I took this photo on a blustery afternoon a few years back. This is the roofline of the chapel at Linwood Spiritual Center, home to the Sisters of St. Ursula, and an important place of meditation and learning in my life. Taken in the waning days of autumn just before the inevitable slide into a cold winter, the stark nature of the cross against a gray sky speaks graphically to me of the existential challenge facing religious institutions, in my case, those of the Protestant mainline, and specifically, the United Church of Christ, which is my spiritual home.
Contemplative life has a built-in appeal to those who characterize themselves as spiritual, be they religious or not. The language of meditative practice is spoken across a wide spectrum of spirituality, and is probably the most organic form of ecumenism that exists. What we have not been able to do institutionally, we often do experientially when people from all walks of life get in a room and get silent. We may have different language to describe where we are, but when we practice together we can recognize that it is taking us to the very same place, and this alone exceeds the spiritual power of any institution.
So, of what value are those institutions and traditions that we still embrace? Does going to church on a Sunday morning have any connection with the consciousness we experience in a group of meditators? Have we been fooling ourselves all these years by doubting that people really do find God on the golf course, on a hike, or in private prayer vs. participating in a weekly worship service?
These questions might be more simply put, “Why go to church at all?”
My own answer has to do with the power of community, the quantum energy found in sheer collaboration. But this is where the social media platforms have outdone us, providing instantly what used to take a lifetime in institutional process. We speak often of the need connect our churches with the missing “millenials” only to wring our hands in defeat because our communities can’t compete in such a marketplace. Many studies show what we already know intuitively, that young people aren’t looking for something else to join, but they are looking for community. They may not share their grandparents’ religious brand-loyalty, but they do respond to the causes that they care about. They are more comfy in their smartphones which take them anywhere they wish to go, than in the sanctuaries which seem cold, distant, and worst of all, boring.
Most young people care very little about what we believe. They just want to know what we’re going to do about the things that matter to them, like economic justice, homophobia, the rights of immigrants, or the sullied and sickened earth that we are handing them. What are we going to do about the refugee crisis, about the rights of women and minorities that are under constant attack? Are we going to get busy and help them create a new world, or just kick the problems down the road and hope they come up with something when their time comes?
And what if we made this THEIR time? What if instead of handing them the future, we let them bring us into the present moment? What if we invited the smartphones to church and let them have their way with us, tweeting furiously for all the world to see? It might radically alter what we do inside and outside the walls of our aging structures, and that wouldn’t be so bad after all.
There is always that uncomfortable moment when the kids must be allowed to drive the car. For awhile it’s hard to let go of that imaginary brake pedal in the passenger seat, but once we do, it can be a pretty nice ride.