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Post-Christian Agnostics: Understanding the Spirituality of Most Americans

These days I spend an increasing amount of time listening to the thoughts and feelings of people outside of the Church. I do this for two reasons. First, it’s refreshing for me, a pastor, to get outside of the church world long enough to listen to and attempt to understand different spiritual perspectives. As I learn about other people’s souls, inevitably those conversations become a mirror for me to better understand myself and my own soul, too. But the second reason I have conversations with non-Church people is to better understand the Church’s mission field. My church and I can’t form new connections and new community with people we don’t respect and understand. So often, Church and Church leaders do all the talking, trying to get a  message out there without noticing if people are at all getting what we’re saying or if they even care!

I have a confession to make before I go on. It’s taken me a while to get to this place of truly listening to people of other faith persuasions.

A little bit of autobiography: I was not raised in the Church. Up until my conversion to Jesus Christ when I was 18-years-old, I would describe myself as a pre-Christian Theist. In other words, I believed in God but had no beliefs regarding Jesus. As a matter of fact, it took me a while once I got involved with my church to really wrap my head around the whole Jesus thing. I mean, the only ways I had ever heard the name of Jesus invoked was in swearing or by some wide-eyed TV evangelist carrying on at the top of his lungs about “Jeeeeyzus.” But once I came to enough understanding and appreciation for Jesus to call him my Lord and Savior, I attempted with every effort to try to conform myself to church culture and thinking. And that led me down the road of being so church and Christianity-centered that I began to forget and even despise my unchurched, pre-Christian heritage. I closed myself to anything but Christianity and became pretty obnoxious about it, too.

Well, after many years of trying to unsuccessfully conform myself to church culture and to the religiousity of Christianity, I then began to accept myself for who I am. I am and always will be a disciple of Christ and a part of his Church. But I will never fit nor conform to the norms and expectations of church culture as it’s come to be. I understand its religious rules, norms, traditions, and attitudes, but they’re not really mine. I live and operate within a church system that has become a religious club, living for itself and its own survival, all but abandoning its call to infuse itself into the world around it to love it and to teach and model the good news of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. I live rather uncomfortably within this culture in order to reform it. But it’s not me, and increasingly becomes less and less of who I am.

And that’s why I’ve come full circle, embracing my pre-Christian roots and how they’ve shaped me to be who I am. Those roots have given me enough love and humility to get outside of myself to really embrace other people for who they are. In that discovery, I think I’ve stumbled upon a fairly accurate description of the spiritual state of most people.

Spiritually, I would describe most people as post-Christian Agnostic.

What does what mean?? It’s really not as heady a term as you might think. It’s not meant to be cute and clever. It’s certainly not meant to spur contempt for other people… at all! But this terminology just might help us begin to appreciate the spiritual world of most people and then shape how we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Post-Christian Agnostics share four common traits, each to varying degrees and shapes.

Post-Christian Agnostics have had some previous experience with Church and Christianity and have walked away from it. From having spent significant time in the Church, being raised in it, or having considerable exposure to cultural Christianity, post-Christian Agnostics are already familiar with Christianity and Church. Yet they have found the religion of Christianity and the Church to be irrelevant, deeply disappointing, or damaging. Post-Christian Agnostics will often say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” That’s their way of saying that they hold spiritual beliefs without obligating them to any one religious system, especially Christianity.

Post-Christian Agnostics are agnostic (undefined) about who God is. They are not atheists. In a general sense they believe in a higher power or a greater spiritual being. Or, they believe in a quasi-Christian form of personal deity called God. But because their beliefs are not tied into any religious system, they generally hold no defined sense of God’s characteristics beyond what the person has come to individually experience and accept.

Post-Christian Agnostics hold a scrapbook of experimentally obtained spiritual beliefs. This is the one aspect of postChristian Agnostics that can be the trickiest for Christians to grasp. Most people do not conscientiously systematize their spiritual beliefs. They pick up beliefs like trinkets or snapshots to put into a scrapbook. They’re picked up through life experiences. Most people believe something because its intriguing, feels right, or because it makes sense to them.  So, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon or surprising to find a post-Christian Agnostic who reads her horoscope, finds a neat Hindu mantra to chant during yoga, believes in a guardian angel, wonders what she was in a previous life (reincarnation), has a St. Joseph pendant, gets her palm read, and really thought that Joel Osteen clip on the radio was inspirational!

Post-Christian Agnostics are highly skeptical of any kind of organized religion, most especially the Church. I wish more church-going Christians understood this reality more clearly when thinking about planning ministry for new people. Perception is almost everything. Post-Christian Agnostics perceive the Church to be overly institutional, hypocritical, cliques, out of touch, judgmental, cold, and a whole host of other horrors. Church people don’t think these things about themselves because… well… they like themselves! That makes it hard for church people to grasp many peoples’ reservations about church and why church isn’t even on most peoples’ radar screens on a Sunday morning or on any other day of the week.

