Going to church is not popular these days. That is what every recent study of religious trends in America says. Church is not popular with my generation, which invented the term “spiritual but not religious.” That phrase meant (and still means) that one has spiritual inclinations, but is not interested in “organized religion” or the “institutional church.”
Neither is church popular with my kid’s generation, nor those generations that followed them. Parents with young children are staying away from church in droves. I saw it for myself last Sunday. After church I went to Moulton Farm in Meredith and saw crowds of parents and children eating cider donuts, picking pumpkins, and taking bumpy wagon rides through the cornfield in the crisp autumn air. So that is where young families spend Sunday mornings!
All studies confirm my anecdotal evidence. The younger you are, the less likely you are to be religious – either privately or publically. Figures say that more and more people are neither spiritual nor religious. I see it in my kids and grandkids. Although they grew up in a parsonage, only one of my three children attends worship regularly and only one of my four grandchildren. And I feel blessed to have that many in church!
So why do I go to church? It is not because I do not see the faults, weaknesses and sins of religion. I know them better than most people, because as a pastor I have seen them from the inside. It is not because I have not thought through the theological and philosophical arguments against theism. A glance at the titles of my books reveals that I have spent a lot of time deconstructing traditional Christian theology.
My religious approach is nontraditional, to put it mildly. My theologically conservative colleagues would privately use much less generous adjectives to describe my present way of thinking. Spiritually speaking, I have traveled beyond the creedal coastlands into deep water. I feel comfortable swimming outside the theological ropes and floats of the evangelical swimming area.
My spirituality is what I call unitive awareness. Historically it has been called mysticism or contemplative prayer. It is about union with God and experiential oneness with Christ. I am more interested in pointing people to their essential unity with God and the universe, than I am convincing people to adopt a religious system of thought.
Therefore it might seem that I am a good candidate for the Church Alumni Association. Instead I am in worship every Sunday – either in the pew or the pulpit. Why? It is because I experience God in corporate worship in a way that I don’t in private prayer or meditation. For me God inhabits the sacred space in a church sanctuary. God appears in the silence and the music and the words and the laughter and the handshakes and the hugs and rituals of Sunday worship.
The Presence of God is communicated socially. That is why Christians insist on that strange doctrine called the Trinity – God as three persons. What sounds like heresy to strictly monotheistic Jews and Muslims communicates a deeper truth - that God is social in God’s own being. God is communicated through relationships and in relational settings … like in church on Sunday morning.
I slip into the pew, and I experience God instantly. God is in the air. The Presence of God is so powerful that I can taste it. It expands my soul. It fills my heart. It breaks down barriers between my tiny personal self and God. My soul becomes porous to the Holy Spirit. Boundaries fade, and God is all. I think that is what the architecture of the great European cathedrals is designed to communicate. It is communicated to me in small New England clapboard meetinghouses.
Can one experience all that without church? There is nothing stopping us. God is, after all, everywhere. That is the meaning of the term omnipresence. Many people experience the divine in natural settings. This week I went into the White Mountains and experienced the grandeur of autumn in New Hampshire. Seeing the symphony of fall foliage and hearing the sound of clouds moving across the valleys is certainly a spiritual experience.
Likewise aesthetic encounters with art and music certainly have a spiritual dimension, which is why the arts have been used by all religious traditions. But such experiences typically bring us only so far. For most people they are natural openings inviting us into a deeper spiritual life. But we have to be willing to step through that door.
In any case, spirituality not a matter of either/or. Church or Nature. Religion or Art. It is both/and. We can have it all. Spiritual and religious are not mutually exclusive categories. They are complementary. I view neighborhood churches as readily available and affordable resources located in every community, designed to bring us into a richer experience of the Mystery we call God. At least that is how church functions for me. That is why I go to church.