Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reaching the "Nones"

All last week, NPR’s Morning Edition featured a series of reports on the “Nones”—that growing group of people in their 20s and 30s who claim no religious affiliation. I found the series utterly fascinating. As an individual from that age demographic, I find that much of what the “Nones” say about the disconnect between the world we live in and the faith of our ancestors makes sense. Science, philosophy, art, and human experience have all made the God of my grandparents seem ill-suited for the twenty-first century. As a person of faith, however, I still cling to the stories of our past and claim them for my own—even if I hear them differently than they were heard a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

Preachers, evangelists, missionaries, and other church leaders are all scratching their heads, trying to figure out what it will take to reverse the decline in attendance that most denominations have experienced over the last few decades. Many find the rapidly increasing number of young adults who prefer no religious affiliation scary and threatening. “How will we convince these skeptics to come to church?” they ask themselves. Countless “experts” are throwing answers at the problem, hoping that one of their potential solutions will stick, but I wonder whether the answer lies even further back in the history of our faith.

When the people of Judah were carried off into Babylon during the exile, they were confronted by a culture that left little room for their traditional expressions of worship. The Jerusalem temple had been destroyed, and they had no way of coming together to perpetuate the corporate mechanics of their faith. During that time, older traditions like circumcision and dietary restrictions, which had never been lost but had been diminished by other more visible practices, rose in importance. What did it mean to be a faithful Jew during the exile? It meant keeping those ancient tenets of the faith that could be maintained in a foreign land. Among the most important of these was a prohibition on idol worship.

InIsaiah 44, the prophet writes to those who were in exile, reminding them of the importance of the second commandment. Mocking the tradesmen who fashioned gods out of wood, he writes, “Half of [the wood] he burns in the fire…he also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’” (vv. 15-16). The prophet and the people knew the foolishness of worshiping the product of human hands. God—the one true God—was like no other. He had no physical form. He could not be manufactured. Thus, he alone was worthy of worship.

Among those who were interviewed on the radio was a man who said, “I don’t believe in God, but I really want to.” Despite having a tattoo on the inside of his wrist that proclaims in Latin, “Salvation from the Cross,” he admitted to being so off-put by the doctrines of the church in which he was raised that he refuses to go back. What is keeping him away? A church that, in the name of God, condemns evolution in the face of science. A group of believers who, in the name of God, deny God’s love to those who disagree with them. When I hear his story, I wonder whether “Nones” like him might be encouraged by a community of faith that goes back to its deepest roots—to a belief in a God who cannot be defined or manufactured by humans.

What do we worship—the God who refuses to be encapsulated by human thought or a God we have made subject to our own traditions and preferences? Although the number of “Nones” is on the rise so, too, is the number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” those individuals who are searching for meaning in their lives but who haven’t found it in a particular church. What if we invited them to embrace a belief in a God who transcends any particular interpretation of what God is? Yes, God has revealed himself to us in specific ways—through creation, scripture, incarnation, etc.—but what would happen if we chose to receive those divine disclosures without insisting that we have a monopoly on how they should be understood? Wouldn’t you be more interested in worshiping a God who doesn’t conform to our expectations but, instead, who defines what those expectations might be?

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