It just occurred to me that what this is becoming is a kind of virtual congregation. I never planned on this happening, but I cannot say that I am displeased either.
I left the pastorate nearly two decades ago, broken and disillusioned. Some of the pain I experienced was the consequence of my own life choices. The rest was the consequence of my disillusionment with organized religion. In my estimation, the church had become -- and almost universally remains -- critically ill. In fact, as I say in my book:
"If the current decline in church attendance were the medical case history of a hospital patient, the diagnosis would read: 'Chronically ill; resistant to change; on life support; likely terminal.'"
"The church itself is the one institution most in need of the very thing it proclaims to the world -- salvation. It boasts of knowing God, but by the sheer numbers who have given up on the church, it is right to question whether the church knows God at all."(The Enoch Factorhttp://stevemcswain.com, p. 56).
So, I left, in terms of personal involvement and interest. In that respect, I was one of those whom researchers today call nones. The difference is, unlike most, I was a religious leader and a none -- that is, a former pastor who had walked away from the ministry. I took up consulting with churches and parishes, Catholic, Evangelical, and Protestant alike. While clearly disingenuous, I didn't know what else to do. All my professional training was in religion. Besides, I didn't hate the church. I was just disillusioned by it. Deep within, I held out hope the church would change. I remain hopeful to this day.
I wandered, however, and wondered for many years whether a church existed anywhere that remotely resembled the teachings and practices of Jesus. I found most taught their traditions and practiced them with rigidity. They seemed lost in the madness of their differences from each other, as well as their dogmas, doctrines, and endless debates.
One day, I found such a church -- Highland in Louisville, Kentucky. And then -- I'm happy to report -- I found a few more. To me, they are candles of hope that faintly flicker in a desert of religious darkness. Most churches, however, remain lost.
And so, the decline continues as the exodus escalates. I find it humorous how religious leaders of virtually every Christian denomination try to put a positive spin on their declines. They do so by continually showcasing the few churches in America that are growing. What they do not tell you is that their growth is coming primarily from disenfranchised and disgruntled members of other churches and denominations. Talk about disingenuous.
By some estimates, the exodus has surpassed thirty-four million. Yet, what's interesting to me is that the majority of these pilgrims still regard themselves as spiritual people. Which, of course, they are. Spirituality isn't defined by church attendance, theology, doctrine, or practice.
You don't have to go to church to know God either. As far as I can tell, Jesus himself seldom attended any "organized religious" gatherings of his day. The few times he did, the guardians of madness drove him out. At least once, he got mad enough to drive them out. For the most part, however, Jesus practiced his spirituality outside the Temple or synagogue. But, anyone who has read the New Testament would know this.
So, last year, I finished writing the book to chronicle my own spiritual journey -- that is, how I've learned to walk with God beyond the insanity that is so much of religion today. Throughout, I display quotes and teachings from virtually every major religious tradition in the world. I know now there really has only ever been one spiritual truth -- experienced and expressed in the context of a variety of different cultures and traditions. In other words, any and all spiritual traditions will speak to the inner you, just as they do me -- that is, if you're open to them and not so attached to your own beliefs that you can neither respect nor receive the truth found in others.
What I could never have predicted is the impact this book is having, as well as other things I've written since its publication for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and others. It hasn't been limited to the US either. Almost daily, I receive emails and Facebook friend requests from people everywhere. Just this morning, in fact, from a spiritual seeker in Bloemfontein, Free State, a province of South Africa. Most of these people have left organized Christianity or some other tradition, since much of the insanity found in the Christian church is found in other religious traditions, too. They are still interested, however, in a spiritual life.
This is becoming a kind of virtual congregation. And, quite honestly, I like the thought of it, perhaps because, although I left the pastorate many years ago, I never left my desire to help others in their spiritual walk.
Where will this go? Who knows? Frankly, it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that thirty-four million people know that spirituality isn't defined by a council of clergy-persons or a crowd gathering weekly to shout, shake, shiver, or do nothing but sit. It is instead defined by how you think, the way you live, and, perhaps mostly, by the way you treat yourself and others. Jesus said, "Love God. Love others. Love yourself" (Luke 10:27). Doesn't get much clearer than that.
Something else Jesus said is that "this is eternal life, that they know you (God)" (John 17:3). Eternal life for most churchgoers is some far off fairytale they've got to die to find. That doesn't seem to be the point Jesus was making. Knowing God is eternal life and the knowing is now. If what I write should help just one none is his or her knowing, for what more could I ask? So, whether you still walk beside or within an organized faith or religious tradition, know that you can walk with God. In fact, you do already.
I'm curious. Are you a none? Did you leave the church, too? Or, some other religious tradition? I wonder why? Still interested in spiritual things? I'll be watching for your comments as well as your contacts. Blessed journey.