You can’t make this up: The limits of self-made religion

September 1, 2011

A man recently told me about his faith life, as people are wont to do with ministers. He said, "I'm spiritual but not religious. I want to give you my testimony about why I do not attend church."

Now when I meet a math teacher, I don't feel the need to say I always hated math. When I meet a chef, I don't need to let it be known that I can't cook. When I meet a clown, I don't admit that I think clowns are scary. I keep that stuff to myself. But everybody loves to tell a minister what's wrong with the church—and it's usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.

Like many Americans, this man had made several stops in the religious marketplace. He was raised a Catholic but felt injured by that tradition. His questions weren't answered or welcomed by the church, he said, and the worship, rituals and preaching seemed irrelevant.

While he was in the army he was drawn to a conservative Baptist church. He joined that church because he liked the people who were in it, and he accepted Christ as his personal savior. But later he realized that the church held all sorts of strict moral beliefs that he could not adhere to, the worst of which was a prohibition on dancing—not to mention a prohibition against sex before marriage, which, as you know, often leads to dancing. What kind of God would not want me to use my body to move? he wondered. He drifted away from that church.

After marrying he joined the church in which his wife was brought up, a liberal Protestant church. He described that experience as the equivalent of getting a big warm hug. This church did not frown on dancing and drinking nor on his theological questions. He was encouraged to think critically about scripture. His questions, even his doubts, did not shock anybody. In fact, he was told that his questions made him a very good mainline Protestant.

But his marriage ended, and he began to feel that the church was more his former wife's than his. He found himself spending Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading the New York Times or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. "I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious."

He dumped this news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave.

Of course, this well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right in to mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now a part of the majority—the people who have stepped away from the church in favor of running, newspaper reading, yoga or whatever they use to construct a more convenient religion of their own.

I was not shocked or upset by the man's story. I had heard it many times before—so many times I could have supplied the details. Let me guess, you read the New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of that than the sermon? Let me guess, you find God in nature? And especially in sunsets?

As if the people who attend church had never encountered all those psalms that praise God for the beauty of natural creation, and as if we never left the church building ourselves. God in nature? Really? The theme can be found throughout the Bible. When you push on this self-developed spirituality, you don't find much. God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?

The spiritual-not-religious are likely to say they see God in their children, at least when they are doing loving things or saying something winning about God. These spiritual-not-religious adults don't want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the e-mails with "cute things kids say about God."

"My kid said, 'Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.' Can you believe the wisdom of that?" says the proud spiritual-not-religious parent. These people's children are always theological geniuses.

I presume that like most children they are parroting back their parents' values. The children see God in nature—and because they are children and have bigger eyes and high voices, they do so in much cuter ways. "I think there will be doggies and birdies and grandma's candy bowl in heaven." But let's take that idea a little further. Will there be sharks and snakes in heaven too? How about vampire bats? How do you like that, you little junior theologians?

These kids who apparently are teaching their parents with homespun aphorisms are being poorly served. If they went to Sunday school on a regular basis, they might learn to think about the bats and scorpions. At least they would have a chance to ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick. They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go a bit deeper into these matters.

But their parents, so afraid that the church will force their kids to accept its answers, have made sure that no such formation or guidance is offered. This approach works as long as there are rainbows and the kids are happy, but it doesn't work so well in the face of tantrums, selfishness and—dare I say it?—sin. Most self-developed Sunday morning rituals have little room for sin.

Or for disaster, for that matter. Suffering in these self-made spiritualities is something we can overcome by hard work, exercise and reading the op-ed page. But worldwide disaster—how do you wrestle with that?

Here's how one man wrestled with it. Realizing that his pastor was desperately in need of reeducation, he explained how his own son had bowled him over with a great insight. He said: "Listen to what my son wrote: 'Children are starving with empty bellies in faraway lands. They have nothing to eat. All around them they hear the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off. And it made me realize that we are so lucky. We are so lucky to be living here and not there.'"

"I had tears in my eyes when he said that," the parent went on to say. "I was blown away and I realized that he gets it, he really gets it. It was gratitude. That's our religion—gratitude. And at that moment, when he recognized all that suffering and how fortunate he was, I could not have been prouder."

