Elizabeth Drescher, author of Tweet if You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, spoke on 21st-century themes November 6 and 7 for a lecture series established in 1880 at General Theological Seminary.
The seminary invited Drescher to deliver its Paddock Lectures in 2012. Junior Charles Bauer (Diocese of Southern Virginia) tweeted as the first talk began, “This is the second time trying to get Elizabeth Drescher here — thanks for the help, Hurricane Sandy.” Drescher spoke on “Media, Meaning, and Ministry in the Digital Reformation.” Her visit drew the largest group of alumni and visitors in memory. Many other participants, both at the seminary and at a distance, posted updates on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter throughout the two-day event.
While the contemporary precipitous drop in church attendance and religious affiliation often distresses Christians, Drescher looked at similar numbers from the late 17th century. Just after the American Revolution, only 20 percent of the population participated in church life. By the Civil War, that had fallen to 9 percent. The trend in the mid-20th century toward 70 percent weekly church attendance was, it seems, an anomaly. Those with no actual religious affiliation (today called “nones”) stand in a long line of similar Americans, even if social convention discouraged people of earlier generations to admit that they had no defined religious conviction.
Even among those who attend church regularly, Drescher said, many do not claim a religious affiliation or a prescribed set of beliefs. Music or social ministries may attract them, but they may hesitate to self-identify as Episcopalians or more broadly as Christians. Many of those who never attend services and have no interest in doing so consider themselves “spiritual.” These are the SBNRs: the Spiritual But Not Religious. Among nones, 65 percent believe in a universal spirit and some call this spirit God.
Many nones claim to follow a spiritual practice, but prayer — usually defined by them as relational or ethical action — is its only classically religious aspect. Prayer is outranked by what Drescher calls “the four Fs”: family, friends, Fido, and (preparing and sharing) food. For nones, these are the keystones of spirituality.
Nones generally are not interested in finding a church, which calls into doubt the frequently voiced assumption that they are adrift and looking for a religious community. They are, however, looking for groups in which honest conversation occurs, and people want to hear and respect diverse beliefs.
In such groups, relationships trump doctrine and exploration matters more than answers. Nones may discover personal meaning, and some will settle for nothing less. Churches that grow, Drescher said, engage in prophetic action.
“Liberal or traditional does not matter,” tweeted the Rev. William Blake Rider, rector of Christ Church, Poughkeepsie. “Prophetic does.”
The Rev. Patrick Malloy