Yesterday, the New York Times published a story on Evangelicals’ shift from the waning stadium/corporate retreat megachurch model to experimentation with communities that are more localized and based on the arts. It’s a response to the growing population of “Nones”, those people who identify themselves with no religious affiliation. These are individuals, usually younger, who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” And in an attempt to tap into that vague, nebulous, and non-foundational sense of spirituality, churches are retooling themselves in new ways to reach out to them.
The article focuses on one particular church, Life in Deep Ellum, in a traditionally artsy part of west Dallas called, eponymously, Deep Ellum. The website of Life in Deep Ellum (LDE) describes the group as “a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic, and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum, and urban Dallas.” The Times had to lead its story with some church and they chose this little outfit, so it’s unfair to say that LDE is emblematic or representative of this trend The Times is reporting. But ultimately this is a “Mom and Pop” (the lead pastor and executive director are married, with a family) endeavor with the leadership trained in the socially-conservative and theologically-distinct Pentecostal tradition of the Assemblies of God (with a few Oral Roberts University degrees in there), though their Statement of Faith page seems pretty vague and “user friendly” Evangelical. Theologically, it’s a soft sell. You wouldn’t know this is a Pentecostal joint just by looking at it and, if asked, the Powers That Be would probably be quick to emphasize Jesus and not doctrinal distinctions. And that’s the point. After a few months of participation at LDE, you may not call yourself Pentecostal, but your theology may be.
The soft sell is unsurprising. The Mainline denominations have their identities built into the names of their churches right there on the marquee: Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal. You know, generally, what’s what. “Seeker-friendly” Evangelical churches sometimes have more nebulous names like Redeemer, River, or Community Church. They don’t like traditional labels, but the theology is traditional Evangelical. Anti-institutional trends have steered clear of the old Mainline behemoths of theological and cultural identity towards these other, “broader” Christian groups.
A sociologist of religion once told me that the traditional Mainlines have peaked and fallen with the immigration of particular populations. Northern European immigration brought Lutherans. Scottish and Dutch immigration brought Presbyterians. Italian and Irish immigration brought Catholics. This was the first 150 years of the United States. Unsurprisingly, with recent increases of Hispanic immigration, Roman Catholic populations are growing in some areas, notably the South. But this is fresh growth, not demographics who have been in the States for some time, whose ancestors passed through Ellis Island. With organized religion, and by that I mean mostly organized Christianity, the Nones are done. And while the Mainlines were the first to develop the crisis, the so-called “non-denominational” Evangelicals have themselves to blame for the position they’re in now.
The so-called “Willow Creek” model that has ballooned over the last twenty years, with its one-stop shopping and corporate retreat center seating, is dying. I think this death is part of a cultural leftover from the economic feel-good days of the Clinton years, when it started, and the national Evangelical unity that participated in George Bush’s post-9/11 disillusion of a United States that has a particular theological identity. Yes, I do pair the rise of this particular kind of Evangelical culture (far from the only kind, just a very visible, popular kind) with the economic and political contexts of the last two decades. While Mainline denominational affiliation continued to tank, the megachurch model flourished and acquired socio-economic and political capital, capital that has, as the last presidential election and the Pew Report on the Nones demonstrate, been spent to deficit. Nones see that the perpetual motion machine of a Grand Unified Field Theology of a particular interpretation of Jesus is not only insufficient, but non-existent.
The inability of the Mainlines to express and inculcate their own distinct theological identities, connections, and purposes within subsequent generations after the 1950s, while failing to adjust and respond conscientiously to the social and cultural crises of the 1960s and beyond have caused great damage. There were great opportunities to respond broadly and positively to Civil Rights in the 1960s, Women’s Rights of the 1970s, Nuclear Disarmament of the 1980s, Gay Rights in the 1990s, and anti-xenophobia in the 2000s, with a spirit of economic and social justice throughout. In their defense, they ran into real trouble to do so as they were gripping internally with the very issues, (e.g., racial integration, women’s ordination, the role of the Church in national defense, the acceptance and endorsement of homosexuality, and inter-religious/cultural dialogue) the culture-at-large was addressing. So there was no way to win. If anything, the Mainlines were crucibles, suffering the direct pressures of cultural tectonic plates and their subsequent earthquakes. And from the fissures arose the disenchanted Evangelicals who were tired of religiosity and wanted “just Jesus”, as poetically exemplified by the aggressively Calvinistic Mars Hill’s Jefferson Bethke and ably refuted by my friend, Phil Fox Rose.