Never been prouder? Really? I can see being proud that your kid watches the news and understands that he has privileges many other people do not. I can see being a little relieved that he knows that not everyone goes to bed with a full stomach and that he can at least imagine the fact that war causes enormous pain. But the punch line of this religion of gratitude is this: "We're so lucky that we live here instead of there." Really? That's it?

What's missing from that worldview—and this is no fault of the teenager—is something you might get in a Christian community, a perspective that would take you from feeling lucky for not being hungry to actually doing something to feed a hungry person. This dad was happy to stop with the self-made religion of gratitude, like a person who fills up on the deep-fried appetizers and doesn't order anything else from the menu. He may not feel hungry for dinner now, but that snack will not sustain him.

I am guessing that this family gives to charity and has a good supply of PBS tote bags. But when you witness pain and declare yourself lucky, you have fallen way short of Jesus' vision and short of what God would have you do.

At some point, the worldview based on luck just doesn't pan out, and you figure out that you long for something as out­rageous as a new heaven and a new earth.

I'm not against gratitude any more than I am against finding God in a sunset or a child's eyes. Those are all good things, along with puppies, rainbows, super vacations and birthdays. But none of that constitutes a religion. And contrary to popular wisdom in the age of the spiritual-not-religious, we need religion and we need the church.

I remember a family that was new to our church and whose child had only a year of Sunday school under his belt. At a rehearsal for his second Christmas pageant, the boy cried out in indignation: "Do you mean to tell me that we are doing exactly the same story we did last year?" Today that youngster is grown up and has been blessed by the yearly repetition of church life that gives his chaotic days meaning. In a world that demands that everything be a one-time-only original production, the church remains a place to remember that there is someone much better than we are at original creations.

When that father told me about his son, it finally hit me what was bothering me about the religion he had invented. He hadn't invented it at all—it was as predictable as the rest of our self-centered consumer culture, and his very conceit that his outlook was original or daring was evidence of that very self-centeredness.

If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.

In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church." In other words, you people are stuck with each other.

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur'an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It's no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here's a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don't want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don't get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It's as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn't have access to a shower and didn't bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn't seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It's as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It's as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It's as close as the preacher who didn't prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It's as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

Suddenly it hits that teenager: I don't need to invent God, because God has already invented me. I don't need to make all this up for myself. There's a community of folks who over thousands of years have followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he was raised from the dead to show there is much more to life than you could possibly come up with. And as for the resurrection, try doing that for yourself.

With the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. They come together because Jesus came to live with these same types of people. Thousands of years later, we're still trying to be the body of Christ, and we are human and realistic enough to know we need a savior who is divine.

This essay is based on a sermon delivered at the Festival of Homiletics in June 2011.


I dunno... I rather worship

I dunno... I rather worship my "imaginary" God and find peace and love and joy in doing so than live in the bitter contempt you seem to have for the majority of us who do believe in some sort of God or higher power. My "imaginary" God and my faith in Him gives me hope... what does your cynicism bring you?

bitter contempt towards people that don't see reality

If all doctors and scientists in the world over the last 50 years had been preachers instead, we would still be dying from malaria, infant mortality, and other curable diseases. Everyone in that time period would be dying left and right due to curable diseases, not finding peace, love, and joy. Your quality of life right now exists because of scientists that have used the scientific method to better our circumstances on this earth, not because of any of the people wasting time and resources praying to imaginary gods.

So contempt, yes. Science teaches us to believe in something in accordance with the evidence that is available to support it. Otherwise, who is to say faith healing is better than modern medicine. Scientists are even beginning to do studies to prove that prayer has no effect on peoples health. Supernatural claims are just that, unfounded claims. There is an outstanding reward for $1million dollars for anyone that can prove an out-and-out miracle, mark my words, no-one is going to win it.

So the question should not be, what does my cynicism bring me, but what does science and rational, evidence based thought bring to ALL OF US as a human species.
Allowing people a get-out-of-jail free card to dismiss evidence or lack there of in the case of religion is unacceptable. It goes against human progress and the only method of thought we know of that improves our quality of life day in and day out.

