“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
This is a phrase that is becoming more and more commonplace throughout American society and a phrase I hear on almost a daily basis as I meet people in downtown Phoenix.
In fact, The Pew Research Center recently released a study that indicates:
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
A colleague of mine mentioned recently that older generations were “religious, but not spiritual” while younger generations, today, “are spiritual, but not religious.” Certainly there was a time when going to church on a Sunday morning was the socially expected thing to do. As the suburbs grew and people started to move out of the cities and into bigger houses with higher fences, churches became the community gathering places and social clubs. Being religious was practical and normative and not so much spiritual or mystical.
Today, churches are some of the last places many young people would voluntarily walk in to. That, however, does not mean that they don’t hold religious beliefs. It often just means that many have given up on trying to live out their faith through institutions they no longer see as relevant or even damaging to society. So, religion becomes less practical and functional, in society. Conversely, there seems to be, more than ever, a deep longing that people have to connect with something bigger than themselves, on a spiritual level.
I’ve been living in central Phoenix and working in downtown for five months now. Brian (my co-pastor) and I were inspired to begin a new faith community in downtown because we had both seen something new happening there that resonated with us on personal and spiritual levels. Indeed there is an excitement about this emerging city, led by creatives, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, community activists and business coalitions. Central Phoenix is quickly becoming a magnet for young professionals and progressive minded urban dwellers. As the price of gasoline increases and the light rail expands, people are finding living in the city more sustainable and beneficial to their pocketbooks, in place of living in larger and less expensive homes in the suburbs, which require long and grueling commutes to work and back.
It also seems that people are drawn to Phoenix because it is a city that seems set on building community. You need only walk into one of the amazing locally owned and managed restaurants or bars in Phoenix to feel the communal vibe, or the art galleries that also act as event and office spaces, co-working spaces, independent coffee shops, seemingly unlimited mixers for professionals and entrepreneurs, gatherings and events in pop-up parks, and community festivals, all of which create a neighborhood and small community feel in the nation’s sixth largest city.
These are the new gathering places and social clubs, these are the places offering creative transformation and hope in our urban centers.
I wonder sometimes, though, if people are coming back to the urban centers to escape religion. Suburban churches tend to be “attractional” churches, meaning they depend on offering the best music, sermons, and programs to attract members. Many do really good work in the community but often suburban churches are like anything else suburban: cookie-cuter, corporate, and consumeristic.
It’s not that Phoenix doesn’t have churches. In downtown, aging cathedrals and sanctuaries stand tall enough to notice and offer architectural beauty, yet many see declining attendance each Sunday and many of their members commute from the suburbs for one reason or another.
Many people I’ve met, who live downtown, are happy not to be a part of anything religious, however, they pray, meditate, talk about making good moral and ethical decisions, and envision how to make our world a better place. Yet these things are private, these things have deep meaning, these things are “spiritual.”
It’s not that people don’t want to talk about these ever increasing personal practices, they just don’t want to deal with the baggage that comes with talking about God, religion, and especially Christianity. No one wants the potential judgement and the hypocrisy that comes with it.
So faith and spirituality bubble underneath the surface, but everyone hesitates to name it or discuss it.
How do we begin, then, to bring the conversation and practice of religion, faith, and spirituality into the public sphere in downtown Phoenix?
There’s a couple ways to do this.
First, you can transplant suburban church into downtown. That’s what a non-denominational mega church from the east valley is doing. A few months ago they purchased a historic downtown church that could no longer be supported by the denomination that built it. In January they will move in with hundreds of transplanted members and will instantly become one of the largest downtown churches. This isn’t a new idea. Thriving non-denominational churches throughout the country have identified the trend of younger populations moving back to our urban centers. Recognizing that everything old is new again, they are purchasing properties from dying mainline downtown congregations and transplanting growing evangelical congregations into them. How will these churches and their members interact with what is already happening in these cities? Will they contribute and enhance the uniqueness and organic-ness of these emerging centers or will they simply create the very thing that everyone who came to the city was trying to escape from? I have no doubt that whatever happens they will do good work and they will change lives in the community.
However, an alternative way we can bring religion, faith and spirituality to the surface is to recognize the work that God is already doing in the city. We can create space and opportunities for open and honest conversation about our beliefs and spiritual connectedness. We can identify and name those sacred spaces that provide meaning and hope for the community. We can join together as partners in showing what it means to offer grace and love to those in need. We can celebrate and mourn together through shared practices and rituals. We can vision together and challenge each other, our leaders and elected officials to continue to create a community that offers a future of hope for all of its people and the environment we live in.
As downtown Phoenix emerges and finds its voice, how will religion and spirituality be a part of it? Will faith and spirituality be as unique as the city itself? Will it be creative, innovative, and artistic? Will it be prophetic and visionary? If faith is to become part of the fabric of Phoenix, it won’t be through the work of one church or faith community, it will be through the work of many partnering together, along with those who individuals and groups who are non-religious. That’s been my favorite discovery about Phoenix: it’s a city being built on community partnerships and togetherness. It’s not perfect and at times it’s messy, but overall, it’s hopeful and it’s beautiful. I’m honored and privileged to be a part of shaping the future of Phoenix. If you’re part of this community, I hope you feel the same way and I hope you will join me on this journey of creating something new and meaningful for a great city.