230514 – All Is Church

Yr A ~ Easter 6 ~ Acts 17:22-31

The numbers are exceedingly disheartening. In 2001 (that’s 20 years ago) around 16% of Canadians claimed ‘no religion’ on the census. In 2021 those ‘no religion’ folks, or ‘nones’ (not nuns, nones!), more than doubled to 34.6% of Canadians. At the same time the number of Canadians who identify as ‘Christian’ went from 77% in 2001 down to 53% in 2021. Post-pandemic I would not be surprised if that number has dropped to below 50% now. But that’s just how someone identifies. My siblings always wrote “United Church” on their census documents because that’s where Mom and Dad (and me) went, but it had no bearing on their lives at all. And they weren’t alone.

Our denomination, the United Church of Canada, apparently has, according to the census, 3% of the population, or just over a million members. However, our internal numbers show that only around 118,000 of those million people attend church in a given week. Here’s some math – we have around 2500 communities of faith – and if you divide those 118,000 people among them you’d get an average attendance of just 47 people worshipping in each place. The good news is that I guess we’re well above average! But the average is worryingly low. It’s unsustainable. The reason it sometimes feels like nobody goes to church anymore is that nobody goes to church anymore!

And in case you hadn’t figured out the obvious, the numbers are distinctly generational. Older folks are far more likely to be Christian, and younger folks are far more likely to be ‘nones’.

But here is some statistical good news. In 2022 a big religion survey was done and Canadians identified like this: the religiously devout – that’s like us, church-goers (or mosque-goers, or synagogue-goers) comprise 16% of Canadians; then there’s the privately faithful – so they’re maintaining some kind of spiritual practice but just not with a church (19%); then come the spiritually uncertain – I’d call them questioners, or wonderers, or maybe even seekers – they might call themselves spiritual but not religious (they make up 46%); and finally there’s the non-believers or atheists (19%).

So, 16% are already in, and 19% never will be. But that leaves a whopping 65% of Canadians who either do their spirituality privately, or are at least open to spirituality in some way. Added to that, 2/3 of Canadians say they believe in God or some kind of higher power. We are a spiritual people, but we’re not a churched people.

Cue Paul!!!

When Paul was invited to speak to the people at the Areopagus in Athens (this is maybe 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection) he began by affirming that they were a spiritual people. (Well, 65% of them anyway!) He noticed that they worshipped a lot of things. The same is true for us. What would you say our culture worships? Probably things like power, fame, sports or music or movie stars, possessions, etc. But there’s also a real spiritual hunger out there – it just isn’t currently focused on organized places like this one. But the spiritual yearning is real.

Paul identified that yearning in the Athenians, and he noticed that they had an altar to “the unknown god” – and that was his “in”. That ineffable sense that there is Something More, but perhaps you can’t name it, or discern it – that feeling in your gut that there’s a sacredness, or a presence, but you’re not sure what to do with it. That’s the ‘spiritually uncertain’ response in the Canadian surveys. That’s the Athenian altar that celebrated the unknown. You see, that word unknown can also be properly translated as unknowable! To the unknowable god. And Paul’s unique insight for these people was that it is actually possible to know this unknowable god. And then he goes on to describe the God he knows.

We can’t know everything about God, Jesus, and Spirit, but we absolutely must affirm that we know something about them if we want to profess that we’re Christians. Christians are people who are committed to knowing God, Jesus, and Spirit. What is essential in this is that we make a differentiation between the idea of knowing stuff about God and knowing God, and Jesus, and Spirit. How has your heart been warmed and your life been enhanced by your spiritual experience? That’s the key! You could have encyclopedic knowledge of Christianity and still not be spiritual, or know God.

To the crowd that didn’t yet know God, or Jesus, or the Spirit, in Acts 17:27 Paul talks about that yearning feeling we have that draws us to search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God – though indeed God is not far from each one of us.
We might fumble and flail around but ultimately we can find God – for indeed, God is not far from us but is right here, right now, present! Always has been, always will be. That’s a knowable God!

Had Paul stopped there he would have done better. But he didn’t. He kept going, and he got down into the weeds. He started talking about coming from one offspring (Adam, presumably), and about ignorance, and repentance, and judgement, and resurrection. Perhaps that went over better in his day, but now, not so much.

When we had our weekly bible discussion called The Porch last Monday, it was a fairly quiet affair, because mostly we looked at the idea of what it would be like to speak to strangers about faith things, and where is the city square now (it’s the internet), and how we need to take our message to people because just waiting for them to drop by is never going to happen (that’s called evangelism). All that was easy and good. Then someone said, “I don’t like that Paul brought up judgement,” and someone else chimed in, and suddenly we were in a full-fledged theological discussion. It was fascinating. All was going fine until Paul brought up dogma. Then it shifted dramatically.