Look up secular humanism. Being good without god, and without the need to believe in supernaturalism. We are a complex species that needs to come up with our own set of moral codes and ethics by which to live, and these should evolve as we do as a species. We can come up with the metrics we want to minimize, death, hunger, pain, suffering, and then define social programs and laws that minimize these metrics. Its not exact science, and its hard to frame, but its way better than doing nothing, or pretending that some book written a thousand years ago, somehow can predict best what rules should be governing our complex society moving forward.

Sure you are blissful... ignorance is bliss.

My contempt comes from a strong passion to see our human race advance as best possible. Religion is a relic of our past, science and secular humanism are our guiding light into the future.

Thanks for your time, Rob

belief without evidence is bad for the human species

Where would we be if all evidence-based medicine and science were thrown out the window?

These scientists and doctors did not have the luxury of ignoring evidence when solving for vaccines or doing tests that have cured malaria and improved infant mortality rates.

If all doctors and scientists over the past 50 years were preachers what would be our quality of life right now. How much of your current ability to sit back and live in peace and joy has to do with advances of modern science vs. your belief in an imaginary god? My cynicism comes from a religious person's lack of acknowledgement that what you enjoy in terms of quality of life did not come about because of religion, it came about due to a concept called 'science' which proportions belief on evidence. David Hume, "a wise person proportions his or her belief to the evidence".

Advances in our society ride on the back of evidence-based scientific inquiry. And religion should not, and will not, get a free pass. Currently, scientists are beginning to do studies that prove that prayer has no effect on healing people. The evidence doesn't lie, no one magically gets better. There is a $1 million dollar prize outstanding for anyone that can prove a miracle has occurred. Mark my words, it will remain unclaimed.

My contempt arises from my passion to see the human race progress forward in an optimal manner, and any line of thought that accepts supernaturalism and belief in anything without evidence sets us back.

Religion is a relic, now we have secular humanism. The ability to be good without god, to be good with and for one another whilst rejecting claims that are not founded on evidence (virgin birth, parting seas, talking snakes). We as a social species that must interact with one another to survive our responsible for coming up with our own set of ethical codes, rules, laws, and morals to guide our complex species moving forward. Naturally, these morals and laws must evolve along with us, we are a complex species. It is absurd to think that a set of rules written down in an ancient book can tell us best how to interact with one another a thousand years later. So much has changed.

The best thing about secular humanism, is that we get to define the metrics we want to minimize in the world, hunger, death, suffering, or alternatively maximize, freedom, love, joy. Then it is up to us to define the social ideals, laws, suggestions and lessons to the young, in order to optimize against these metrics. In a scientific sense, based on empirical results and objectivity, we can measure how well our social policies work in allowing us to optimize our society in achieving such metrics.

Blind faith is not putting our best foot forward as a species, especially when two or more competing factions of blind faith fight each other for no reason. It is time for us all to accept responsibility for our actions, to admit that we must think rationally and objectively about the metrics we wish to carefully define for our society, and then use science to construct social policies and laws to optimize against those metrics.

Yet, despite all of this, a religious person goes on saying, I am allowed to believe in my God with no evidence whatsoever. It is a spit in the face of modern science that has brought all of us so much. The question is not, what does my cynicism bring me, but what does modern science bring you?

I'm disturbed that you seemed

I'm disturbed that you seemed to have missed the point of why all of these people feel the need to tell you about their rainbows and sunsets- they have been disenfranchised from the church, and been deeply hurt by it. I am less upset about the tone of this article than I am by your blog post, but I still find both troubling and problematic. If my pastor had written publicly about this topic in this way, I would be pretty livid. Instead of mocking the folks who are clearly craving theology and faith and community, next time try listening to their needs and responding to them.


As a parish minister in one of the most religion-resistant areas of the country, I resonated with so much of this article.

Lillian, the general population may not be able to condone snarkiness in a minister (as evidenced by the firestorm of response, here and on FB), but the reality is: we ministers are human, flawed, and snark with the best of them. They might as well know.

Thank you for saying what lots of us religious folk feel, whether or not we admit it publicly. I do agree with other commenters that many SBNR are looking to be courted and loved back (or forward, for those who have never tested the waters) into a community of faith, and we need to be as patient and generous as we can be with them. But yes, I've also encountered many platitudinous, defensive SBNR people who I sense are looking for me to bless their choice (for some reason?) even as they denigrate mine.

