Friday, August 26, 2011

Pewless in Seattle

Americans love God, but according to the new Barna Group survey on religion in America, we don’t care to visit him all that often. According to Barna while the number of Americans attending religious institutions went up for a moment after 9/11, the number of those who eschew houses of God has increased from 24% in 2001 to 37% today. Holding steady at about 95% is the number of Americans who claim to believe in God.

While the Barna people didn’t survey me, they certainly have me pegged. I believe in God, but I rarely attend worship services. Why? Because the God I believe in has little or nothing to do with what goes on in most houses of worship.

I experience God as Mother and understand God as the ungendered source and substance of reality. My God is unconcerned with religion and the things that many religious people care about: who wins, who loses, and whom God loves best. My idea of God is closer to the ideas of Spinoza, Emerson, and Ramana Maharshi, then it is to the theologies I hear articulated in most Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship. So I rarely attend worship services, and yet I cannot shake my experience of God.

The truth is, however, even if I found a community that promoted an idea of God similar to mine, I still wouldn’t attend all that often. While I benefit from and enjoy ecstatic chanting (kirtan in its various forms), and find extended periods of silence in contemplative communities valuable (I just spent a rich and wonderful week at Wisdom House in Litchfield, CT, a spiritual retreat sponsored by the Daughters of Wisdom), I don’t find myself drawn to regular community gatherings. I seem to be less and less in need of an on-going spiritual community. I have my friends, my books, my practice, and my dog, and that seems to be enough. At least for now.

So before clergy and laity start advocating for change in response to the Barna numbers, they ought to find out what the unchurched are doing instead of church. If they are like me, the future of spiritual retreat centers is bright, but that of formal houses of worship is troubling.

Let me know: Do you go to a house of worship regularly? Why or why not?


Charles Kinnaird said...

I do go to worship regularly because:

1. I value sacred places and ritual. I know that a church, synagogue, mosque, and temple are not the only sacred spots, but there is something to be valued in a place that a corporate body holds as sacred. One of the values of liturgy as I see it in Catholic and Episcopal Churches is that it is always there. There are some days when I am not particularly into it, and that’s okay because other times I can really step into it and experience the sacred moment. It is always there for me to either step into or to observe. One day I may really be “into it” while another is just going through the motions. Another day we will change roles and I’ll be the one going through the motions, but the liturgy is always there and available, nevertheless.

2. It is a habit. I like the continuity. I like that there is a group to which I can belong, even when I am feeling like an outsider. I read a research study that claimed that people who gather weekly with others are healthier. That just affirmed to me the value of my habit. (Of course, I also pay attention to those surveys that say coffee is good for you, but disregard the ones that say coffee is bad for you – you know how research goes.)

3. I am stubborn. I see those surveys that claim that regular churchgoers are more likely to vote Republican, pro-life, etc. I am determined that I will be one churchgoer who will skew the numbers by voting for a liberal Democrat whenever I get the chance.

4. Sometimes I hear something that I need to hear. I must admit that I don’t read the Bible like I did when I was a young Evangelical, but at church I will sit and listen to the readings. Each week I’ll hear readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, a New Testament epistle, and the Gospels. I may even hear something in the homily that is enriching.

5. I know that when I carry non-perishable goods to the First Sunday Food Drive, it will get to people who really need it, and I’ll be helping more people than I could by my own efforts (though I will continue to support liberal government programs than can help even more).

6. I am an introvert, so I have to work at this, but I recognize the need for community.

7. Sometimes programs will be offered that I really enjoy. For example, during the last Lenten season, a study in the English metaphysical poets was offered at our parish – a most inspiring series for one who loves poetry. This summer, our parish participated in an urban gardens project which my daughter participated in, growing vegetables for the local food bank.

8. I’m not saying that I go every single Sunday, so the days I choose not to attend services (when I realize that the Sabbath was made for man (sic), not man for the Sabbath) that in itself becomes a restful, nourishing time.

