Our "Spiritual" Problem

For the past few weeks, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been sharing a series of new memes on social media. The goal as I understand it is to reboot the "God is Still Speaking" campaign of a decade ago, and to let those outside of our churches know how inclusive we can be of people who have experienced rejection in other places for a multitude of reasons, or who are wondering whether there's really a place for them in the church at all.

I've appreciated some of these memes, and have been happy to share them in various places.

But then there are others like the one above. And while I just ignore most of those that have made me cringe or with which I've disagreed, this one caused a pretty strong reaction within me because it reflects several things about the UCC--and perhaps by extension most mainline denominations--that I just can't shake off.

Granted, I am not the target audience for these. I admit that. And it may be that those for whom this is  meant find it intriguing, or meaningful, or inviting. If that is the case, I am glad.

But this particular meme has also set off an internal conversation among colleagues and laypeople alike, and all of it seems to center on the word "spiritual." At least two problems within the UCC have been exposed thanks to the above graphic, which have caused no small amount of impassioned debate.

First, a little background. Some readers know that I am a certified spiritual director. I've long been nurturing an interest in spiritual practices and traditions and in sharing them in both local and wider church settings. For a long time, I've credited a class that I took my very first semester at a UCC seminary for planting these seeds of interest within me.

It occurred to me just this week that those seeds were actually planted slightly earlier, during the few years that I participated in evangelical and non-denominational groups and was heavily influenced by the beliefs and practices of those communities. These settings were expressive, allowed for the showing of and tapping into emotion, and encouraged forms of personal prayer and devotion that I hadn't experienced prior to that. During these years I discovered an entire realm of possibility for faith development and discerning God's presence I wasn't aware existed.

I have been a member of the UCC my entire life. I was born and raised in this tradition. Both my parents have ministered in local churches and volunteered in judicatory settings. I attended UCC-affiliated schools for my undergrad and graduate degrees. I've been a part of many different churches in this denomination that have nurtured, supported, and influenced me in so many life-affirming ways.

But I had to go outside the tradition to discover forms of prayer, worship, and practice that weren't intellect-based and liturgically verbose.  As much of a mixed bag as those years were for me, I can see that that is where my interest in spirituality began. A single elective class at my denominational school watered the seeds, but they were planted elsewhere.

This has been my experience of how the mainline church approaches spirituality: a single course here, a token nod there. But for the most part, the spirit that carries the day in most of our settings is if it doesn't originate from the mind or can't be expressed verbally or in print at great length, it can't be trusted. The truth is that the methods available to us to grow in our relationship with God as known uniquely in Jesus are far more numerous than many have considered.

The second problem I see reflected by this meme is our misunderstanding of "spiritual" people in general, and it flows from the first problem. Many have reacted to the above picture due to its use of "spiritual" in place of "Christ." My colleague Emily Heath has laid out the case for not replacing it, and I think that statement is a fine one. She makes some great points about foundational identity that we as a denomination should be talking about.

But my concern here is how, in reacting to this replacement, we risk identifying those we're trying to reach. Many within the church assume that to be spiritual is to not really believe anything. Such an accusation has been leveled at the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) for years now, and some of my UCC colleagues have helped encourage that narrative. Because the SBNR category can be so diverse and difficult to define, many assume that it must just be the adopted moniker of the lazy. Can't be bothered to get up early enough on Sunday morning? Call yourself SBNR. Can't bring yourself to really think all that hard about your beliefs about God? Call yourself SBNR.

A certain percentage of those identifying as SBNR may truly take this route. But you don't know until you go one person to the next and ask. And if you do, prepare to be surprised by the knowledge and stories they may end up sharing with you. Their experiences of the divine may be rich, deep, diverse, and outside the church norm, from which we may greatly benefit from hearing.

Maybe clinging to these assumptions about SBNR people is the truly lazy option.

Beyond that, people from within the church are offering up this meme in an attempt to appeal to those who claim the statement "I'm a very spiritual person." As such, it doesn't seem very genuine. I don't think that we on the inside, particularly with the traditions and sets of assumptions with which we've operated since our inception nearly 60 years ago, really know what people mean when they say this.

How committed are we to finding out?

We in the UCC have often exhibited an aversion to and misunderstanding of the term "spiritual" as it has been used throughout Christian history and as it is now used by non-churched people. There isn't an easy solution, but recognizing that there's a problem is a good first step.

I still don't like the meme, but I'm glad for the possibilities for denomination-wide conversation and transformation it now presents for us.

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