Engaging the Spiritually Disconnected: Inviting the Culture to Move to the Deeper End of Life's Pool


Last Sunday at the church where I am assisting priest I spoke with an obviously frustrated woman just before Sunday school. I know her as a caring, active servant and wonderful counselor. But a personal situation had been troubling her for several months, and we talked about it. Then she said, "If I didn't have church to come to, I don't know how I would survive."

She explained that the fellowship, the friends, and the worship service with its sublime liturgy all lifted her spirits and gave her the resilience to keep going. "A week or so ago I spent the whole day here at church helping out, just to be in this peaceful place. I always leave this place feeling better than when I came in."

I told her I couldn't agree more. "I don't know how people do it without faith, without a spiritual life," I told her. "I know I couldn't."

Later the same day another friend sent me an article by Kentucky pastor Paul Prather in which he discusses the decline of Christianity's influence as seen, for instance, in statistics regarding the incoming class of students at Harvard--the numbers are astonishing, and for people of religious faith, troubling.

Prather writes, "You might almost say that as Harvard goes, so goes the country. That being the case, or even partly the case, we're going to end up far more secular than we are now." And that's not good news. After all, he says, "At their best, [people of faith] remind us all we're more than just bone, gristle and corpuscles, that we're eternal souls imbued with divine purpose and eternal hope."

How do people live without engaging their spirit? This question, frankly, boggles my mind. I have a number of friends who, if not agnostic or atheist, are at least unengaged in any formal religious practice. Some of them do experience the spiritual aspect of life in some personal way--they possess a depth of soul that's readily apparent--but others seem to be just fine without engaging that facet of their being at all. And I don't know how they do it.

It seems to me that people in our culture tend to get stuck living on the surface of life, in the shallow end of the pool. I frequently fall into this kind of empty existence myself unless I stay intentional about it. Relationships are reduced to Facebook likes and retweets. Media--via television, tablet, smartphone, whatever--consume our waking life and dominate our minds. Our careers demand more attention than we can often give without suffering in some way. We ruminate over personal struggles, financial fears, relationship woes, failing health, but we have no active spiritual outlet for them, no release from the burdens and worries that eat away at our hearts. I deeply believe that a spiritual life can help us keep all these things in perspective.

I have found that Christianity offers a message that relates to our deeper realities, our spiritual identities, aspects of our being that are so often ignored or neglected these days. All religions offer this. But if we do pursue spiritual endeavors, because of a lack of time or focus they often end up being perfunctory acts rather than a radical and revolutionary lifestyle.

Life is complex, certainly, but we must be mindful not only of our body and our mind but our soul as well. A whole and significant life involves all aspects of our being, but I fear many of us are missing the depth of our internal spiritual being. Out of a blazing inner life I believe can come rich meaning and purpose for life, a heart for serving others, and passionate engagement with others. What else is our existence for?

And yet we are witnessing a culture of increasing religious disconnectedness, and the polls continue to confirm this. I wonder if this reflects not only a disaffection with organized religion, but a neglect of one's spiritual life altogether.

How can the church engage this increasingly spiritually disconnected culture? Perhaps we do it person to person, relationship by relationship. The church--and I mean the broad church, not the right-wing mockery that the media continually focus on as the bearers of the message of Jesus Christ--must offer another way, a way of the spirit, a way of life in all its fullness and depth. Leaders in the mainline denominations we work with at the Day1 radio program are all wrestling with how to do this.

Recently I heard a presentation by Episcopal Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas, who spoke of the difference between the attractional church and the sending church. The former engages the world around it in order to draw people through its doors to become an active part of their congregation--nothing wrong with that, but in this culture it's an increasingly difficult task. The sending church is all about mission--sending out people who sense a particular call to serve and witness in their communities, simply for the purpose of fulfilling the missional call of God.

Bishop Doyle said we must work with the culture we have, not wait for it to change. We must find the gospel symbols in this new culture in order to retell our story in fresh ways. And by the way, this is a phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly throughout history.

In order to do this, we need to redefine where Christian community happens, and it's not necessarily inside a building on a Sunday morning. Bishop Doyle said, "Church has always been crazy people doing crazy things." So we need to open our minds and hearts to new ways, even seemingly crazy ways, to engage a spiritually disengaged culture with a goal of loving them and sharing with them the richness of the spiritual life, in whatever ways it might be expressed.

As Paul Prather wrote, "We must try to communicate our good news of love, mercy and grace in fresh ways, to a culture that increasingly has no earthly idea what we're talking about and delightedly mocks us." But perhaps that's not a bad thing. After all, Prather points out, "Christianity was born as a minority religion. God perhaps intended it to be that. It seems to function at its purest when it's the joyful, scandalous faith of underdogs."

I agree. And now a vital goal of this joyful, scandalous, underdog faith--and of all religious endeavors--is to explore new ways to invite this generation to enter the deeper end of the pool, to find meaning and purpose and hope in life by engaging their spiritual lives more fully.

How do we do this? The conversation is ongoing all around us. Let's enter into it and see where it leads us. I think maybe God is waiting for us to catch up.

Also posted on HuffingtonPost.com/Religion