Diana Bulter-Bass wants people to start asking “how” and “who” about their religious and spiritual beliefs. She wants them to start asking “what” and “why” about the behavior that attends those beliefs.
The mark of religion that is declining in the United States is a preoccupation with the “how” of religious behavior. Whether that “how” is experienced as the committee structure of the local church or the gauntlet of technical curriculum and programming produced by denominations, a preoccupation with “how” without enough of an occupation with “what” and “why” has dried up the well of institutional religion.
Here’s the money quote from the chapter on behavior in Butler-Bass’s new book: Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening:
Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the how of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the what and why of faith. Maybe their parents forgot to share the what and why with them. In an inherited familial culture, the what was assumed and the why was unnecessary. In a fractured individualist culture, there exist no compelling reasons to reenact familial vocations in work and prayer and many compelling reasons to depart from old ways. Since this cultural shift, three entire generations have been born into a world where the threads of memory have been cut and where life has to be woven anew by each of us. It is up to each one of us to stitch a new fabric of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.
Given this observation, when a friend confides in me, “I don’t know why I go to church,” all I can think is: good. Now we’re getting somewhere.
But hold off on “why” for a minute. What is the “what” of “going to church?” When you invite a person into your church experience, what are you inviting them to do? Come to an hour-long worship service? Give money? Serve on a committee? What are the verbs we use to give life to what church participation is about?
Asked another way, what is the substance of the activity in which people are participating when they do church these days? I’ve written before about Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating The Imagination for A World of Constant Change, and their interest in forming collectives of learners instead of communities. Collectives are platforms for interaction. Collectives are self-chosen. Collectives are defined not by the people who participate and their expertise but by the “what,” by the substance of an activity they’re engaging together. The crowd in a karaoke bar is a collective; singing and drinking are the “what” of their activity. The “how” is clearly secondary.
What, then, does your church do?
And what are people doing who are not doing church? What are the practices that make up the modern American Sunday morning (or Friday night) where religious observance once reigned? Maybe by taking an honest look at the “what” of the activities people are choosing over church we can come to a better understanding of what’s distinctively valuable (spiritual, even) about our religious expression as well as what about it might need to change.
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