A few months ago I thought of a shorthand I might use, the next time I find myself in the SBNR conversation: "Saying you're spiritual but not religious is like saying you have a body but don't exercise."

Are ministers not supposed to

Are ministers not supposed to set a good example? Or should they say 'well I'm human so it doesn't matter if I make a public statement showing off my worst side'? Should they give in to the temptation? Should we all just say we are flawed and human so there is no point being polite or trying to do better? The problem here is not a little snarkiness. The problem is an article which shows no compassion, no understanding, a dismissive attitude, a strong desire to exclude the outsiders and a worrying belief that all people have inner good so long as they are attending one particular church. How can you complain of them denigrating your religion when you do exactly the same in a public forum?

Is the point of the article not that we should deal with humanity in all its worst moments? Or does it only apply to those within the church? You present the church in a manner which is repellent. No wonder people walk away to find God elsewhere. The whole tone of this article is rather un-Christian and I find it alarming that so many of the religious are agreeing to it.

Thank God you said this

I've been so upset afraid to go to church-been a church goer all my life-now afraid the minister is going to put a nasty article about me online if he or she doesn't think I'm religious enough or spiritual enough for them-since when are we proud of being snarky?


What if you met someone who'd moved on to Hinduism, or Islam, would you "love them forward" into that? And what of the world's many, many Buddhists and Wiccans, who are arguably spiritual people with no formal attachment to a religious institution, are they a lot of bores or an ignoramuses too? This isn't about how a church leader should or should not behave, it's about an unearned religious privilege and arrogant exclusivism that no one should advance.

Santa Clause

Jesus is Santa Clause for adults. Don't you see that?


If they admitted as much, a lot of folks would be out of a job. But, agreed.

Religious but not Spiritual

I rather enjoy people who are spiritual but not religious. They are far easier for me to take than the people who are religious but not spiritual, who unfortunately abound in our churches. As an ordained pastor I spend a lot of my sermons encouraging people to become more spiritually mature, and sometimes it seems an uphill battle!

One or two cheers

1 or 2 cheers for this article, which, as a church attender, I kind of understand.  Community is very important.  But in a day when Religion is prominently associated with obscurantism and cultural, religious, and even armed combat, is it really so surprising that people opt for more individualized and peaceful options, which religious leaders derisively call SBNR?  A few uranium atoms together are not so bad; billions of U atoms together cause serious problems, and I think people are picking up on that, for their own sanity.

You are unique, but the spiritual-but-not-religious are not

You spend much of your piece being derisive of and dismissive toward people who think they are so unique in their insights. (The promiscuous use of "Really?" lent an especially snotty tone.) The irony, as others have hinted at, is that you start out thinking that you are unique and people don't volunteer to members of other professions why they dislike their calling. I get "You teach math? I HATE math," once a week like the author of the comment above.

All religions are person-made, and infused with the values and attitudes of their leaders and members. If your goal is to convince the "spiritual but not religious" to join a church, I suspect you have failed remarkably.

You Can't Make This UP

An associated topic.
I like to ask those spiritually emancipated parents who say they are allowing their children to make up their own minds on matters of religion, whether they intend to follow the same approach with history and algebra.

Do you really not understand

Do you really not understand why this comparison does not work? That facts and beliefs are not the same?

Letting your child decide that they believe is not the same as letting them decide whether they want to learn algebra or not. To say that you will decide a child's beliefs is actually more like sitting a two year old down and saying 'you will be a maths professor' and never letting them have a say in the matter!

There's nothing to say you can't teach them about Christianity or give them every opportunity to explore those beliefs, just as we teach children about the basics of maths and then let them decide whether that's something they want to have with them for the rest of their lives or not.

The comparison is right on

The comparison is right on the mark because they all concern truth (in some sense) - or at least that's what Christians have claimed. (Even if you argue there is no truth about religious matters - that itself is a truth claim - and one which we can discuss).

..this line has been disconnected...

I am saddened by the tone of this article.. I am a SBNR person and just had this conversation with a Pastor of a church I visited this week. To think that my journey would end up as a punchline or fodder for a blog post is heartbreaking.

