This coming Sunday I’ll begin a series of sermons that I’m entitling “Real Faith in a Real World.” For some time I have wanted to explore the significant gap that exists between “organized religion” and “personal spirituality.” Recent research has shown that many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith, and esteem for the lifestyle of those who claim to be Christ’s followers is quickly fading among them (see Dave Kinnaman’s recent book unChristian). Many believe that congregations no longer represent what Jesus had in mind and that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. The gap between what we say we believe and what we practice in daily life is distressingly wide at times. If only we could humbly admit this, I think many of those who have lost confidence in the Church might look at us again.
The irony here, as author and Anglican priest Dave Tomlinson points out, is that people are no less spiritual today than they were in the past, but they are a lot less religous – at least in a formal membership sense. The Church in the 21st century has an image problem. Tomlinson writes:
A disconnect has occurred between religion and spirituality: people no longer see religion or Church as the natural setting in which to explore or express their spiritual aspirations. So they are drifting from churches in droves. However, they are not doing so because they no longer believe in God, or because they have no hunger or interest in the spiritual aspect of life, but because, in their experience of Church, they are neither finding a faith they can believe in, nor an existential spirituality that can sustain their souls in an age of anxiety and estrangement. Many people long to reconnect with the sacred mystery of life, to discover their place in the cosmos, but they don’t see Church or religion as a way of achieving this (from Re-Enchanting Christianity: Faith in an Emerging Culture).
The challenge is to be open to new ways of interpreting and living our faith as we undergo the rapid shifts of the emerging world of the 21st century. Real faith requires an honest engagement not only with the incredibly rich historic Christian tradition but with challenging questions that people are asking about the nature of God and the relevance of the Christian tradition for their lives today. The practice of radical welcome implies that we be open to the questions that sincere people are asking, and that we don’t fearfully close down our own. Tomlinson includes this wonderful quote by the writer Madeleine L’Engle:
It my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear. But if it is not true, if it is man’s imposing strictures on God (as did men of the Christian faith establishment of Galileo’s day) then I want to be open to God, not to what men say about God. I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light.”
Exploring how Christian faith can flourish and grow and make sense of today’s world is a critical imperative, it seems to me, of those given the privilege of teaching and preaching in the Church today, in fact of any Christian worth their salt. What a daunting and yet thrilling task!