The Need for a Psychology of Spiritual Journeying
This title is that of Chapter one of my ebook, Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey. The following article is a summary of that chapter, to be followed by similar summaries for the other chapters.
“The Explosion of The ‘Nones'”
This is one of the biggest news stories of change in America.
“Nones” are those choosing “none of the above” from the long list of religious groups in the United States. (Canada is similar and tends to fit the US pattern pretty closely.) It isn’t just Millennials or younger people leaving their churches who make up this fast-growing demographic. They may be more likely than older folks to have no religious affiliation (or even much interest). But people of all ages are voting against religion with their feet. Or at least “organized religion”.
Some of them still have interest in spiritual things and pursue spiritual practices (various forms of meditation, for example). They may identify as “spiritual but not religious”. This self-label is taken up by some Christians who still consider themselves Christian but have left church. They don’t want or can’t find a suitable place to fellowship with other Christians. Others have never been either Christian or churched.
Is this a crisis? Is it even a cause for concern?
I wouldn’t call it a crisis, though many do. But it does raise concerns for me. Among them is the social turmoil involved in any significant shifting of behavior patterns, social groupings, institutions, etc. That happens regardless of the nature or causes of the shifts. In this situation, we’re dealing with deeply felt beliefs, “habits of the heart”, and, in many cases, closely knit communities. Shrinkage of churches quite often results in their closure these days… often a major loss for those remaining.
This article is partially a summary of the first chapter of my ebook, Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey, but with some additions and updates, given the book was finished in 2016. I will also talk about what I was trying to accomplish in the book (in this and subsequent articles in the series), for readers looking for help and answers for themselves or for others. This may be via formal ministry or just as a friend. Being incurably curious myself, I hope to bring you interesting information as well.
Why Such Rapid Change?
There are a number of reasons so many are adjusting their beliefs and affiliations, of course.
First, we should recognize that changes in beliefs throughout one’s life is nothing new. It may be that we see the decrease in church attendance and affiliation in too short a time frame for meaningful comparison. America, like other countries, has been through ups and downs of church involvement before. Church attendance was quite low in the early 1700s, for example, prior to the “First Great Awakening” which boosted it significantly… for a period.
To note, in this article, just one current, prominent reason, it would be the onset of the “Information Age”, particularly the Internet. Any kind of information, including what others are thinking and doing about their religion, is available nearly instantly, from nearly anywhere (especially for teens and young adults who generally have smartphones these days). Think about the implications of this. It’s a massive change compared to access to only print media, TV and radio. (All these had some religious content, but not anything remotely like the information flow and interaction of the worldwide web!)
I’ve watched a lot of this develop, having been pretty early on the Internet and adopting email (mid 1990s). I don’t recall when I first encountered blogs and extensive websites that dealt with matters of faith, but it was well before I started my own blog in 2007 (as NaturalSpirituality.Wordpress.com). However, this was still the kindergarten period of what soon became an explosion of blogs and social media groups where people posted and discussed everything from scholarly articles on all aspects of religion to personal experiences, personal struggles….
One might say “doubt”, or questioning, came out into the open.
It was certainly there before, but people didn’t usually know how many others had similar questions! Now there was a place, often anonymous or largely out of sight to family and friends, where one could “let it all hang out” and get reinforcement. One could find company. And millions quickly did. Religion and matters of faith aren’t top ranking topics in Internet usage, but they are widely present, with lots of robust discussion, so I doubt “millions” is any exaggeration.
How Do Faith Shifts Affect Us?
You may note my terminology change: to “faith shifts”. Some people say they “lost” their faith. Maybe that’s because their shift of views and of what they could trust was radical. But my observation is that more have an adjustment of faith to something at least a bit different, but still have spiritual beliefs and pursuits of some kind. Thus, the popularity of the label “spiritual but not religious”, overlapping with “nones”. Not many people become true atheists in the process of changing some aspects of their beliefs in God or their church affiliation, including dropping out entirely.
That said, the process of transition in this area is often traumatic. For some it may not be traumatic but is seriously unsettling. Here are some of the stings:
- Losing one’s sense of identity
- Losing all or much of one’s support system
- Family disruption, often full alienation
- Anxiety over one’s eternal destiny
Who is particularly stung?
You can imagine that the longer one has been a part of a given church (or a set of similar churches), especially if a small or “tight-knit” one, the more intense these issues tend to be. If you happen to be in the midst of a struggle with any of these or other faith shift issues, take heart… there are ways of getting through and “resurfacing” more whole and stable than before.
The common phrasing used on many Internet and social media sites for the process we’re discussing is “deconstruction” and “reconstruction”… if reconstruction of a set of beliefs is consciously even attempted. Not always is it.
As I read and sometimes participate in interactive groups dealing with these issues, many people say that their emotional or spiritual well-being (or both) has improved over time. Sometimes that involves finding a new spiritual community of some kind that is more inclusive or closer to the person’s views and relational needs. Sometimes it doesn’t. But almost always some kind of supportive interaction is helpful.
Others who may be especially hurt in the process of leaving churches or religious organizations are those with a tendency to high anxiety or need for stable social situations. (And the two often overlap.) Church people without these tendencies often don’t get it as to how difficult it may be for leaving members. Or as to the tensions of those who stay for largely social reasons but are anxious because of the very difficulty of questioning things or expressing dissent. This is one reason many turn to the virtual community of online groups and find them helpful.
What is your experience of the process of spiritual journeying? Have you experienced what you consider a significant shift of faith, or of where you choose to worship (or no longer worship)? Please share with us!