So now, there are the Nones, who appeal to a vague “spiritual, but not religious” moniker. What does “spiritual, but not religious” even mean, really? What does “spiritual” mean in today’s hyper-consumerist, socially-mediated, digital culture? Is it just the aesthetic sense of a connection with something other beyond that of institutional identifiers and doctrines? What’s new and interesting about that? Not much. It’s just depressing, as Sherry Turkle is quick to illustrate in her interview with On Being‘s Krista Tippett. This trend of Nones strikes me as interesting only in that there is a larger number identified (and self-identifying) than there used to be. This idea of “spiritual, but not religious” is nothing new and has been mapped out in various ways by such thinkers as Ludwig Feuerbach and William James. So, while interesting as a cultural trend, the fact of the matter is that both Mainline and Megachurch have failed the Nones by not providing the critical and self-critical tools for theological analysis and reflection. The Nones have a sense of spirituality, but don’t self-identify with any group or habitual practice.
So the Nones have not gone elsewhere, but nowhere. And maybe they’re fine with that, because there is no “here” or “there” anymore in our socially-mediated world. There is no “where”. One theory of the etymology of “religion” proposed by Lactantius, a Christian advisor to the Emperor Constantine in the Third Century, is that it means “bound back to God by the bond of piety.” And the Nones don’t have that and they don’t want it. They may have some sense of piety (or whatever you want to call some aesthetic sensibility), but have no binding, no connection, no tether to some articulated divinity. And with no tether, there is the perception that there is nothing necessary or significant to be attached to. And in the theological vacuum, the “space” becomes identified with some default sense of “spirit”. It’s not that Nones are developing atheologies. They’re creating spiritualisms that risk pneumatological solipsism, which perhaps puts them into a weird Cartesian “Cogito esse spiritualis, ergo sum spiritualis,” I think I am spiritual, therefore I am spiritual. So in going nowhere, they are only spiritually “there” in their individual selves, as slippery as this thing called “self” has become these days. Their challenge then will be how to find likeminded people in spiritual community. The question is “Can this rhizomatic approach hold in a sustained sense of spiritual fulfillment desired in community?”
And so we’re back to Life in Deep Ellum and a myriad of other Pentecostal and Evangelical groups who are trying to attract and develop a desire within Nones to participate and buy into their particular groups. I find the soft sell highly disingenuous. It’s the bait-and-switch model of the supposed “non-denominational” churches, which are just late-model evangelical Protestantism birthed out of the more self-substantial theologies of the Puritan Jonathan Edwards and the Methodist Wesley brothers. It’s never “just Jesus” and it can never be. Evangelicals like Bethke, Mars Hill’s founder Mark Driscoll, and their ilk may try to say otherwise, but they’re wrong. Nones are best to be especially wary of the Pentecostals who seek to appeal to Nones’ desire for spirit, for Pentecostals, more than most Christian expressions, have a very distinct, articulate, and heavy-handed theology of the Holy Spirit. It’s up to the individual None to develop a robust pneumatology with the critical instruments they have at hand.
Good luck with that, kid. You’re still in the boat with the majority of the religiously illiterate, ill-provided with the critical tools of theological reflection and religious identity. The trick is can the Nones articulate and create sustained practices to live out their pneumatologies. Nones, like the Mainlines and Evangelicals, have to rethink what a paddle is, and figure out how to row, if they even want to row at all. Oh. And the boat is leaking, so there’s that, too.
The café model that churches are trying is not new. In fact, for a while I was part of a college group that did a one-night experiment of what church would look like if it were a cabaret, of sorts. There was a stage and tables with bowls of snacks (but no beer, as this was a Southern Baptist group), and there were stripped down music acts, some monologues, and eventually a sermon. It was called “The All Soul’s Bar and Grill.” It was an in-house thing and I attended, but did not actively participate in the bill. But I remember that there was a different kind of feel to it. There was something of a slow, bluesy melancholy about the whole thing. It felt like we were all in this together, in a bar at the end of the road. I remember that I liked it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t think anyone did. But it is one of the few enjoyable moments of my Evangelical days. It was different and while, in the sermon, it ultimately offered traditional Evangelical answers, I don’t remember anything about that. I remember the feel of the thing and the existential quality that what we were doing had a certain sadness to it, a sadness we all shared.