Lillian Daniel is senior pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She published an explosive article over a year ago that’s still reverberating throughout mainline Protestant conversations. It’s titled “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” I also found this recent interview of Rev. Daniel very helpful. I’ve been pondering her assertions since I read her article.
She refutes the idea that those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” are somehow unique or on a higher plane than those who participate in a religious community. She unabashedly defends the benefits of being part of a congregation, and says she is done apologizing for Christian churches and pastors who are nothing like her and the congregation she serves. She’s direct, unapologetic, and forceful.
Rev. Daniel is careful to say she isn’t speaking to those who’ve left after being hurt by the church. Every pastor has heard story after story from people whose deep pain cuts our hearts and stirs up our righteous anger toward hurtful congregations and pastors. Yet often these congregations aren’t anything like hers, and she’s tired of people lumping all of Christianity together.
Her words hit a nerve. Her article is polarizing—some are profoundly offended, others are energized. Her article has almost 600 comments on The Huffington Post, many of them critical. I heard Rev. Daniel speak about this topic at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta last May. The audience was made up of a thousand pastors from many different denominations. She received a standing ovation.
A particular comment in the interview I reference above has stayed with me:
When I speak on this topic people often accuse me of not being compassionate, and often it’s my fellow mainline clergy in the Protestant world, particularly in the liberal traditions, and I myself am in the liberal Protestant tradition. Their attitude seems to be, “These are wounded people, and if we are just kind and nice and listen to them, they will show up in our pews.” I think that’s been the mainline evangelism project for the last 50 years: “If we’re nice, they will come.” And how’s it working for us?
Pastors (often women pastors) use niceness as a crutch. There is terror in the possibility someone will think we’re opinionated, direct and unapologetic. We diminish our extensive training and education that qualify us to preach, teach and guide. This translates into our congregations. The upheld and cherished value becomes “we’re a nice congregation.” When people ask what they love about their church, the answer is “We’re friendly and welcoming.” Or—“Our pastor is really nice.” Or—“We’re not like that church down the road.” We don’t expect anything of our congregations. And in Minnesota, the cultural values line up well.
So often our evangelism tactic is purely reactive. We're so afraid of offending we start every conversation with a new person with an apology. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know you.” “I’m sorry, do you understand our antiquated bulletin?” Or—even worse—we become so paralyzed by fear we don’t approach anyone new. Or—even worse than that—we’re apathetic about our church and don’t think anyone would really want what we have to offer. We’re surprised when we see new members join, and we hope they stick around even after they discover our foibles. We try to please and we forget to challenge.
I find Rev. Daniel's unabashed love for her congregation and denomination refreshing and inspiring. She sincerely believes being part of a religious community is valuable and life-changing. She believes the church offers crucial benefits to our faith. She claims participating in a church is deeper and more meaningful than reading The New York Times or hiking in the woods on Sunday mornings. To be a part of a religious community means to be fed, shaped and inspired. She’s proud of what her community has to offer and she doesn’t apologize.
Evangelism comes from our hearts. It’s not about filling pews to balance the budget. True evangelism grows from our own unabashed love for our church and our faith. We evangelize when we show others how our faith has made a difference in our lives. We move others when we’re honest about our belief in God and the role of our religious community. We don’t need to apologize for the inspiration and guidance we find in our church. Rather, we boldly claim our faith changes us, and being challenged by our religious communities is integral to our growth. We pray people in our communities are challenged and stretched.
We’ve been nice long enough. It’s time to be proud and challenging and confident. Let’s embrace the countless way our religious communities make a difference. Let’s sing their praises and claim our unique offerings to the world. We have much to offer.