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How to Avoid a Religious Apocalypse: 6 Changes the Church Needs to Make

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We are headed for a religious apocalypse -- if we are to believe the statistics and the commentators, that is. Study after study tells us that Americans are leaving religion in droves, with the number of spiritual but not religious (SBNR) increasing dramatically. In fact, the "nones," as they are often called, now account for one-fifth of all Americans -- a significant number from anyone's perspective. Based on these statistics (as well as anecdotal information), some religious scholars predict the death of Christianity and maybe even the end of religion as we know it.

Although I suspect that some of these predictions may be an over-dramatization, I do think that significant changes in organized religion are inevitable and necessary. And while sweeping changes are necessary on a societal level, the most urgent need for transformation lies with the Church.

In Mark Sandlin's recent post, "Church Where the Sidewalk Ends," he encourages the Church to follow the "[c]halk-white arrows" to "the place where the sidewalk ends" in order to maintain relevance. He writes:

Church after Church ends (or, at least, the way we currently practice it ends). For all of its messiness and the growth that can happen there, it is ultimately limited and insular when it stays on the sidewalk. True, we are called to be in the world but not of it -- but that still calls us to be decidedly in it. It is time for the institution of Church to once again live more fully into the image of its God who is continually doing a "new thing."

If you look closely, you can already see a few places where the Church is stepping off the sidewalk -- the expansion of energetic emerging congregations like Urban Village Church in Chicago, the creation of online spiritual communities like Quest for Meaning, the expansion of radically liberal faiths like Unitarian Universalism, and the interfaith religious organizations that advocate for equality -- but there is still much to be done in order to resuscitate religion in America.

The following are 6 changes that the Church needs to make in order to regain relevance and effectuate a much-needed religious metamorphosis:

1. Stop talking about Jesus so much.

I understand that many Christians will balk at this suggestion under the presumption that the Christian faith hinges on Jesus. But even among Christians, there is disagreement about whether things like the Immaculate Conception and the resurrection of Jesus are literal or metaphorical interpretations. And many Christians explicitly oppose the notion that Jesus is the only path to salvation, as Steve McSwain points out in this article. Yes, Jesus is the epitome of love, kindness and compassion. And yes, for Christians, he is the Son of God, but few things alienate the SBNR and many liberal Christians as much as excessive Jesus talk.

Instead of focusing on the supernatural components of Jesus' life, the Church should endorse the actions of Jesus. Similarly, the teachings of Jesus can and should be taught alongside spiritual guidance that can be garnered from other spiritual leaders, like Gandhi, Buddha and Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Separate church from the Church.

Church no longer means ornately designed buildings with stained glass windows and a large crucifix on the wall. Church is anywhere and any way that people come together in reverence for God or a higher power. Church can be a shared meal, a nature walk or a lively discussion. Church can be faith sharing over wine or a group meditation. Church can take place in the basement of an art gallery, in an old theater, or in a neighborhood park.

In fact, one of the most engaged experiences in the Church that I have had was when I worshiped at Micah's Porch in Chicago. Services were held inside the Chopin Theater and, on any given Sunday, the pulpit may have looked like a pirate ship or a bedroom, depending on that weekend's theatrical performance. Micah's Porch was one of the highest commitment liberal churches that I had experienced, and it fostered an organic commitment from other members who believed that something truly important was happening in their lives. The time, location and the backdrop of the services were all inconsequential parts of the worship services; rather, the people, the connections and the spiritual transformations that took place therein were what made it a truly dynamic and impactful church.

3. Facilitate the spiritual through the secular.

God is found in many places and in many things, not just in church buildings on Sunday mornings. God is in our relationships, in the changing seasons, and even in those ubiquitous sunsets revered by so many SBNR. God is in music, art and poetry, and as long as the Church continues to separate the spiritual from the secular, the divide between the two will continue to grow and the religion will lose practicality.

The Church must realize that the spiritual is not reserved for Scriptural readings and hymns, but that it can also be found in the music of Mumford & Sons, the poetry of Ram Dass and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the art of Native Americans, for instance. By incorporating practical, seemingly secular representations of the spiritual, the Church can create the transcendental experience that so many of the "nones" are currently creating for themselves.

4. Remove the focus from Christians vs. atheists and religious vs. irreligious.

Within the Church, there is a tendency to generalize and focus discussions in terms of Christians vs. atheists and religious vs. irreligious when, in fact, the lines are not so clearly drawn. As we move toward a homogenous culture in which racial, sexual, socioeconomic and gender lines are blurred, the Church needs to recognize that the lines are blurred with respect to religion, as well. A Methodist may not believe in the Immaculate Conception, an atheist may attend regular church services and a Jew may worship Jesus. Religion is as much a cultural tradition, as it is a belief system, replete with familial customs, personal attachments and a certain amount of emotional baggage. All of these factors make religion less like an eight-pack of Crayola crayons and more akin to a Benjamin Moore paint color wheel. The Church needs to recognize this reality with deference as it moves forward.

5. Live the faith, don't just preach the faith.

Religion can be a powerful tool for unification, but only if the Church starts to actually practice what it preaches. Most religions promote love, generosity and kindness as a means of connecting with God or a higher power, yet the Church often has difficulty acting with love, generosity and kindness. Acting with love means promoting equality. Acting with generosity means supporting all who are in need, not just self-serving charities and causes. And acting with kindness means respecting other perspectives, including acknowledging scientific discoveries, other faith traditions and even those with whom you might disagree.

6. Ask the tough questions and listen to the answers.

We live in a culture of numbers, with stats, percentages and figures all used to tell a story. But amid all the talk about numbers -- the number of people in this religion or that religion, the number of people leaving one religion for another, the number of people with no religious affiliation -- we have forgotten to find out the real stories behind the numbers. We have forgotten that these numbers aren't just numbers, but people and families and lives. We have forgotten to ask the only questions that really matter.

The numbers can tell us the demographics of the SBNR -- their ages, their races, their educational levels, their cultural and religious backgrounds, and their political affiliations. But the numbers cannot tell us whether the "nones" as individuals and families are spiritually satisfied. Are any of them spiritually hungry, yearning for a shared meal of spiritual nourishment? Are any of them spiritual seekers, searching for a religious home large enough to hold their questions? Are any of them members of interfaith families, looking for the tools to navigate a messy and complicated web of faiths and cultures?

The only way we will find out the answers to these questions is for the Church to ask and to listen. There is much speculation on all sides of the religious/irreligious debate, usually without any beneficial conversation. In failing to ask the tough questions and really listen to the answers, the Church is neglecting the spiritually hungry. Regardless of religious belief or non-belief, we are all hungry for something. We are all searching for connection, happiness, meaning, and purpose, but the Church won't know what it is or how to fulfill it until it stops talking and starts listening.

There is no doubt that religion is undergoing significant changes, many of which are long overdue. In fact, the religious scholars that predict its demise may not be so far off: Religion may actually be falling, with the Church and its people holding the power to influence which way it falls. May we have the courage to help the sacred tree stand tall, or at least, help it lean away from rigid, divisive animosity and in the direction of relevant, spiritual sustenance.