You don't need a church to connect with God we can plug into God 24/7- that line is direct, is always open and cannot be disconnected. A church can be a wonderful place to plug into each other, to share and grow, to refuel our Spiritual energy, and to pool our resources to be the visible hand of God in our community through good works.

The SBNR people have clearly made the God connection but have unplugged from the churches. So instead of belittling them and complaining about them in blogs - maybe you should ask yourself as you look out at the empty pews and over the declining church rolls - why have so many people disconnected this line...

BTW- the Pastor I spoke with had a much different tone.. Much more...I get what your telling me, come as you are approach.. Very inviting - I will go back..

Wow! I have spent my whole


I have spent my whole life in the church and have served at every level from the local (vacuuming floors) to the national (chairing a national committee). I've taught, worked, contributed, worshipped, prayed, and sometimes just held my breath and tried to be patient. I thought I would always be a part of the church. But.I find that now that I am no longer a 30/40-something and no longer married and no longer have children at home, I am also no longer of any interest to the church, and so I have left "religion." I consider myself SBNR - but amazingly enough do not spend my Sunday mornings gawking at sunrises or the NYT or chronicling my grandchildren's (earnest if immature) commentaries on Jesus or even approaching ministers to tell them all about me. I actually go to Bible studies with people who respect each other. We work with a homeless shelter and food kitchen, tutor in a local school, and support and teach each other. And we manage to do that all without the "help" of a professional Christian. And we refer to ourselves as a study group, not a church - mostly because of the kind of attitude that seems to propel this article.

I would recommend that Ms Daniel re-read her own commentary on "Thieves in the Temple" - especially the bit about the mission trip to Guatemala. And maybe take a look at "Quitting Church."

We're not SBNR because we're uniformly shallow and superficial. And I'll leave it there.

Unitarian Universalism?

Born and raised a Unitarian Universalist, I can tell you that you are spot-on that self-made religion has limits - especially for the unfortunate children whose only theology is the parroted platitudes of their parents. The only point I'll argue then is when you say that, "If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not."

To me, this pretty much is the Unitarian Universalist church - but even there the individualistic culture reigns supreme and no one has yet figured out how simplistic and mundane these self-centered personal religions are. So ecclesia is not the only antidote for selfish theology - serious engagement with religious practice and tradition is, I think.

Lillian Daniel's article

Parts of the article are on target. It is also sprinkled with some humor. Yet, I find the bulk of the article to be overly sarcastic and cynical. Maybe I am off base, but underneath Lillian's words, I think that I feel frustration, even anger, at the current state of the mainline church.

It's easy to use those who say that they are "spiritual but not religious" as whipping girls or boys. I speak as one who is deeply committed to a mainline denomination. Twenty-two years ago, I chose to leave a denomination that leans too far to the right for me, and I have never regretted that decision. But rather than throwing stones at those who have left the mainline church to pursue a path of their own, maybe we should first do some serious self-reflection. Part of this would include not just listening to the "spiritual but not religious" but actually hearing them. Who knows? We might have something to learn from them. 

The Problem With All Of This

Where pray tell is evidence that God exists or that Jesus is His son whose death saves us from any thing or that "he" currently exists in some fashion? Where is demonstration of truth? Believing in what cannot be proven supposedly first requires faith that it exists; which is circular. It is on a par with junk science. I to would like to believe that Big Daddy was up there and cared personally for me and you. But it is a bunch of non-sense. We live in the 21st Century; not two thousand years ago in an era of scientific ignorance. Every religion starts with unprovable assumptions. Why do we need any of these comforting myths? Are we all so needy? The lack of any evidence, except an argument based on authority, leaves the agnostic as the only honest person. You cannot prove or disprove that God exists; there is only the uninsured question, the child's plea for a Father that cannot be found. Isn't time to grow up?

Religious versus spiritual? The wrong question.

For me, it was a Southern Baptist minister who asked ME whether I considered myself more religious or spiritual. I admit the question stumped me. I've sinced realized it was a false dichotomy. The real conflict for me isn't between religion and spirituality, but between religion and empathy.

As Jesus said, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."

Sad Sad Sad

A couple of caveats here: 1) Couldn't get through the whole essay, so perhaps there's a softening in tone toward the end. If so my apologies.

