As I was driving along the I-184 connector that leads into downtown Boise I noticed a billboard that read,
“Don’t believe in God? Join the Club”
My immediate and continued response is “What’s happening?” I was shocked and admittedly offended by such a message. I am a child of the Bible-belt. I grew up in a community where the neighborhood homes were practically emptied on Sunday morning because we all were in church. My week was and is incomplete without worship alongside a congregation. So what’s happening? I believe there is a very public shift in religious thought, one that we should not ignore.
SBNR: Spiritual but not Religious
A new category of religious affiliation has crept into the vernacular of researchers: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”. Spiritual but not religious seems to be the defining category for persons who see themselves as connected to a “higher power” but do not belong to any religious body. When I searched the internet on this topic, I found a website for the spiritual but not religious. The SBNR website (sbnr.org) banner includes these words,
All Religions Contain Some Wisdom But No Religion Contains All Wisdom
At the core of human existence lies a need to believe and a desire to trust in something that is greater than us. We long for something to give us hope. Religious identity fills that need and desire and becomes an expression of that hope. The Creation story found in Genesis expresses answers to life’s first question: “Who am I? The Resurrection story contained in the gospels answers life’s last question: “What lies ahead?” In between these events, Scripture reveals God to us and our need for God. What other wisdom is needed?
The Apostle Paul may have encountered the spiritual but not religious argument in the Areopagus located in Athens. The sermon he preached is found in Acts 17:16-34. Amid the idols and multitude of religious thought, Paul proclaimed God as revealed in Jesus Christ. At the conclusion, we are told, that some scoffed but others wanted to hear more.
We live in a religiously plural society where what the Scriptures say, what we do, and how we are perceived is under greater scrutiny and criticism. Will we perpetuate the move by young people to the category of “spiritual but not religious” by our in-fighting, our contradictory message of love while condemning others, our concern with sustaining an unsustainable status quo?
CoR: United Coalition of Reason
My encounter with a roadside advertisement was eye-opening. It was my first awareness and encounter with a movement and a public campaign aimed at those who desire no religious affiliation. The Don’t believe in God billboard is sponsored by the group United Coalition of Reason. Here’s what their website (unitedcor.org) says:
The United Coalition of Reason is a nonprofit national organization that helps local nontheistic groups work together to achieve higher visibility, gain more members, and have a greater impact in their local areas. We achieve this goal by assisting local groups in the “community of reason” to cooperate with each other.
(“Community of reason” is a generic term that includes all self-identified nontheistic organizations, whether they call themselves atheist, agnostic, bright, Ethical Culture, freethought, humanist, Pastafarian, rationalist, realist, skeptic, secularist, Unitarian Universalist, or whatever else.)
Its the “whatever else” that hits hardest. The Coalition of Reason appears to be a continuation of the 18th century’s Age of Reason which sought “to promote science and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition, intolerance and abuse by church and state.” (quoted from Wikipedia) The CoR appears to be a truly post-modern expression of thought.
“Question everything; question even the Question” appears to be the identifying mark of such thinking.
It may be hardest to argue from Scripture with CoR’s “whatever else”, so let’s talk about it from the perspective of faith. Paul Tillich, twentieth century theologian, speaks of faith as the “state of being ultimately concerned.” Tillich’s work, Dynamics of Faith, expresses ultimate concern as “an act of the total personality…It is the most centered act of the human mind…it participates in the dynamics of personal life.”
Even the most reasonable and reasoned of us has an ultimate concern or as “whatever else”. Some would say that the object of ultimate concern is the nation or the family or career and wealth. No doubt there will be many things that claim to be of ultimate concern. The Christian’s ultimate concern is God who is revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
Why Jesus? He becomes the object of ultimate concern for Christians because he is Savior, Teacher, Shepherd, and Friend. Jesus is proclaimed by Scripture to be the Messiah. We are drawn to him because of all these things and because as the object of our ultimate concern, he gives us hope – for the present and the future – like nothing else can.
How to address the shift?
These public movements are not new to religious thought. I use the term, “religious thought” despite the obviously non-religious nature of both groups, because I am (and thus my worldview is) religiously shaped. So how do those of us who are part of the Christian faith talk about our faith or converse with those who are struggling to make sense of it all?
We must acknowledge that we have a public relations problem. The Christian faith is perceived by a growing number of persons as intolerant, hypocritical, closed-minded, and unfriendly just to name a few criticisms being leveled today. We are “graying” because we haven’t welcomed without requiring conformity to old ways of being church. We talk about young adults as the “future” church when we need to embrace them as the “present” church.
Something needs to happen with our P.R. A Gallup Poll reveals that only 44% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion. We need to replace the message that church is a place of intolerance with a welcoming message to the world. We need to expand and reform our way of proclaiming the Word of the Lord.
Our preaching needs less words and more action that publicly reveals the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Congregational leadership needs to acknowledge that the liturgical phrases, “This is the Word of the Lord.” and responsive, “Thanks be to God” are more than words read or spoken in a sanctuary space during a designated hour of the week. “This is the Word of the Lord” is shared in service to those who are victims of poverty and injustice. It is offered in the workplace. It is spoken by the kindness of a smile expressed to the stranger encountered on the sidewalks of any street. When we proclaim the gospel in action we become living billboards.
Billboards are a means of advertising and communication. A billboard includes the name of the business or product it presents. If we are to be living billboards for the Christian faith, we’ve got to do a better job of getting our name recognized in positive, life-affirming ways.
There is a shift in religious thought swirling around the Christian faith. How can our faith become a billboard that witnesses to the life giving and life changing power of God?