Spiritual But Not Religious (Part 1 of our Lenten sermon series – Rise of the Nones)

I’m not always keen on telling people what I do for a living.

I’m definitely not embarrassed about it.  I have one of the greatest jobs in the world.  Sometimes, I think the only way it could get better is if they opened up a church in Disneyland and asked me to be the pastor.  But there are times I just want to be a normal person.  People look at pastors differently.  At least that’s been my experience.  They get kind of weirded out when you tell them what you do.  It’s awkward because in almost every social situation where you meet new people they ask you, “So what do you do?”  And you can almost FEEL the flow of conversation take a sharp right turn when you say, “I’m a pastor.”  Suddenly, they stand up straighter and talk more carefully.  I hear, “Sorry,” a lot when people use language in front of me they think I’ve never heard before. It’s like their afraid to do or say anything “wrong” because I might tell God.  Either that or they begin to tell me why they don’t go to church, again as if I was going to say something to God.  “Gotta keep an eye on Jane over here, Lord.  She doesn’t go to church.”  And the reasons why they don’t go stretch from “I usually have to work on Sundays” to “It’s the only day off I get all week.”  I guess people feel that if it’s your only day off you shouldn’t have to spend it with Jesus.

It’s sad though that people look at it as a chore rather than something to look forward to.

Because they’re right – they shouldn’t HAVE to go to church.  They should WANT to go to church.  But if the statistics tell the story, a lot fewer people WANT to come to church.  We shared before that on Sunday morning, most people aren’t sitting in a pew somewhere.  Only about 17% of Americans attend church on any given week.  But the problem is deeper than that.  Not only do they not attend church, they don’t even belong to a church any more.  More and more people are considering themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” meaning they don’t identify with any particular religion or denomination.  In the past five years alone, that number has gone up significantly from about 15% to 20%.  From 15% to 20% in just five years. The Pew Research Group calls this phenomenon the “rise of the nones.” When asked what religion they ascribe to on surveys, they answer “none.”  That 20% represents about 46 million people.  46 million “nones.”[1]  Interestingly, though about 68% of them say they believe in God.  68%!  You might think with that many more “nones” we would be looking at the growth of a new atheism or more agnostics, but most of them still believe in God.  Instead, many of them say they are “spiritual but not religious.” Sadly, even though they believe in God almost all of them aren’t looking for a church to call home.

The reasons they are “spiritual but not religious” come in a wide-range of answers.

But almost all of them have to do with the church letting people down.  Whether it’s hypocrisy, exclusion, being judgmental, too political, or whatever other reason, they perceive the church has having let them down.  And don’t get me wrong, we probably have.  We have probably as a whole, as “the church” let down more people than exist on the earth.  I don’t know of a pastor who doesn’t have horror stories about a dysfunctional church and I don’t know a congregation that hasn’t come across it’s share of incompetent pastors.  But does that mean we shouldn’t have “church” because we haven’t got it right?  As usual, we’ll go to the Bible for some answers.   If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, please go to John 21:15.  John 21:15.  We’ll be sharing from the Gospel in just a minute.  Now, God did create the church based on Peter.  Peter, the exceptionally flawed guy who pulled out a sword when Jesus wanted peace.  Peter, the guy who denied Christ three times after swearing he would never deny Christ.  It was this Peter that Jesus centered the church.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”  We might just want to ask, “Really, Jesus?  With this guy in charge?”  But God didn’t make a mistake.  For all of Peter’s faults, Peter understood and knew who Jesus was.  When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, it was only Peter who said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Then later, after Jesus is resurrected and appears to the disciples while they are fishing, it is only Peter who jumps out of the boat and runs to Jesus.  And it is to Peter that Jesus asks the famous three questions and we will share that together this morning.  If you want to follow along, we’ll be reading from John 21:15-17.  Hear now the Word of God.

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep…”

The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.”  Please be seated.

