A changing scene

As the Christian church experiences declines in membership and participation, a host of writers have focused on the group of people that are known as “nones.” The name doesn’t work very well, but it comes from the choice of the category “none” when asked about religious affiliation on a questionnaire. The simple and obvious truth about nones is that those who choose no religious affiliation are not a single category. There are many reasons why a person may see themselves as not participating in religion. One description doesn’t fit all of the people. My observation is that some of the people who aren’t affiliated with organized religious institutions do have transcendent beliefs. They simply have rejected or chose not to participate in all of the trappings of organized religion. I have been intrigued recently by conversation with people who are interested in talking about spirituality but who do not participate in a formal church or other religious institution. I’ve come into contact with these people because they are seeking community. They don’t want to exist in isolation. They would like to get together with others on a regular basis to talk about the things that re most important to them. Some have even proposed regular meetings of small groups for this purpose. It seems as if they may be engaged in forming their own kind of church.

The theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as the infinite and ultimate and therefore faith is the ultimate concern. Tillich wrote long and complex books and invested a lot of energy in describing the use of symbolic language, but he kept coming back to the concept of ultimate concern. That in which you place the most concern is your god. What I observe in quite a few people is that the focus of their concern is shifting and it is difficult to discern what their ultimate concern is.

As one who has for my entire life spent my Sunday mornings attending church worship services, one of the things that interests me is what people who don’t regularly participate in worship do on Sunday. I’ve heard from many that they do make Sunday a day of rest. Although they may not attend the services of a church, it is a day set aside for a little extra sleep, some family time, and an opportunity to pursue leisure interests. We live in a hectic, fast-paced world where there are few opportunities to just take a break. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that sleeping in becomes an ultimate concern, but it can become a dominant concern for some individuals.

Some activities, such as youth soccer or hockey actually take more time from a family than typical church participation. They travel with their youth and many weekends are devoted nearly completely to sport. From an outsider’s point of view some of these activities take on the appearance of religion. People make sacrifices and invest significant funds in the activities. They make them a high priority in their lives. I’ve even gone so far as to refer to these activities as religions. At least they seem to become if not an ultimate concern, at least a very high priority in the lives of those who become deeply involved. Sports activities also have the added benefit of offering a community. They have a social structure with rules for participation. Likeminded individuals gather together and have a point of connection.

Unlike my experience with religion, however, these activities tend not to be lifelong pursuits. They are demanding involvements that pass as their children grow and move on to other phases of their lives. Before long those who were investing every weekend in their child’s sports program find themselves with nothing to do on weekends as their children go off to college or become engaged in other activities.

Thus some of the people who get labeled as nones, aren’t really nones at all. They are “sometimes.” They participate in church at certain points in their lives and don’t participate at different points. It is essential for congregations to learn how to welcome those who aren’t as regular in their attendance as some of us. Congregations need to provide many entrance points or reentrance points for those who come and go from regular participation. As participation patterns shift, the institutional expression of religion has to change to provide for different patterns of participation.

As participation patterns shift, children have the experience of intermittent participation in church programs. They may attend Sunday school classes for a while and then have periods of not participating. The result is that educational programs are at best incomplete. We now have an entire generation of people who haven’t received basic instruction in the practice of religion. I can’t assume basic biblical knowledge when I address a congregation. There may be those present who have very little familiarity with the history and traditions of the church. There are some who are fascinated with basic information and others who are bored with repetition. Spiritual disciplines, which involve repeated practice, may not be a part of the experience of some of those who are in the congregation on a Sunday morning.

Serving such a widely diverse group of people is an ongoing challenge for the church. We are adapting and changing, but institutional change comes slowly. While we are adapting, society is changing. We have less opportunities for contact with people as attendance parterres move generally away from regular participation.

Tomorrow I preach yet another sermon on the parable of the prodigal. I worry about it being boring and repetitious for regular participants in the church. I’ve probably preached 8 or 9 sermons on that parable in this church. What do I have to say that is new? And yet the parable itself may be new to some of those who attend. Achieving a balance that engages all who will be present is a serious challenge.

At least my role in the community is never boring.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!