Another growing phenomenon related to my last point that really deserves its own blog post is something I call post-church Christians. These are folks who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord, hold a biblical world view, engage in the practices of prayer and Bible reading, and have a clear Christian theology. But, they have abandoned church for the same reasons post-Christian Agnostics have.  Often, they have been a part of many churches and for some reason found them either lacking or painful. In my work with post-Church Christians, I often encourage them to explore alternative, non-traditional ways to be the Church, perhaps by forming small groups or creating a new faith community.

Obviously, I’ve painted some very wide brush strokes in defining post-Christian Agnostics. The spiritual landscape of America is an ever-evolving phenomena which to me can be best represented by throwing random cans of paint against a wall. There’s almost to rhyme or reason to adequately categorizing the spiritual views of Americans. The closest approximation I can come up with has been the description I’ve offered here. Again, I’ll say that post-Christian Agnostics fit in varying degrees to the descriptions I’ve offered above. It truly takes time and love to substantially grasp another person’s spiritual place, and so no one should be arbitrarily characterized.

But, if the church as we know it today has any chance of engaging and including new people, than we must make every effort to understand our mission field. We’re not trying to create new religious people, and believe me, the last thing a post-Christian Agnostic wants is to be converted into a religious person. But, after reaching an understanding our mission field, we can offer people vital relationships– relationships with us and a relationship with the Jesus who died and was raised to life again for every person in our world and for them. It’s all about connecting people, not converting them. The Holy Spirit changes people; we don’t. All we do is offer our lives to other people in love and service and hope, even in spite of ourselves, that they encounter the living Christ within.

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Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Quakes

Touched by a Piano

Over a year ago I began to fulfill a longtime goal: to learn the piano. As a lifelong musician and song writer with a proficient knowledge of music theory and performance in vocals, woodwinds, and strings, my lack of piano technique had been an increasingly painful sore spot. So over a year ago, I asked my church’s organist, Dr. Mack Statham, if he would take me as a student. After a while, he finally agreed. Since then, the journey of learning to play has been one of the most joyful and rewarding endeavors of my life. Of course, any piano student will tell you that learning piano can be just as frustrating as it is fun, but for me, that synergy of vexation and victory defines the essence of joy. While I don’t ever expect to be a concert pianist– God has me plenty busy as a pastor– I can little by little live into my dream of being able to sit down at a piano to play a piece of music.

I’m also blessed to be pastor of a church who thoroughly enjoys and celebrates God’s gift of music. They open any door for musical expression, and here, I have found a place to offer my musicianship in our worship of God. Plus, I’ve never seen a church with as many pianos as this one! Better yet, living next door to the church building grants me the luxury of going over at a moment’s whim to play my choice of one of those dozen different pianos.

But, a few nights ago, I had the time of my life playing one of the most gorgeous instruments I had ever laid my hands on. Here is how it happened…

Once a year, my church welds together our passion for music and mission work into one night and calls it “Missions and Masterworks”. Dr. Mack puts on the concert with all the proceeds benefiting mission work. I can’t think of anywhere else where Gershwin and malaria netting  for sub-Saharan Africa come together. But in our church, they do. For the last three years, Dr. Mack has been joined by his son Robert for a duo-piano concert. They rent two Steinway concert grand pianos and set them in our sanctuary, facing one another, looking almost like conjoined twins.

For the last two years, I eagerly await these concerts. From the moment the piano movers roll in the Steinways until the last chord is played, I am like a little kid in Disney World– wide-eyed, open-eared, ready to run and soak up every moment. It’s seems almost too good to be true having two gorgeous instruments like these with classically trained pianists who master their performance… all in my church!

But here is where my story really takes shape. Late Friday night, well after the concert was over and the lights were off, I walked over to the sanctuary where those Steinway pianos were still sitting. I had all the time I wanted to play them. With my etude and exercise books in hand along with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, I sat down in front of one of the Steinways to play… all by myself in the quiet of the night. The gentle, simple, intricately balanced, clarion sound of every key I pressed rose and resonated into the chancel area where they sat.

In a rare moment I shall not soon forget, that piano swept and held my spirit. It even seemed to carry along my mistakes with its gentle, graceful tones. It was as if that piano beckoned my hands and heart, sweetly calling, “Keep playing… Swim through my sound. Let me take the movements of your fingers, your hands, and your feet, and sing for your soul.” Novice of a player that I am, the piano seemed to help me play through passages I haven’t been able to play before.

I must have sat there in front of that piano for well over two hours. It was all I could do to leave it. But when the reality hit me of how tired I was and how early the morning would be, I knew it was time to go home. Getting up and walking away from the piano was like parting a good friend I might never see again. Yet as I walked home, those feelings of rapture diminished any feelings of grief. It was an experience, simple and yet deeply profound– one that will linger with me for quite a long time.

Being raised in a musical home by musician parents and grandparents, the appreciation and performance of music was a given. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop to deeply listen to some form of music and find myself singing or playing. My home is a musical haven now, filled with instruments, CDs, singing, and playing. Yet moments like that Friday night remind me how deeply spiritual of a thing music is. Music, I believe, was one of God’s first creations. It began the moment his first creatures raised their voices in praise or tapped their feet with any kind of rhythm or pattern. Humanity has revelled in its soul-stirring power ever since. It took a Steinway piano in a late night quiet sanctuary to remind me once again.

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