Eric Weiner published an essay in Sunday’s New York Times in which he expressed his disappointment over our national conversation about God. He noted that the two sides, “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists,” have monopolized the conversation so that those who are neither, people without any religious affiliation, can’t find any ground in this conversation.
He finished his essay with the following:
“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”
I think Weiner looked in the wrong places or else he’s not hearing a different conversation; a conversation which many of us are having in the mainline church. This conversation goes to the heart of his essay — what does being faithful mean?
We’ve been watching the changing landscape of the mainline church in our communities over the last couple of decades. Generally, the average age in our congregations has increased every year because we’re not replacing those who die or age out of the pews at the same rate. This is not to say that younger people and families with children don’t join our churches, but they engage with our churches differently. Church membership has become less defined as people are more apt to dabble and sample than make a commitment to join. This raises ancillary issues such as financial support for the church, both the local church and the denomination, and the relationship of the local church with its community’s context.
These alone represent a profound change in the way we are the church. We can’t expect people to come and stay if we don’t offer them something other than a worship experience they don’t like. When they ask us questions, such as the inerrancy of scripture, we shouldn’t dismiss them; probably we should be more forthright in our answers, noting that we have questions, too. We should also make clear that discipleship is always a growing edge; living the gospel as Jesus intended is a lifelong challenge, even for the most devout of us.
Weiner perceives religious people as worshiping an angry God. We shouldn’t be surprised given the way the media covers religion nationally. But then, as people in the mainline we don’t offer a counter-narrative, either. We hesitate to talk about God openly, our love for Jesus and God’s steadfast love for all of us. (I’ve sometimes asked congregations, “When you tell people on Monday what you did on Sunday, what hour do you begin describing your day. Do you start at noon when you say, ‘I went to brunch?’ or do you start at 10:00 when you say, ‘I went to church?'”)
Politically, we can do better, too. I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the Occupy (insert location) movement’s success. Did we fall down somewhere and stopped talking about the common good? Or maybe we’ve been too “proper” about our ability to bear witness to injustice? (They got people’s attention by going out into the streets, we just gabbed about in our pews.) Or maybe the gospel’s message gives us a bit of anxiety because we realize we’re not completely in synch with Jesus. But certainly our understanding of the gospel, which should inform our politics, should loudly proclaim a different political perspective than one that seems to preach anti-LGBT positions, the legitimacy of torture, or a gospel that tells people that the wealth they accumulate is theirs alone to do with it whatever they wish.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be spineless either. Comparing religion to an iPad sounds neat, but religion is not intuitive (implication, that we don’t need to think hard about it). The gospel turns our world on its head. If religion is going to have meaning to us, we should be challenged and forced to think deeply about this world and our relationship to it if we’re to experience God’s reign of peace and justice for all people here on earth.
While I don’t think Weiner looked hard enough, I don’t think we’ve made it easy either. Clearly we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.