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Better Than Believing: Christianity for Skeptics, Agnostics, and Atheists

Sceptics, agnostics, and atheists of all sorts are finding that progressive Christian churches accept them just as they are without insisting that they conform their thought processes to some real or imagined standard.  One person may be delighted to discover that participation in the life of a Christian church does not require belief in propositions that run contrary to scientific education and training.  Another, who values honesty above all other virtues, experiences a genuine welcome in a church that puts more emphasis on intellectual integrity than on religious doctrine.  A person who struggled unsuccessfully to accept what was taught in Sunday school feels at home in a church that does not demand the pretence of believing what seems to make no sense.

The growth of a progressive Christian congregation may not lie in its ability to make believers out of skeptics or to talk conventional Christians into switching their loyalties.  Rather, the increase in membership is most likely to be the result of evangelism, that is, letting secular discover what others have found of value in the life of the church.

Knowing the low opinion of Christianity among their friends and colleagues, some newly-minted church members may for a time keep their church participation a secret.  Gradually, however, they develop the confidence to talk openly about what they have found in church.  They begin to tell other people about finding something in church that means more to them than believing.  How they talk about their experience of Christian community has provided the basis for a program of evangelism in many progressive churches.

In 1974, when I was the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill, a committee made up mostly of non-believers designed a flier to let other people in the neighbourhood know about the church.  I think that their work has passed the test of time and can still provide a useful example of how a congregation can reach out to people who are put off by dogma and doctrine.  Their flier was emblazoned with the heading “BETTER THAN BELIEVING’ and posed the question, what is better than believing?  In retrospect, both the question and the answers seem a little arrogant, perhaps an expression of contempt for believers.  Since trying to believe the unbelievable had not worked for members of the committee, however, the flier was an honest expression of what was better for them.

Most of the language in the points that follow are from the original flier, although I have made a few editorial changes.  The commentary under each point is of more recent vintage.

1. Being part of an extended family with “brothers and sisters” who care about you.

As young people begin the process of finding their identities apart from their families of origin, high school and college and the military usually provide a built-in sense of community.  When they suddenly find themselves working at new jobs in strange places, they may feel overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness.  What is true for single people can also be the experience of couples who have no close relationships except each other.  Unless they form immediate bonds with their work mates, they can sometimes feel that nobody cares.

One such woman burst into tears when the person next to her in church embraced her at the Kiss of Peace.  She later apologized and explained that she had been in the city for six months, and except for being bumped when boarding the subway, nobody had touched her.  Another stood up before the microphone at the time when people are invited to respond to the sermon and said, “I don’t believe in God.  I don’t know what to think abut Jesus.  But I know I need to be here.”

2. Participating in the life of a community where your concerns make a difference.

Much of the time people feel like pawns in the hands of big business and big government, being pushed this way and that in a game they do not understand.  Low voter turnout for local elections is one symptom of this feeling.  A progressive church community is one place where they can make their voices heard in setting policy, in establishing standards, and in developing programs that deal with the issues confronting them.

In our growing congregation, some of the married couples became concerned that a recent influx of single people was changing the character of the church.  At a meeting to which the whole congregation was invited, a married woman said that with all these attractive single women around looking for a man, she felt that the church was no longer a safe place for couples.  When others echoed her concern that their husbands might be vulnerable to the advances of single women, a distinguished looking man—probably in his late fiftiesrose to speak.  His face was dark red and his voice trembled as he said, “Look.  You married people can go to any church.  This is the only church that welcomes us singles.”  From that moment on the conversation moved toward an understanding of how the congregation could better accommodate the hopes and anxieties of married as well as single people.  The point is that both groups were confirmed in their right to have a say in the development of their community.

3. Locating companions with whom you can work to help bring to the world a greater measure of social, economic, and environmental justice.

At the end of a fourteen-week course designed to help individuals sort out their values, a young man in the class observed that they had been focused almost entirely on themselves.  He thought it was time to pay attention to other people in the city, especially those who didn’t have a decent place to live.  He asked if other people would join him in forming a task force to see what might be done to improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens with low incomes.  Several members of the class volunteered to join him, but one said that she had already joined the congregation’s committee on ecology and that they were looking for people to help with an evaluation of the church’s energy consumption.