Dogma means tenets or doctrines that are proclaimed as authoritatively true and cannot be challenged. Then you get to Orthodoxy which literally means ‘correct thinking/words/opinion’. It’s the established or traditional view of things (specifically for Christianity it’s the theology and faith outlined in the ecumenical creeds from the 4th century.) As soon as dogma or orthodoxy entered the conversation all that nice connective stuff about spirituality disappeared.

People are hungry and thirsty for spirituality – well, 65% of them, anyway – but they are absolutely not the slightest bit interested in dogma, orthodoxy, or religion. The words ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ used to be interchangeable. Somewhere along the line they got separated, and ‘religion’ got all the baggage and ‘spirituality’ got all the freedom. In Canada only 25% of people think the word ‘religion’ is a positive word. Over 33% see it as negative. Yikes!

I’m not saying there’s not a good time for heavy theological discussion. There is. It just isn’t when you’re first introducing someone to the whole God/Jesus/Spirit thing. At that moment you need to stick with what you ‘know’ – your own, personal, transformative, spiritual experience.

One of our great challenges is that we are not starting from a clean slate, unlike Paul. He didn’t have to shoulder the baggage of centuries of religious history muddying the waters, or scandals, or abuses, or hypocrisy, or atrocities, or residential schools, or closed-minded people who spread hate and exclusion in the name of Jesus. But we do. We know that Christianity is distasteful to many people, because they don’t differentiate between the various denominations and sects. It’s all just church to them.

This sermon series started by saying “I am church,” inviting a personal journey for each of us, then we said “We are church,” exploring how we are interconnected and strong. Those are great, powerful images for us. But we need to remember that the very word ‘church’ is a massive stumbling block for many people. There’s only one way we are going to be able to overcome that block. Relationships. Person to person. Conversations. Connections. Compassion.

All of those things happen ‘out there’ – away from this place. Sometimes I worry that church buildings are far more trouble than they’re worth, and in my darker moments sometimes I fantasize about every church simultaneously blowing up and forcing us to start again.

If ‘I am church’ and ‘we are church’ then we don’t really need ‘churches’ at all. There is nothing about the edifice, the structure, the architecture of churches that is uniquely required for anything. This building, on its own, is no more or less holy or sacred than any other building. So we don’t need churches, but we absolutely do need gathering places where people who seek to be followers of Jesus’ Way can be together.

God’s people have always congregated, just not always in purpose-built buildings. Followers of Jesus have always had places where they got together. The main benefit of church buildings is that ideally they’re crafted with features that promote and facilitate our four pillars – teaching/learning, fellowship and caring, breaking bread and sharing, and worship and prayer. In those ways, churches help us grow ever-deeper in the Way of Jesus. But this is not the only place that those things happen.

We have special buildings for all sorts of things – hockey rinks, concert halls, schools – not because those are the only places it’s possible to skate, hear music, or learn but because the specially equipped building enhances the depth and effectiveness of the experience in many significant ways. So yes, churches are good – but I think we’d do much better, and be much more connective and loving in the world, if we adopted the idea that ‘All Is Church’. Everywhere is church. The building might be influencing us to think that ‘this’ is where the spiritual stuff happens. But spiritual stuff is happening everywhere, because surely God is in every place! Help us notice!

Aha! And there’s the secret of evangelism. Help ‘them’ notice! Paul started off that way, and then got bogged down in dogmatics. If you read on you’d discover that he only successfully engaged a couple of people. Better than none, no doubt. But it could have been so much more if he had refrained from trying to ‘convince’ them of anything and instead helped them to ‘experience’ something – to notice.

That is what people out there are yearning for – a meaningful experience, not to get bogged down with dogma or religion. Our goal shouldn’t be to invite people to church, or even to build up ‘the church’ – it should be to ‘be church’ with them in that moment. All Is Church. God is present. Help them notice. Or maybe describe how it is that you notice – and why that is a nurturing and helpful thing for you.

People don’t want religion, and they probably think they don’t want church. What they’re seeking is a philosophy, an ethic – a way to live that feels deep and has integrity. They’re groping in the dark and flailing around in need of community and mutuality – a people. They’re intensely interested in shared causes and making a difference in the world – a mission. They’re seeking a way, a people, and a mission. Sounds like church to me!

65% of Canadians think they want nothing to do with us, but they want everything to do with what we’re actually all about – loving the holy mystery we’ve chosen to call God – loving people, and loving one another. Our challenge is to reframe and maybe repackage who we are and what we do, and to reintroduce ourselves to the world, and help them notice. And it happens one relationship at a time – one encounter at a time – one noticing at a time.

Here’s a hard truth. Even if we’re wildly successful, they may never want to be part of this kind of ‘church’. But Jesus never taught us to build these things – he inaugurated a movement of spirituality, justice, and abundant life. So it seems like if we really want to be Christ’s church in the world then we ought to ‘get moving’. It’s true that I Am Church, and We Are Church – and it’s also true that All Is Church – and that’s where we’re called to be. Surely, God is in every place. Help them notice.