning about the rapid rise in our culture of those who count themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  The conversation was led by Linda Mercadante, a Presbyterian minister and theologian who has studied this phenomenon extensively, publishing her findings in a widely acclaimed book, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Mind of the Spiritual but not ReligiousShe cites numerous demographic studies documenting this dramatic reorientation of our religious landscape, noting that while most Christian denominations are declining in membership, membership loss is especially pronounced among Catholics and Mainline Protestants. That is, among us. Meanwhile, the population of those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” is soaring. Much of her analysis derives from data gathered by the massive Pew Religious Landscape Study published in 2014.

Mercadante determined to listen to the stories of those who have moved from institutional Christianity, or have never had a religious background, but still consider themselves “spiritual.” Most who used to be with us left us not in anger or hurt, but simply because they perceived us to be irrelevant to them, and out of touch with the most pressing social, political, and existential issues of today. They came to believe that church was of no value to them, and they could better pursue their spiritual interests and theological questions alone, or through new places of connection such as meditation groups, yoga classes, or other non-institutional self-improvement clusters.

Some analysts, such as Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer, have suggested that these trends portend the extinction of mainline Protestant denominations within the next two decades. I believe the obituary of our church is premature.

This is not to ignore our very real problems. Mercadante contends that the biggest contributor to this wave of departures is the church’s waning attentiveness to the spiritual formation of its members. A brief membership or confirmation class is not enough to make someone a committed disciple of Jesus. We need both to teach more about Christian faith and life, and to provide venues where that way of life is practiced in the company of fellow-disciples. Many of our congregations do a wonderful job of disciple-making, and continue to flourish as communities of faith. They do this both through instruction in the faith and mobilizing members for mission engagement.

A recent study of denominational membership trends discovered that one feature stood out among those few denominations that are bucking the decline trend – in stable and growing denominations, members are expected to participate in at least one weekly church activity beyond the main worship service. It may be a prayer group, a Bible Study, or a fellowship group. It may be singing in choir or working in a social justice ministry. Whatever its particular shape, participating in a gathering of believers to learn and live out Christian discipleship was strongly correlated with member retention.

According to the Book of Order, the session is responsible not only to assure that the congregation hears the Word rightly preached and receives the Sacraments duly administered, but also to “nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ.” This includes “providing programs of nurture, education, and fellowship,” as well as “leading the congregation in participating in the mission of the whole church.” (Book of Order G-3.0201) How does your session live out these mandates?

The reasons people leave our communities to self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are manifold. But the one that stands front and center, according to Mercadante’s research, is broad failure in many of our faith communities to nurture our members in lived Christian discipleship. She contends that if we are to address the needs articulated by the “spiritual but not religious,” we need to offer “good, whole, relevant theology, delivered in a language that makes sense to them.”

Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew, is to “make disciples of all nations, …teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20The Message brings this disciple-making mandate into sharp focus by rendering Jesus’ commission as follows: “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life…”

In the first few centuries of the church’s life, before Christianity became the official religion of Rome, training of new believers began with three years of instruction and supervision in the Christian way of living. Only after that were people baptized as members of the church. While such a practice may seem impossible in our place and time, we should note that it was under that way of living out the Great Commission that the church grew from a tiny sect of Judaism to a world-wide movement. How we can better fulfill our Lord’s mandate to make disciples, and not simply members?

Your fellow-disciple,

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