Although progressive congregations tend to encourage individual initiative, sometimes the pastor can help by connecting people with similar concerns.  A woman approached her pastor at coffee hour saying that she had recently learned that her nephew on the opposite coast had AIDS.  Because of the distance, she could not do much for him, but she wondered if she might do something to help people nearby who were suffering from the disease.  The pastor put her in touch with a gay member of the congregation who had lost his partner to AIDS.  Despite their differences in age and sexual orientation, once they had met and talked about their mutual concern, the two people introduced by the pastor decided that they wanted to work together in organizing the church’s outreach to people suffering from HIV or AIDS.

4.Finding your roots in the rituals and traditions of a people with a history.

The desire for ritual and tradition may be as common among those who claim no interest in religion as among believers.  This desire has manifested itself in a number of ways.  For example, as participation in religious organizations has declined, the passion for special days has increased.  Secular people around the globe celebrate Christmas with as much energy as do Christians.  In the United States, they clog the highways and air terminals in a frantic effort to be with family or friends for Thanksgiving.  Adults dress up in outlandish costumes to attend Halloween parties.

Other examples of the desire for ritual and tradition appear in educational institutions at every level.  The cap and gown, once the dress of those holding bachelor’s degrees in medieval Christian universities, now are worn by those graduating not only from college but also from high school, middle school, and even kindergarten.  Homecoming parades, which evolved from religious pilgrimage processions, are attended by throngs of faithful alumni and alumnae.

The genealogy craze also demonstrates the hunger to be people with a history.  We did not come out of nothing.  We have ancestors whose DNA we carry in every cell of our bodies.  Tracing these ancestors through the rapidly-multiplying resources on the Internet fascinates many secular people who may not see that their interest parallels the people of the Bible who felt compelled to supply genealogies even if they had to invent them.

Progressive churches have found ways to let secular people know that the desire for ritual and tradition can be best satisfied in a community that is fully aware of what it is doing.  Rather than blindly perpetuating degenerated rituals and distorted traditions, such as Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties, Christians can point to the origins of their customs and help them evolve to meet changing social circumstances.

5. Growing in awareness of your personal values and your potential as a human being.

Paul Abernathy, the current rector of St. Mark’s Church, once told an interviewer, “We don’t answer people’s questions.  We question people’s answers.”  Making that assertion, he underscored one of the primary benefits available to secular people who affiliate with a progressive Christian church.  Where else can an individual find support in sorting out operational values from stated values?  That is, where else will people be challenged to compare their behavior with what they say matters to them?  That avenue to self awareness is seldom available at work or in a bar or at a party.

Self awareness is an essential part of finding a solid basis for finding meaning and purpose in life.  If you say that making a positive difference in the world is what matters most to you, but if all your energy goes into acquiring more money and more possessions, you are leading a life of self deception.  Self deception as a way of life may work for some people, even believers, but many non-religious people put a high value on personal integrity.  Any church that puts honesty above conformity may well appeal to them.

Growth in awareness comes not only through logical analysis but also through the arts, which can transcend the limits of logic.  Progressive churches tend to offer opportunities for expression and exploration through music, dance and drama as well as through painting, sculpture and photography.

6. Increasing your capacity for open and honest relationships with other people.

In the English language, we use the word “practice” in two quite different ways.  One meaning of practice is to pursue the occupation for which one has been prepared.  Lawyers practice law and physicians practice medicine.  The other meaning of practice is to prepare for a contest.  Athletes practice to hone their skills before taking to the field or court.

For Christians, the first kind of practice is what they do with their daily lives.  They practice Christianity at home or at work or at school or in the neighborhood.  The second kind of practice is what they do at church.  Church provides a relatively safe environment to try out new forms of behavior that emphasize the kind of honesty and concern exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus.

