New York Times Report: “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion” by Laurie Goodstein

Laurie Goodstein, citing a recent Pew Research Center study, notes that one out of every six person in the world does not affiliate with any religious group.  “Many of the people in this group,” Goodstein notes, “do hold some religious or spiritual beliefs and may even believe in a deity, but they do not identify with a particular faith.”

A recent EthicsDaily.com column by Ircel Harrison, “When Seminary Students Don’t Have a Faith Tradition,” noted a similar trend in students attending seminaries or divinity/theological schools.

This is an interesting pattern for people of faith to consider as they look ahead to the future of their individual faith communities and their faith tradition as a whole.  It raises many questions for reflection, such as:

  • What perspectives might need to change with regards to affiliation with a particular denomination within a faith tradition and/or with regards to affiliation with a particular faith tradition?
  • How can churches (and faith traditions) reach out and minister to those who define themselves as non-religious or spiritual but not religious?
  • What lessons can be learned from those who once were labeled “missionaries” and now are often called “field personnel” of their particular faith tradition (or denomination)?

Helpful, but very different approaches, to offering meaningful interaction to those who do not claim a particular religious tradition can be gleaned from J. Vincent Donovan’s, “Christianity Re-Discovered” and John Shelby Spong’s, “Jesus for the Non-Religious.”

Their approach and perspective, among many others, can provide insight into how Christian faith communities and the Christian faith tradition may reach out to and speak in meaningful ways to this growing population groups.

Commentary that seems overly caustic toward those who label themselves “spiritual but not religious,” as Alan Miller has done in a September 2012 CNN blog post and again in a October 2012 Huffington Post op-ed, is unhelpful.

What is needed is conversation between those who still identify themselves with a particular faith tradition (or at least a local faith community) and those who still seek spiritual, religious experiences but do not identify themselves with a particular tradition or local expression thereof.

If both sides are willing to converse in order to better understand one another–rather than engaging in pejorative characterizations and critiques of one another, most often based on an “outside looking in” perspective of the other side–then true understanding can emerge, hopefully resulting in collaboration on such things as community service projects.

Two EthicsDaily.com documentaries on interfaith cooperation, “Goodwill for the Common Good” and “Different Books, Common Word,” offer helpful insight into how faith communities and traditions can engage and collaborate with persons and groups of differing perspectives.  The principles and patterns could be applied to people of faith engaging and working with the growing number of “spiritual but non-religious” or “nones.”

If churches and faith traditions decide to take the approach of people such as Alan Miller, choosing to criticize rather than engage those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” they will be missing out on significant opportunities for meaningful conversation  and meaningful chances for collaboration in the local community that will benefit everyone involved.

The full-text of Goodstein’s article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/world/pew-study-finds-one-in-6-follows-no-religion.html?_r=1&

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