Friday, December 22, 2023

Further Thoughts on New Spiritual Communities for Exvangelicals

When I was in college for my undergraduate degree, in Ministry, one of my professors referred to Unitarian Universalism as "last stop religion." He said, "beyond that point you have departed from the realm of religion." I guess he'd never heard of Ethical Culture! In any case, yesterday I blogged about three "spiritual communities" that are doing church in a different way. Unlike Sunday Assembly and Oasis, they make room for spirituality. They do it in a way that to me resembles Unitarian Universalism. But is it possibly last stop religion, a waystation on the rails leading out of the religious world entirely?

One of the communities discussed in that post, which was responding to a news article through Religion News Service, practices communion. It does so in a rather vague manner. They call it "the table" and put bread and grape juice (and apparently wine as well) out where people can come up to get it at a point in the service, if they want. People are reportedly left to make of it what they will. Given that everyone is welcome, including "post-Christians," and with perspectives ranging from seeing Jesus as a prophet, rabbi, or the Son of God, the interpretations must be as varied as the number of people gathered. 

People going through deconstruction experience it differently. Yes, there can be stages of grief, but the particulars have a lot to do with the experiences and temperament of the person leaving evangelicalism (or perhaps the Latter-day Saint Church). Some find their way to mainline churches or Unitarianism. Others connect with Sunday Assembly, Oasis, or through Humanist chapters and organizations. Many, presumably, are simply done with anything that resembles church. That description is lacking, though, as it portrays a path with no returns.

People aren't like trains, running firmly on one track or the other. We're known to skip steps, double back, revisit former points on the journey, or find our way into the unexplored that we passed up before. A person might be done with religion for 20 years and then turn up at an independent Catholic Church, finding a new home. Someone could go directly into Humanist activism and then burn out after a few years. 

That's on an individual level. A more interesting question that we'll find out over time is where the trends might be taking entire communities. It is entirely possible that the exodus from evangelicalism and Mormonism will ultimately tend towards the population moving on generally through the church-like communities and out into an entirely unchurched state. Certainly Western Europe has plenty of empty churches, with no direct replacement for the communities that disbanded. 

My hope, though, is that we will be able to maintain some form of healthy spiritual or secular community like church, because at its best church brings benefits to individuals and societies. Consider the following:

For Individuals

  • Spiritual Growth and Guidance: Churches provide a space for spiritual exploration and development, helping individuals connect with their faith.
  • Moral and Ethical Framework: Many find guidance on moral and ethical issues through church teachings and community.
  • Emotional Support: Churches often provide a supportive environment where individuals can share their struggles and receive comfort and advice.
  • Social Connections: Attending church can lead to lasting friendships and a sense of belonging in a like-minded community.
  • Mental Health Benefits: Regular participation in church activities can improve mental health by reducing feelings of isolation and stress.
  • Personal Development: Many churches offer programs or groups focused on personal growth, such as leadership skills or overcoming personal challenges.

For Communities

  • Charitable Activities: Churches often organize and support charitable initiatives, such as food banks, homeless shelters, and disaster relief efforts.
  • Community Cohesion: Churches can play a role in bringing diverse groups within a community together, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.
  • Youth Programs: Many churches offer programs for young people, providing safe spaces for recreation and learning.
  • Cultural Preservation: Churches often play a key role in preserving cultural traditions and languages, especially in immigrant communities.
  • Economic Support: Church events and activities can have positive economic impacts, such as supporting local businesses and generating employment.
  • Promotion of Ethical Standards: Churches can influence communities by advocating for justice, peace, and ethical behavior.

General Benefits

  • Volunteer Opportunities: Churches often provide numerous volunteer opportunities, allowing individuals to give back to their community and gain a sense of fulfillment.
  • Education and Awareness: Through various programs and sermons, churches can educate people on important social, moral, and health issues.
  • Crisis Support: In times of crisis, churches often provide critical support and resources to individuals and communities in need.

Granted, that paints a fairly rosy picture of what church can be. Certainly there are congregations or parishes that are deeply dysfunctional. I have had hard personal experience with a couple of such churches. And yet, there are so many churches out there doing good things, nurturing people, and working for a better world. It would be a shame, as I see it, to lose that good. In throwing out the harmful beliefs and practices, we should be careful not to pitch out the rest as well. 

We will have to wait and see what the outcome of the dramatic shifts in religious beliefs and practices in the United States. As long as white evangelicals continue supporting fascism and hate, they'll continue hemorrhaging adherents. It could be a while before we know for certain whether anything like church will survive in significant quantities.