The “Nones” at the coffee shop

The “Nones” are the fastest growing group in the United States religious landscape. Time publicized the story in its March 12, 2012 issue.

Last week Rose French, religion editor of the Star Tribune here in Minneapolis, personalized the Pew Forum research in  “Fastest growing group in religious circles? The ‘Nones’”  (10.15.12).

The story begins with Marz Haney, a young woman who grew up attending an evangelical Christian church every Sunday. But she had questions. And, it appears, the church she attended wasn’t big enough for her big questions.

Questions and doubts are not enemies of faith. They are the friends of faith. They refine, correct, expand, and reform faith. They challenge what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith.”

Sartre, of course, thought that all religious faith was bad. Some of the “Nones” agree with Sartre. Others still profess faith or “spirituality” but live it outside the boundaries of the traditional institutions that no longer hold meaning for them.

“I had some doubts all along. I was sort of in continual doubt about my personal salvation,” says Marz Haney.

That Marz and others have concluded that spirituality/faith/religion is all about personal salvation brings me great sadness. That she would think so is a reflection of the right turn that began to dominate the American religious landscape beginning in the 1950s.

To many of the “Nones”, fear and hate have become the face of Christianity. Sometime in the late ’50s, the televangelists began to change the face of Christianity to the world. Those who tuned in watched and heard the voices of snake oil salesmen selling purple handkerchiefs that would heal, if only you purchased one and put the hanky on your television screen while the evangelist prayed for you. Intelligent faith was turned into an oxymoron. One either is intelligent and without faith, or full of faith and without intelligence.

At the coffee shop recently, the proprietor who greets me “Good Morning, Your Reverence” with a smile, invited me to join a conversation he was having with two other coffee drinkers. “You can help us here,” Mike said. His grin told me this was a set up. “If God created the world, who created God?”

“Hmmm. Interesting question. Really good question. Really, really, really good question. It assumes, of course, that everything is created. That’s the way we think. If something’s here, it has to have been created. But that begs the question endlessly. So….maybe some things are not created. Whatever that is ultimate reality. In theology, the word we use for the ultimately real is ‘God’.”

Several weeks later a young couple sat at the table at The School of the Wise, a coffee shop and wine bar humorously named after the euphemism for speakeasies during the era of Prohibition. The couple had sent a message through the church’s website inviting a conversation about their needs and whether Shepherd of the Hill Church might be a good fit.

They were “Nones”. I love this couple! They made my evening. So honest. So genuine. So open. Wondering and hoping that perhaps Shepherd of the Hill might be a place unlike that mega-church up the road whose very small print declares belief in “the intention, eternal punishment of the wicked”. They were cautious but feeling the need for a community that welcomes rather than scorns, unites rather than divides, thinks as well as feels, and moves them beyond self-absorption in the comfortable but confining precincts of economic privilege.Sitting in a coffee shop with The New York Times on Sunday Morning over a cup of coffee was no longer enough.

Which, of course, is what the gospel is about, as I understand it.

Jesus had one message: “the Kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand.”  A “Kingdom” is a society, a commonwealth. A society is people in relationship. “At hand” means “Now!” The kingdom of Heaven was something like the heaven the young couple and I were experiencing right there at the back table in The School for the Wise – real people in real relationships, exploring ultimate reality over delicious mocha-mint-lattes, looking beyond our privilege and celebrating the magnificence of a moment that is at the very heart of  creation as we know it.

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4 thoughts on “The “Nones” at the coffee shop

  1. thank you for that story, Gordon. I have just come back from a lovely spirit-filled weekend with 500 or more “Nones” and a few “Maybes” at the Wellington Folk Music festival. I did actually host a small informal service for the “maybes” on Sunday morning. But it is very much on my heart as to how we start the conversation. Not to convert but to share our questions.

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    • David, It IS the persistent questions that are most important, or so it seems to the two of us. If “conversion” is a 180 degree turn, perhaps it’s a turning toward the questions that bringt healing for the human species and for the planet itself.

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