Engaging the “Spiritual” and “Religious” not involved in church

18 Sep 2022 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Engaging the “Spiritual” and “Religious” who are not involved in church

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

Research gives us insights into the nature of our society, and helps guide the church in how it might best respond.  A recent conversation between Rev Mat Harry (New and Renewing Communities Catalyst with the Vic/Tas Synod UCA) and researcher Rev Prof Philip Hughes focused on people in society who are described as spiritual and religious, and who are not actively participating in Christian Community – sometimes referred to as “the nominals”. Philip Hughes is Senior Research officer with the Christian Research Association – www.cra.org.au. In the conversation, Mat and Philip share insights about the nominals, noting that this is a group in society with whom there is great potential for the church to connect.

Census data shows that 43% of Australians identify with Christian churches, but just over 10% attend. This means that there is over 30% of the population who identify but are not involved in religious activities.  A different survey in 2018 found that 22% of the Australian adult public are spiritual and religious, but only half are involved in churches.

Research shows that many of these attended when young, but in growing older they have fallen away. As they age, there are issues of priorities. They are busy with work and families, and don’t have enough time to be involved with church. Most of this group are 35-50 years old. They are spiritual and religious but not involved.

A study of 20 000 people across different Christian denominations showed four different patterns of faith that give further insight about why these spiritual and religious are not involved:
  1. Devotionalists – for these people, personal engagement with God is important, and it is important to keep this daily. Church was part of this devotion in feeling close to God. This group tend to retain their involvement in church.
  2. Conversionists – the general view of this group is that people in the church are the ones who are saved. Hence, they want others to come in, and church involvement is important.
  3. Conventionalists – for this group, being Christian is about keeping the 10 commandments. So long as you do that you are OK, you are good people. Many in this group did not see the need to go to church. Church was not necessary to be a good person.
  4. Principlists – this group is not so much focused on the 10 commandments, but the basic principle to love others, to have compassion. The principles are important, but the church is not necessary for this way of life. Church is a good thing but not a necessary thing. They want their children to absorb these principles, and so send their children to church based schools. One of the expressions of these principles of love and compassion is involvement in social justice. The story of the Good Samaritan resonates strongly. They become involved in organisations that do social justice.
Of these nominals, 90% say religion continues to shape their lives. A clear question for the church is – How do we do Christian community so that we engage these people?

This group says churches are good places to make friends and churches are good places for people in times of trouble. Most are concerned that churches have too much power, and they are concerned about institutionalism of the church – that most of money goes to supporting the structures of religion. They are wary of getting involved to support such institutionalism, rather they want compassion and social justice. Many might already be involved in church agencies but are not interested in worship services.

These would be open to small groups that have limited commitment and timeframes – might be a walking group, book club, or meditation. This allows them to explore and participate but not get too involved in keeping the institution going with buildings and committees. They probably are not all that keen on listening to sermons, though they are keen to be part of discussions. They do want to make friends and to have support in hard times, but as consumers they want to obtain this without getting involved too deeply in ways that will drain them with responsibilities of positions and meetings.

In thinking about appropriate worship events, those with the principlist pattern of faith are not all that keen on doing exegesis on obscure Bible passages. Rather, they prefer dealing with human experience and bringing the wisdom of faith to those human experiences, otherwise it is irrelevant. Sermons need to be humanly orientated, arising out of listening to the themes in people’s lives. The exegetical or philosophical reflections send people home thinking that was nice, but what did it mean, what is its significance.

As Mat and Philip’s conversation winds up, they note two different phenomena:
  • Generally, the church offers activities for people to engage, but we have done this in ways that do not create the opportunity for deeper involvement.
  • The growth of large mega churches. In the UK, attendance at cathedrals has been increasing while decreasing in local churches. Also, in Australia attendance at mega churches is increasing while suburban churches are getting smaller. With mega churches people don’t have to have enormous amounts of commitment as there are plenty of professionals to do the work, and there is a whole range of activities for people to get involved in if interested.
To watch a video of Mat’s conversation with Philip, follow this link – How Would You Engage the Spiritual & Religious? - YouTube. Perhaps you could encourage your church council or small group to watch and discuss this video together to see what it means for the future of your congregation.