Boston-area newspapers may be giving us an unwritten message about our faith, if one interprets editors’ decisions about where religion sections are placed as indicative of our nation’s socio-cultural and spiritual priorities.
At least a couple of local publications not only give religion second-class treatment, they exile it to their back pages, or worse. One paper routinely lumps religion together with the obituaries section (so, in their estimation, religion is dying?). Another one seems to think that it’s more than a mystery, it’s a puzzle to either be played with or equated with frivolous, time-frittering activities like crosswords and Sudoku (half of their religion page is shared with a puzzle section).
Is this right or fair? No wonder people are increasingly dismissing religion as irrelevant and meaningless. When the media — the so-called trend-setters and cultural gurus — tell us that our churchgoing routines and spiritual disciplines don’t matter much anymore, then who are we to argue with that “reality”? They’re the “experts,” aren’t they?
God is dead?
At the rate that natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy have been occurring, or earthquakes erupting in unexpected places like Maine and New Jersey, it would be very tempting to think those newspaper editors are right. God has left the room, and nobody’s in charge anymore. Let’s just find the nearest atheist or agnostic society, and forget we ever found comfort or inspiration in our faith. Why spend any more time or money on a dying, antiquated addiction that doesn’t seem to be doing much for anyone anymore?
The truth and nothing but the truth
Everybody is different. And the times, they are a-changing. So, perhaps it’s time that “one size fits all” religion is due for a major overhaul. If we want to keep our faith alive, not only for ourselves, but for future generations, then it behooves us to keep examining our practices and beliefs for ways that we can improve them… and escape the fate of being consigned to the dust heap of history (or the low-priority pages of newspapers). When we stop trying to insist that everyone worships or believes the exact same way, maybe we’ll begin making some progress not only on understanding each other, but also on staying alive and healthy for years to come.
Five tips for staying relevant
If you or your congregation want to start a movement to recapture the relevance of religion, here are some practical things we can all do:
- Talk to young people. And really listen to them. The future of the faith depends in large part upon what they think, how they feel, and what they plan to do about those spiritual urgings that nearly everyone experiences (despite the naysayers and cynics who would have us believe otherwise). Ask them for their ideas on how the church can evolve and change with the times. What would we need to do to appeal to them?
- Consider different times, different places. Nobody ever commanded that a certain building or location had to be the only place that religion could be explored. Even the Bible tells of the experiences of the people of Israel, who wrestled with the differences between a mobile, nomadic, on-the-go faith that went wherever the Ark of the Covenant traveled (or vice versa), and a more temple-bound, unchanging, fortress-like mentality that resists the notion of wandering in the desert or exploring new locales, new circumstances, and new opportunities. Perhaps what we need at this time in history is to seriously consider selling off all the churches, synagogues, and mosques, and going on the road, literally. When we free ourselves of traditions like worship spaces that keep us chained to the past, we’ll be open to the possibilities of new ways that our faith can speak to us in the future. Some young people have even begun meeting in places like taverns and living rooms, in their attempt to make religion more direct and personal.
- Think about new programming. Why not start up some small discussion groups? Launch a soup kitchen or some other ministry? Find a way to truly make the web a place where people can find new religious inspiration and fellowship, in addition to all the “social networking” that seems to be the fad these days? It’s a known fact that many of the thriving congregations are those who’ve come up with programs that meet the real needs of the people in the communities around them, not just the dwindling few who are long-time members. And oh, yes, one other thing: this suggestion doesn’t mean just adding another duty to your already over-worked pastor. It involves taking initiative yourself, and working together with other like-minded individuals (with support or guidance from the pastor), to get things off the ground. There absolutely has to be interest, investment, and active participation by people at the grass roots level, from the ground up in an organization. When it originates from the “top down,” it’s a sure thing that the effort will peter out when the leader leaves, or needs to switch gears to other activities.
- Don’t settle for being invisible. Sure, you may have a great location, right on the town square. But it’s also a known fact that the longer you stay rooted anywhere, the more you become an “invisible” fixture that people just pass by, without ever realizing you’re there. Do you want to blend into the background, or help people sit up and take notice of you? Flying banners, putting up new signs, and investing in new paint jobs is just a small beginning. More dramatic, more substantive renovations and overhauls will create a lot more attention. When people’s curiosity is aroused, that’s when you might see a few new souls coming in your doors.
- Coffee hours and the “same old, same old” aren’t going to do a single thing for relevance. Ask yourself, what’s really important? If all you’re doing is getting together to dunk donuts and share gossip, that’s not being a church–it’s actually functioning as more of a social club. The faith should be at the heart of everything you do. That doesn’t mean doing away with community meals or other such get-togethers. Rather, it challenges us to take a fresh look at why we do things. How is any given activity actually feeding our faith, instead of simply going through the motions? If we can’t honestly and thoughtfully answer the question “where is God in this?”, then we’re all just perpetuating this crazy dance of fools, who keep endlessly doing the same old thing in hopes that a different outcome will be achieved.
The only true way to stop the madness, and bring back the relevance of religion, is to stop ourselves in our tracks and re-think things as radically and realistically as we possibly can. Otherwise, we’ll never get “unstuck” and out of neutral. It’s up to us to take charge of our own future.