More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions – either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.
According to my survey, a range of internal conflicts is driving Americans from God-talk. Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent). Whatever the reason, for most of us in this majority-Christian nation, our conversations almost never address the spirituality we claim is important.
Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them
Can we talk?
The rather directive parishioner showed up in my office to inform me that I was coming to her house for dinner. A woman of accomplishment in her profession, an active member of our church, she wanted me to help her solve this puzzle. She worked with dedicated, highly ethical people. They were kind, honest, generous folks. They cared about the pain of the world. And they seemed to have no interest in religious observance. She wondered about that. Why was she so committed to the life of the church and they were not at all committed?
This called for more exploration. So she planned to invite twelve of them to her fancy apartment for dinner to discuss. She would give them fair warning and tell them that there would be a topic of conversation over dinner. They would each be asked to fill in the blank: God in my life…
I was to be there just in case a cleric was needed. She bravely did the inviting, making clear her agenda for dinner conversation, not sure anyone would come. She got twelve affirmative responses. I was nervous. I think she was too, though she didn’t let on. As the dinner unfolded, me and a table full of strangers from varied religious backgrounds, I was amazed. We couldn’t shut them up. Everyone had a story. This one time soiree morphed into an ongoing group that met monthly for several years discussing religious topics. All they needed was someone to give them a chance to speak about spiritual matters.
Our work with congregations asks people about their beliefs, their spiritual practices, the ways they serve in the world. As we speak about these things, we find that often the language of faith is loaded for people who have migrated to the Episcopal Church from other Christian communities. Some as come as refugees. Some seek asylum, as often those folks have been wounded by their traditions of origin. Often the way we speak about faith pushes buttons. I often hear people say: “That’s not my language.”
A wise mentor helped me navigate this. Here’s what he would say to folks when they distanced themselves from particular religious language: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?” He offered a gracious invitation to find words that rang true. It could often be a slow start, but once we got going, it opened up new conversations, life-giving conversations.
Today’s reflections were triggered by a column that recently appeared in the NYTimes, copies of which were sent my way by several people I respect. A small portion of the article is included above. The columnist helped me find the language to say that it’s hard for people to find their language, especially when it comes to things about God.
So having said all this, let me ask: Where in your life are you able to fill in the blank: God in your life….? Where can you talk about that with others?
If you have no such venue, maybe you can be brave and create one. Because the longer I do this work, the more I believe that every one of us has a spiritual story. Each one of us is on a spiritual journey that matters to God so it better matter to us. Everybody has a God-shaped space inside. Our hearts are restless until that space is filled. This week, talk among yourselves about the contours of that space, what it feels like. And talk with someone about where that space is being filled.