READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (John 3: 14-21)
13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
SERMON “Religious But Not Spiritual” by Rev. Robin Bartlett
The news for church these days is not good. Every time you open the religious section of the newspaper or the internet, the news you hear is all about the “rise of the nones”—“n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-ns”, the folks who check “none” when asked what their religious affiliation is.
One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. And they are growing rapidly. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
The people who do claim religious affiliation don’t attend church as often. Attendance is lowering rapidly. In other words, increasingly, people are just not going to church. Particularly young people, which if you do the math, doesn’t fare well for our church’s future. There is a school of thought that says, “oh, don’t worry, they will come back when they have children.” That has also not been the case according to recent statistics, with Gen Xers and older millennials far less likely than their parents to come back to church after having had children.
These folks are not uninterested in God. 94% of the population still believes in God despite the fact that they no longer go to church. Only 6% of the population claims to be atheist or agnostic. And this would explain why many of the people who claim no religious affiliation also describe themselves as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”
I think this term means many things to many people. And it’s pretty impossible to generalize about this group. For our purposes, lets define the “Spiritual But Not Religious” as folks who long for some sort of spiritual life, or who have some sort of spiritual life, possibly believe in a supernatural being, maybe they pray, or commune with nature, or meditate, but as a whole, they do not choose a community---a church or a synagogue or a mosque—a group of human beings with which to practice their faith. They attempt to live out their spirituality largely alone. And we can’t blame them. The church has gotten a really bad rap. Most younger folks say that they think that the Christian church is synonymous with hatred of gay folks, hypocrisy, and judgment. And that we are boring, stuffy, and out of touch, at best. We have a public relations crisis.
Church growth specialists obsess over this group. They hope that this group will save the church from extinction.
One particularly snarky column on the Spiritual But Not Religious that captured the attention of many people when it came out, going “viral” on the internet is entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious, Please Stop Boring Me.” It was written by UCC minister Lillian Daniel, who often says that she is tired of apologizing for a church she doesn’t belong to. This article was quite controversial, largely because of anxiety about scaring the SBNRs away from Church. Some ministers and church goers adored it, and many worried that it would turn off exactly the people we churches are trying so hard to impress. But Lillian does not shy away from that sort of controversy. She’s a truth-teller, and I warn you that she can be snidely sarcastic. She writes:
"On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and ... did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these (people) inform us that God is in nature. As if we don't hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”
The brave work of real human community, where we have to put up with each other, and hold each other’s hands. That’s what we’re doing every week. No wonder people want to go it alone. What we do is messier."
The root of the word religious comes from the term “religio” which in Latin means to “bind together.” In a world in which we are increasingly worshipping at the altar of self-centered American culture and at the same time dying in the desert of loneliness and isolation, the act of binding together with other people to practice justice, mercy, and kindness is a radical act of rebellion. I admire all of you for bravely showing up here this morning, especially those of you who don’t think you have a spiritual bone in your body. The hard work; the dangerous work; the religious work is simply committing yourself to sticking it out with a group of plain old people.
And your belonging here in this human community, and practicing what it means to be Church together is far richer than the particulars of what you believe or don’t believe.
I have been dreading preaching John 3:16, embedded in the passage we heard today from the New Testament. I have been dreading it because it is perhaps the most familiar passage from the Bible, wildly popular with evangelical Christians, plastered on bumper stickers across America and on graffiti and screen savers, and it is one of the passages that makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I’m sure a lot of you have it memorized, or at least have heard it a lot: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It’s how a lot of Christians, sum up the whole of the Gospels. It’s also how a lot of Christians separate the wheat from the chafe. John 3:16 is how a lot of Christians justify their lack of welcome, or their practices of exclusivity: separating the believers from the non. I have had more than one of you in my office confess that you know you are not a Christian because you don’t believe in bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus is God’s one and only Son. You have taken on John 3:16 as the ultimate Christian faith statement and deemed yourself unworthy or incapable of being Christian. Never mind the fact that Jesus himself says that the two greatest commandments and all of the law and prophets can be summed up thusly: "Love God (the Good) with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."
And I’ve been dreading preaching this verse because it was the verse that made me think that I couldn’t possibly be a Christian, too. What does this verse mean for me given that my best friend from high school converted to Islam, or given that my dad is an atheist? And what about my close friends who are Jewish? A God who condemns those who don’t “believe” Jesus is God is no God I want to worship.
But what if belonging to a religious community that seeks to follow The Way of Love is what it actually means to believe?
Since the Bible was written in ancient Greek, it’s helpful to look at the translation of this word “believe”, which shows up in our Christian scriptures something like 500 times. The Greek word for belief, which is translated as faith, is pistis. Believe is translated from pistevo. The word believe, according to Strong's Greek Dictionary, means: to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing); or, by implication, to entrust, or to rely on.
See how the subtle meaning of John 3:16 changes when we translate the word “belief” more closely:
"For God so greatly loved the world that He gave up His only begotten Son, so that whoever (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Those of you who put your trust in the fact that simply gathering in the spirit of Jesus for the service of humankind—those of you who put your trust in this community with your time and your financial resources --are frankly the truest "believers" I know. You will live on in the hearts of this place, in the great cloud of witnesses, for time immemorium. You will have eternal life.
A couple of Sundays ago, we heard testimony of one of our own beloved church members Janet Baker. She told us that in a lifetime of being deeply embedded in the Christian community, she had always longed to “believe” and could never get herself to. It just never happened for her; the thing that she felt so sure everyone else had that she didn’t. And so she was worried, essentially, that she wouldn’t belong in a community of “true” believers; in a church. She went to our soon-to-be minister emeritus Jonathan Wright Gray and asked him if she could still belong here even though she didn’t believe. He answered in the affirmative. "Yes, yes you can," he said, essentially. And Janet then went on to describe what belonging has meant to her—joining the finance committee, eventually the ops committee, going to La Romana, worshipping every Sunday, serving people food, delighting in all of your joys, praying with you, crying with you when you are in pain. Binding herself together with all of you, which is brave, which is Love. A profoundly religious act. Putting her trust that this community can change the world—a profoundly faithful act. The act of a "believer"; one who "entrusts" and "clings to" the Way of Jesus. I said to Janet, “have you ever heard of the term ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’?” Perhaps you are among the “Religious but not Spiritual.”
It’s possible that Janet, and maybe some of you, actually are the strongest believers I know, because you have put your trust, your reliance, and everything you hold dear, in your care, desire, and love for this world; for these people. Maybe that is what it looks like to truly believe. No matter whether you put your trust in things unseen, or the love of the very real world that you live in--that takes guts; it takes faith.
I want to share this poem with you, because it is one of my favorites, and I think it may articulate for some why some "disbelievers" might go to a church like ours.
Stephen Dunne's "At the Smithville Methodist Church"
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.
O.K., we said. One week.
But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.
It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parent's night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and one in which they had to jump up and down for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along
Friends, it is bravely religious and counter-cultural to show up to church, to put your trust in ancient stories that fed our ancestors from a deeper well than we could create ourselves; to teach your children that God loves them; to put your faith in a good man who helps you to stay on this side of cynicism; that other sadness. It is bravely religious and deeply counter-cultural to try and love people you have trouble liking; to search for God within messy human community; to ride it out and sing along. In a world in which religion is quickly losing its cultural cache and dying on the vine, you give me hope that the need and purpose for church is more alive than it ever has been.
Thank you for being Church to each other, beloved believers. Amen.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.