A Response to Lillian Daniel and a Defense for the Spiritual But Not Religious

A Response to Lillian Daniel and a Defense for the Spiritual But Not Religious August 15, 2013

copernicus revolution cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

I read Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Rev. Lillian Daniel. I haven’t read the book yet so this post is based on the interview only.

I’m intimately familiar with Daniel’s concern for those who’ve left the church. I was a minister of local congregations for 30 years and thought exactly the same way she does. She knows the church faces increasing losses of its members because more and more people claim to be SBNR (spiritual but not religious). Growing numbers want to just follow Jesus without going to church, and Daniel thinks this just isn’t going to cut it. As the good minister I’m sure she is, she’d like to correct this. She’s written a book that is gaining attention not only in her liberal circles but in conservative and evangelical ones as well, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. Perhaps her book will encourage people who want and need a local church to find a good one. There are some out there. She’s been pastor of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, since 2004, and it may be a fine church to be a part of.

Daniel says about liberal churches that “our church growth project for the last 50 years has been to listen to people complain about conservative Christians and nod sympathetically, hoping that if we are really, really nice, they will come to our churches. It hasn’t worked.” Tired of apologizing for a church she’s not a member of, she’s pulling out the big guns. No more nice. So she lays out her clear vision of what the church should be: it should be reasonable in that it should engage your intellect; it should be rigorous in that it should have a mission and make a difference in the world; and it should be real in that it should embrace all our humanness. She also encourages people who’ve been burned by the church to not be afraid to dip your toe back in the water. Once you find a church give it time.

However, what I take issue with is her opinion of people like me who’ve left the church. I want to address this from two points of view: my own personally as well as from my perspective as moderator of my online community The Lasting Supper that is made up of many SBNR people. I’m sure she would insist her descriptions of us are generalities, but they are these: we are proud and think we are smarter than church goers; we lack spiritual depth and can’t contend with real life; we are self-indulgent and narcissistic; we assume we are a brave, bold and unique minority but we are just common conformists; we are bland and uninteresting; we can’t experience real community outside of the church; we are individualists and make God in our own image; and we quit church because we were frustrated with other people.

I want to try to change her opinion of me and my friends.

Many may say this is an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black. Every one of these accusations are aimed at church goers by SBNR people: church goers are proud and assume they are smarter than non-church goers; they lack spiritual depth and can’t cope with real life; they are self-indulgent and narcissistic; they assume they are the brave and bold minority when in fact they are conformists; they are bland and uninteresting; they can’t experience real community outside of church (or inside for that matter); they are individualists who make God in their own image or that of their leaders; and they go to church because they are disillusioned with other people.

Blatant disdain for people goes both ways. Since these can be leveled at every living human being, church going or not, we can rightly assume that these aren’t the real issues. I suggest there’s something else going on.

  1. There are lots of churches that meet her idea of a good church. They allow you to think, they have a mission, and they embrace people. But they tend to be selective in what this means. Also, there are very few churches, liberal and conservative, that don’t employ manipulative, coercive, controlling and even abusive tactics to realize these values. I know because I’ve administered, witnessed and experienced spiritual assault and violation across the denominational and theological spectrum. Just because a marriage shares lives, bodies and possessions, this doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. There are other issues like the addition of abuse or the absence of love that can change everything. The same with church. What church doesn’t have its own thinking, it’s own mission, its own way of embracing people? It’s the extra things that are added or absent that matter.
  2. The SBNR people I know are not a homogeneous whole but a diverse diaspora. For the most part, the ones I know are humble but confident. They are unusually deep and find ingenious ways of dealing with difficult situations. They are spiritually complex and fascinating. They hunger for a community they’ve concluded the church cannot seem to provide. They are fiercely and even defiantly independent. And they quit the church because they felt restricted, controlled or even harmed by the system, its ideology and the people who govern and administer them. They left because they concluded “I don’t need this!” and they have discovered they’re right! They don’t need it. The church is no longer on their landscape of duty, demand or desire and there’s nothing the church can do to change this new geography. And it’s frustrated.
  3. This perpetuates the same assumption that the church knows what’s best for us. Most can’t seem to see it because they are totally embedded. Their perspective from the inside is that the church is central and always has been, that people have grown dissatisfied with the center, and that people have left it to their peril. But I’ve discovered that the church is not central. Like Copernicus said about the earth, the church is no longer the center of the spiritual orbit of every living human being around it. But this is how the church and its leaders see it. Rather, many people now see the church as just another planetary body circulating around their self, a self that has become the center of their spiritual universe. It’s the decentralization of authority. What got Stephen stoned in Acts was his bold and visionary declaration of the decentralization of the temple and its religion. The church does not know what is best for me. I do! Will the church come alongside and assist me or instead continue to insist that it will tell me what I need and then provide it from its list of prescriptions? This is the hardest paradigmatic symptom for the church and its custodians to break.
  4.  The presumption that you must abide by the system to change it or receive the benefits of what it claims sole access to is no longer true. It’s like telling people if they want to affect political change then they should vote. What this implies is if you obey our rules then you can have a voice. Actually, people around the world are discovering that there is a more effective and immediate way of affecting change, and that is by not only refusing to participate in the system but by protesting and even overthrowing it. This is one of the most common errors of the present day church: it thinks that people who’ve left the church care what it thinks and are concerned for its survival. It supposes that if it just tweaks itself with some minor adjustments it will pacify the populace. It sometimes even thinks more radically that if it undergoes significant change it will save itself and satisfy us. But we’ve discovered that just because the church says it is the authority on spiritual matters it doesn’t mean it is. In fact, because it says so makes us suspicious of its claim. The church used to be powerful. It’s losing it and it knows it. The church’s boast that we need the church to get what it offers is empty and the SBNRs know it.
  5. It is condescending to believe that the church will accept us back and make us what we should be rather than respecting who we already are. The lack of respect is glaring and I have no desire to try to win it. The church continues to make the fatal mistake: it’s the assumption that we are deficient if we are not in the church, and that if we’d only humble ourselves and join it then we would become the people the church thinks we should be. But some people have awakened and are leaving the church for this very reason. Sure, what the church wants us to be are good things: patient, gracious, forgiving, generous, humane, etcetera. But the problem is that the church does not see us as good already, so it takes upon itself to bend and shape us according to its will to achieve its ends. In the church’s mind, it’s a factory producing saints, whereas the church is actually a collective of regular people who already are saints. Again, the church’s thinking is centralist with good insiders and bad outsiders. SBNRs smell this patronizing attitude a mile away and won’t come anywhere near it.

The church’s noble attempts to retrieve the SBNRs will mostly fall on deaf ears. Its attempts will continue to appeal to arbiters of the system, but not to those who have rejected it. We are experiencing a revolution of cataclysmic proportions that those within the system can’t perceive since it predicts the death of all they hold dear… the church… their gravitational center.

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