Three times, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

And three times Peter answers, “You know that I love you.”  But Jesus uses a different word for love the first two times.  When he asks Peter the question, “Do you love me?” he uses the greek word agape, an unconditional love – a love deeper than any other kind, but Peter responds each time by using the Greek phileo meaning more of a friendship or brotherly love.[2]  The third time Jesus asks, he stops using the word agape and instead comes down to Peter’s level and uses the word phileo and Peter is hurt by this.  Now, just from reading the passage on the face of it, it seems like Peter is hurt that Jesus asks him three times, but knowing this difference in translation gives it a new nuance.  Instead we can interpret that Peter is hurt because Jesus has changed the form of love he is talking about.  Perhaps Peter is made sharply aware of his own inability to fully love Jesus with agape love and instead can only love Jesus with a brotherly love.  Maybe Jesus is hoping that Peter understands that this agape form of love, this unconditional love, is the kind of love we need to aspire to.  But even here, even in these last moments we see Peter with Jesus, Peter is still fallible but willing.

Seeing God in nature is only one aspect of knowing Christ.
Seeing God in nature is only one aspect of knowing Christ.

That’s what it means to be the church.

To be fallible but willing.  To be fallible but willing.  Willing to stick it out.  Willing to talk about our disagreements at the table.  Willing to be patient as Christ is patient with us.  Not to be so arrogant to think we have all the answers, but to be humble enough to realize we don’t.  That’s what it means to be Christian.  But people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are often saying that they don’t need the church to see God.  As Pastor Lillian Daniel said, they claim to see God in the sunsets, in the forests, and walks along the beach.  And while I believe that’s true, I believe there is an essential component to knowing God that is left out if that’s all the interaction we get.  I would argue that some of the most meaningful experiences we will ever have with God come from being part of a group of people dedicated to fulfilling God’s mission to love one another.  We will make mistakes.  We will mess up.  But if we keep God at the center, and we don’t always do a good job of that, but if we do keep God at the center, we can accomplish some amazing things together.  About people who claim to be spiritual but are not part of a faith community, Pastor Daniel said it very well when she said, “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”[3] One of the difficulties we have as Americans today is the pervasiveness of this “get what you want or get out” mentality.  It’s why we have such high divorce rates, it’s why we have such awful job loyalty both from employers and employees, it’s why churches split all the time – why we have over 30,000 different denominations.  Because we don’t work things out together.  Are there legitimate times when we need to leave?  Most definitely.  Do we often leave too soon?  I think so.  Really developing a relationship with God takes time.  It takes faith.  And it takes some fair amount of work.  Because we do struggle against a world that seeks instant satisfaction all of the time.  If it feels good then it must be right.  But let’s be honest, is that the best measure of right and wrong?  Just because it feels good to do it?  Instant gratification isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Because I’ve never met a two-minute package of grits that didn’t taste like lumpy water and how in the world Rachel Ray actually cooks those meals in 30 minutes is beyond me.  Then again, most of us don’t have prep cooks who chop up and wash all of our vegetables before hand and place them in nice, easy-to-open containers.

Honestly, I used to think I didn’t need the church. 

I completely understand the “spiritual but not religious” attitude because it used to be mine.  But I’ve learned that despite all of its faults, people do need the church.  Not as an afterthought.  Not as a “backup plan.”  But we need to be engaged in the life of the church on a regular basis.  I know there are plenty of people who say they don’t need the church and they live their lives acting that out.  But when push comes to shove, when a person has their faith truly tested, it isn’t the sunset that’s going to comfort them.  It isn’t the beach that’s going to cook them a tuna casserole.  And it isn’t the forest that will pray on their behalf and hold their hand.  It’s going to be real people who really love God.  We are not perfect.  We will make mistakes.  And to expect anything different is to expect something unrealistic – it’s expecting us to be Jesus and that’s something we cannot be.  But I believe Jesus knew what he was doing when he built the church upon the rock of St. Peter.  I believe Jesus knew that this fallible human being would give us hope that despite our faults, Jesus believes in us.  I also believe that God knows how much we need one another and that it is for that reason we need the church.  Not this building or those pews or the altar, but the church, the body of Christ.  And I also believe that while the “spiritual but not religious” people are missing out on something wonderful, we have to do a better job of convincing them there is something they are missing out on.  We have to do a better job of being that light on a hill that Jesus talks about.  So during this period of Lent we will examine the different ways we can be better brighten the world for those who honestly seek God and can’t find Him in the church.   I hope we find ways to invite others to join us on our journey of faith because it is an exciting journey.  And at the end of it all, we will have a chance to celebrate the most wonderful event in all of Christendom – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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