9. I think it is important to keep institutions intact which can convey our spiritual heritage. Even though most people I know who have a vibrant spiritual life must move on from the rote elementary practices found at the parish level, we still need that traditional institution to provide us with some common language and concepts.

10. I like the music. Sometimes the music does more for me than anything else. For me, music is a quick path to transcendence.

The Shadow said...

Rabbi Rami,

I love your articles and truthfulness. My spirit calls me to spend more time in prayer, community; but not in church. I am there because I am a pastor called by GOD and now burdened with my calling that provides my living. If I was indenpendently wealthy; had my own home etc. (Maybe I just need to trust GOD more?) If I were wealthy, I wouldn't go to church very much either. Kinda hypocritical huh; maybe that is the problem in the churches? Clergy getting paid? Don't tell the church I serve it may catch on and then I would have to change what I do for a living. I have started a Spiritual Group where I don't get paid. We are inclusive, not dogmatic; this community I cherish.

Denucho Attarian said...

Loved Charles Kinnaird's well thought out answer. Guess it comes down to are you attending to get something or express something. Thanks for the thought provoking post Rabbi.

W. Lotus said...

I love listening to kirtan. I love doing yoga a couple of times a week as a form of meditation. I love sitting in contemplative silence.

I rarely go to formal worship services.

A lot of it is because I was forced to go to church for the first 19 years of my life, whether I wanted to go or not (and I mostly did not want to). I still feel a huge sense of loss for how much of my young life's joy was leeched out of me or which I never experienced, because I was sitting in someone's church instead of living and enjoying life. That makes it very, very difficult for me to justify getting up and out of the house on any given day to attend a worship service.

Unknown said...

I had been part of Jewish Recon chavurah locally for about 3 years and would attend on and off when I felt inspired, however recently have felt less and less inspired, mostly because of a long-term preference for a home-based and earth-based spirituality. I prefer to practice either in my backyard or in nature.

A lack of connection at a personal level has made me stop attending as well as the fact that I have two young children and an interfaith spouse. If the community had more experiental activities like your describe (chanting, kirtan, silent meditation), I might attend more often, but I still wouldn't attend more than say once a month most likely. Not being able contribute much financially or time-wise also makes me feel somewhat dead weight to such a community as well.

Rabbi Rami said...

Wonderful posts, everyone. I appreciate your candor, thoughtfulness, and respectful tone.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

You wrote: "I seem to be less and less in need of an on-going spiritual community. I have my friends, my books, my practice, and my dog, and that seems to be enough. At least for now."

Though not and answer to your questions, I'm saddened to see that "family" is nowhere on/in your list.


Raksha said...

Rabbi Rami,

Re "I experience God as Mother and understand God as the ungendered source and substance of reality."

That is such a simple, elegant and beautiful expression of my own experience of God that the only thing I can add to it is "Me too!"

I hope you don't mind if I steal that to use as my sig line on another forum, because I'm going to do it anyway! I'll credit you, of course.

I realize that isn't an answer to your question about formal religious observance, and I'll try to get to that one later on. However, I can't promise anything because I have a lot on my plate today.


tigerlily030 said...

I've been seldom going to worship services in recent years. I'm not particularly happy about that fact. I don't believe I need to go to a house of worship to visit with God/dess. I know She doesn't live there. But I miss having a sense of community for my spiritual self. Partly I blame general busyness that has kept me away. But more signicant is the challenge I have to find what suits me close to home. I've been privileged to be able to afford to go to retreats where I've found myself at home. But I wish I could have that more than once a year or so.

I'm finding myself looking forward to the High Holidays even though I'll be spending them at a boring Conservative synagogue with my family. But I'm ready to be back, at least for awhile, to being in institutional sacred space with others. Generally I can find a few nuggets of gold to connect to among the hours at services

Peter Schogol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Schogol said...

First, I ascribe to Groucho Marx's philosophy of not caring to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

Second, I don't go to religious services because invariably the language turns me off.

Third, I change the object of my devotion more regularly than my socks; even Unitarian Universalists think I'm a flake.

So while I belong to a Reform Temple it is really faute de mieux. I don't like belong alone.