Saturday, April 27, 2013

Responding to the "Rise of the Nones"

Over the last year or so, I have noticed books, articles, and blogs talking about a trend known as the “Rise of the Nones”.  On October 9, 2012, the Pew Forum conducted a study that explored this trend.  With issues like this, it seems that it is all too easy to take a pessimistic sort of response that essentially says “see, I told you this country was falling apart!”  But I am more interested in what lessons we should learn from this, and in how we should respond – every problem is an opportunity for growth.  So I wanted to explore and present my thoughts on how to respond to this situation.  But first I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine.

We’ll call my friend Simon.  Simon grew up in a church that had a tendency towards fundamentalism.  Simon likes to call his church background “The Church of Don’t”, because it seemed like that’s what being a Christian was to them: a long list of “don’ts”.  Simon grew up being told what to believe, and was given simple answers that favored literal interpretations of Bible verses, but Simon has a very rational mind, and a high intelligence.  When I met Simon, he had been out of the church for a while, but he went through an experience at one point where he stayed home from work for a few days because he was having a panic attack and couldn’t bring himself to leave the house.  He was told by a therapist that what he was going through was Religious Decompression syndrome.  Basically, Simon had left his “Church of Don’t” and had begun to defy some of the teachings of that faith.  But even though he didn’t believe in these teachings anymore, he was ridden with guilt and a feeling that he was messed up, even though he is quite a normal and gentle fellow.  I had the pleasure of meeting Simon’s therapist, and I’ll never forget one thing he said: truth does not need us to protect it.  See, often it seems that within Christian fundamentalism, questioning is discouraged.  But the Bible tells me that the most important thing is Love - because Jesus said that all the law and the prophets can be summed up in two commands: love God, and love your neighbor.  And with the parable of the Good Samaritan, paired with the command to love our enemies, I know that my neighbor is anyone and everyone.  And I John 4:8 tells me that God is love.  So the most fundamental of all truths is simply: love.  I Corinthians chapter 13 says that Love is patient.  Love does not demand its own way.  And love never fails.  So if love is fundamental to truth, then truth does not need us to protect it from questions or even from doubt.  Truth patiently bears our questions and our doubt, not demanding its way, knowing that it will prevail.  When Thomas said that he would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw the holes in Jesus' hands, and put his finger into them, and unless he put his hand into the hole in Jesus' side, Jesus did not come and condemn Thomas.  He appeared before Thomas personally and said "Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!"  Too often I fear we make the mistake of reading an angry tone into this passage.  But Jesus bore the full weight of evil on the cross without ever rebuking or condemning his persecutors - in fact, while he hung there gasping for breath, he said "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Now, if he can forgive that, don't you think he can handle a little doubt?  No, when I think of Jesus appearing before Thomas, I bet you Jesus had a little bit of a smirk on his face when He called Thomas over.

So how do we respond to “the Nones”?

Love them
It’s all over the Bible, and is the single most repeated command in the New Testament.  Jesus says in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another – love is supposed to be the defining characteristic of Jesus’ followers.  So it seems fairly obvious to me that in responding to “the Nones”, we need to examine what the Bible says about love.  So I go to I Corinthians chapter13, and I want to speak specifically about a few of the things it says about love:

Love is patient
Bringing back “the Nones” is not going to be instantaneous.  It won’t be easy.  It’s going to take some real work on our part.  But love demands that no matter how we are responded to, we keep trying.  It’s important to realize, however, that this does not mean that the way to bring back “the Nones” is to call them up every so often to tell them how wrong they are and how they have sinned and must repent, and to never give up in this endeavor.  That would be to ignore the very next part of the definition of love in I Cor. 13: love is kind. 

Love is kind
Kindness means that we are gentle and giving.  If we are kind, we lift the other person up – wrapping them in affection and being considerate of their needs, seeking to meet those needs in any way that we can.  Kindness does not expect anything in return, but continues to give – this goes along with the phrase in verse 5 which says that love is not self-seeking.  Some dictionary definitions of the word “kind” even include the concept of being indulgent – if we’re kind, we indulge the doubts of “the Nones” and give them a thorough examination. 

Love is not proud
This is going to be a tough one.  But the church needs to humble itself.  It needs to stop to listen to the voice of “the Nones”, and hear whatever accusations they may present.  The church needs to listen to the reasons why our modern church has seemed hypocritical and uncaring to them.  And it needs to consider if maybe, just maybe, it got some things wrong.  Yes, it’s possible that the church will need to change!  It’s even possible that these churches that have been left behind have misinterpreted the Bible!  Love means abandoning your pride in your knowledge, abandoning your pride in your superior principles, and examining what the beloved has to say with an attitude of humility while taking into account the possibility that the beloved may have a point.

Precisely because pride is so hard to eschew, and precisely it is so important that pride be left behind, I am spending more time on this concept than any of the others.  So I thought I’d provide a few quotes from other authors that I think go along with this principle of humbling ourselves, and of the importance of listening:

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is to confuse their interpretations of the Bible with the Bible itself. To come to a new understanding of a text or a passage than a traditional view of it, due to study of language, context, history, archaeology, etc., is not to change the Bible, but one’s understanding of it, and perhaps to be more faithful to it.”
- Brian Berghoef

"The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either – they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

"If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don't find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don't cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God's truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition."
- Brennan Manning

"Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: 'We don't discuss those things here.'

I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the book of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he's asked with...a question."
- Rob Bell

Love always protects
This might be another tough one, but if I love someone who is going through a time of doubt, I believe it means I protect their right to doubt – even if I disagree with their reasons for doubting.  Because I am not living their life, it would be insensitive for me to say to someone who is living in doubt: “well, the Bible clearly says A, so therefore you have no reason to doubt!”  No, if I love this person, I respect the reasons they have for doubting and I protect their need to go through this process.  But through it all:

Love always hopes
No matter what reasons a person has for doubting, monumental though they may seem, one who loves will stick with them and keep a hopeful attitude.  Hope means that no matter how bad the odds may seem, love is sure things will work out for the better in the end.  This insistent optimism takes quite a bit of patience for sure…which is probably why “love is patient” is the first item in Paul’s list of the definitions of love.  But we have great news in verse 8:

Love never fails
This is a profound mystery to us, because humans fail all the time.  So, naturally, we have a pessimistic expectancy of failure.  But love demands that failure is not an option.  Love refuses to leave the beloved’s side no matter what the circumstances, and love believes that no matter what happens the beloved is never beyond saving.  It might seem like it would take a miracle, but here’s the thing about miracles: I've seen a man and a woman, both in a place where they were profoundly and similarly broken, somehow cross paths and connect, despite all the reasons they should not have.  I've seen a heart that had begun to fear it could never be loved, and even that it might not be capable of loving back, find love that it could not deny was real.  I've seen a barren womb open with uncanny timing - saving a young relationship from a long separation that might have left the relationship to wither.  I've seen differences in a relationship that once caused strife and seemed like weaknesses cause great strength.  I've seen stubborn minds change.  I've seen broken hearts mended, doubt turned to hope, and a skeptic's dead faith resurrected with new vitality it never had before.  You bet I believe in miracles.  I was a “None”, and I am a miracle, and it’s only because of love.

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