Never losing sight of the church’s business to prepare people for life in the world was one of the reasons that Janice Gregory, The Center for Progressive Christianity’s vice president, was  effective as the lay leader of her local congregation.  In setting the agenda for the congregation’s board of directors, Janice would occasionally include the question, “What have you learned by serving on this board that has made a difference in the rest of your life?”  That question is an excellent reminder that church is not an end in itself, not a refuge from real life, but a place to prepare for more effective living.

7. Approaching God directly through disciplined meditation and prayer.

Many secular people are under the impression that they must turn to the Far East to find guidance in the discipline of what is called meditation of contemplative prayer.  They are unaware of the rich tradition of these spiritual practices among Christians, a tradition that dates back to the early centuries of the church’s life when people in despair over the corruption of Roman society fled to the desert to be alone or to live in small communities.  Much of what they learned has been preserved in the Philokalia, the love of truth or beauty, a collection of writings of eastern Christian monks from the fourth to the fourteenth century.  Also available is the wisdom of many western mystics including St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and the anonymous Yorkshire monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing.

Some progressive Christian churches have formed groups to study these texts.  Some have put into practice the Celtic tradition of identifying “spiritual friends”, either individuals or groups who can provide guidance in the development of spiritual practices.  Some, perhaps inspired by the Philokalia, have emphasized the Jesus Prayer, or prayer of the heart, based on a  repetition of a simple phrase such as, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  Other churches have reintroduced group chanting, the most popular being the Gregorian or Anglican chant that for centuries nurtured the lives of Christians living in monastic communities.

Much of the Christian tradition of meditation and contemplative prayer was forgotten by both Protestants and Roman Catholics in the years following the Reformation.  The influence of Eastern religions and disciplines, however, has stimulated progressive Christians to search for spiritual roots and to make available the fruits of their discoveries.

8. Having a place to celebrate the joys of birth, marriage, and success as well as to find support in the sorrows of death, divorce, and failure.

A distraught husband came to me because he was worried about his wife.  Her mother had died more than a year before, but his wife was still suffering from intense grief.  The mother, like the other members of the family, was an atheist and had told her family in no uncertain terms that she did not want a funeral or memorial service of any kind.  They had honored her request without considering what the cost might be to themselves for not providing an occasion for the identification and expression of grief.  When I told him that it wasn’t too late to hold a memorial service, he agreed to bring his wife and other members of the family to go through the funeral ritual and to tell each other some of their cherished memories about this woman who had been to them a mother, grandmother, aunt, or mother-in-law.  After we read the lessons and some of the prayers, the people sitting in a circle in front of the altar sat in silence for several moments.  Then one by one they told stories.  Some were sad, some poignant, some funny.  They laughed, and they cried.  After the closing prayers, they embraced one another.  They were not believers.  They probably did not understand most of the symbolic language of the ritual.  But as the husband later reported, the healing process had at last begun.

Many secular people instinctively know that they need ritual and community for the major transitions in their lives.  Unfortunately, Christian clergy often fail to respond positively when unbelievers ask to be married in church or to have their babies baptized.  I have heard my colleagues say proudly that they don’t do weddings or baptisms for people who are not church members.  They refuse to be used by people who just want a pretty setting for a wedding or want their baby “christened” as an occasion for a party.  In my experience, such requests for rituals of transition were valuable opportunities for teaching a new group of people what the church has to offer unbelievers.  In each case, the group was not simply the people making the request but included participants such as ushers and bridesmaids, family members, and guests.

Successful Christian congregations that take a progressive approach may not have produced an enumerated list of what they have found of value in the church, but they will have found ways to clarify and articulate what matters to them.  Experience shows that with clarity comes the confidence of church members to speak openly about their positive experiences of  Christianity.  As confidence increases so does a generosity of spirit.  Progressive church members want to draw in their friends, relatives, and neighbors.  They cannot withhold their enthusiasm about the church anymore than they can keep secret their pleasure at discovering a fascinating book or film.  The growth of progressive Christian congregations has been the result of this person-to-person form of evangelism, but success in evangelism has not simply happened.  Success has been the result of thoughtful planning and energetic action taken by congregations and their clergy in achieving clarity, in gaining confidence, and in encouraging spiritual generosity.

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