2) Also did not read all the comments.

My feedback: Perhaps the author is having a difficult week. Otherwise, it sounds like the author needs to go into a different line of work. Listening to people and meeting them where they are on their spiritual path is a basic part of the pastor's job. She sounds burned out and unable to do that. She missed a great opportunity to be loving and encouraging. Every job comes with its junk that one must listen to. I'm a writer--how does this sound: "I've got a book written in my head, I just need to write it down." I've been told that one many times. So what? Just smile and nod.

You know what - I didn't read

You know what - I didn't read your comment (just jokin') - but when I see folks psychologizing an argument without paying any attention to what's actually being argued, I wonder whose missing the point...

Work on it

Wow. I came here to try to get the deeper background of the snide little devotional I saw. Unfortunately what I see here is a pastor- perhaps, a committed but weary pastor?- wrestling with a lot of stuff- and not having a lot of success. I imagine there is a lot going on behind this. But you are not just slamming the SBNR- you are slamming people in the pews. Of course the father of the teenager was unable to come up with a deeper broader way to say what he felt: he has not had several years of postgraduate education to help him speak theologically. But you have, Rev. Daniels, and you are not doing it very well here. (and, someone whose vocation is ministering to the people of Glen Ellyn may not really be in the position to claim a whole lot more virtue than the dad who glimpsed a bit of something profound. Are these people who invite the struggle with cancer as a holy visitation? Do they wish for their children to be exposed to understandings of God more difficult than those most adults are willing engage?) The many varieties of sin, self deception and seeking in the world (in church and out) can be a frustration to anyone, including a pastor. (I had to laugh at the commenter who "wouldn't expect this from a pastor"- why not? Just as subject to sin and confusion as anyone else) Unlike other commenters, I don't think the important point is how you reacted to the people who affronted you. Instead it is that you are broadcasting some extremely important but as yet ill digested stuff from your very public pulpit. The fact that it causes a (relatively small) internet flap does not make it worthwhile. I'll have to read the original sermon. Preachers lurking contempt for their congregants is not unusual, and perhaps your colleagues were receptive. It uncomfortably suggests one more form of ingroup self congratulation. I assume that your God is not too small- and that is part of what you are trying to say- but perhaps it is YOU who are not spiritually up to the job of loving such an unlovable world.

keep working on this

Wow. I came here to try to get the deeper background of the embarrassingly mean devotional I saw. (Not only that, but is was just not as clever and nuanced as I normally consider you.)  Unfortunately what I see here is a pastor- perhaps, a committed but weary pastor?- wrestling with a lot of stuff- and not having a lot of success. I imagine there is a lot going on behind this, and I don't feel it was expressed with much depth.  You are not just slamming the SBNR- you are slamming people in the pews. Of course the father of the teenager was unable to come up with a deeper broader way to say what he felt: he has not had several years of postgraduate education to help him speak theologically. But you have, Rev. Daniels, and you are not doing it very well here.  (and, someone whose vocation is ministering to the people of Glen Ellyn may not really be in the position to claim a whole lot more virtue than the dad who glimpsed a bit of something profound. Are these people who initially invite the struggle with cancer as a holy visitation? Do they wish for their children to be exposed to understandings of God more difficult than those most adults willingly engage?) The many varieties of sin, self deception and seeking in the world (in church and out) can be a frustration to anyone, including a pastor. (I had to laugh at the commenter who "wouldn't expect this from a pastor"- why not? Just as subject to sin and confusion as anyone else) Unlike other commenters, I don't think the important point is how you reacted to the people who affronted you. Instead it is that you are broadcasting some extremely important but as yet ill digested stuff from your very public pulpit. The fact that it causes a (relatively small) internet flap does not make it worthwhile.   I'll have to read the original sermon. Preachers' lurking contempt for their congregants is not unusual, and perhaps your colleagues were receptive.  It sounds uncomfortably like one more form of ingroup self congratulation. I assume that your God is not too small- and that is part of what you are trying to say- but perhaps, it is YOU who are not spiritually up to the job of loving such an unlovable world full of such difficult unlikeable people.  


I was taught that dancing always led to pre marital sex or at least heavy making out. Lillian didn't make that up!

Another whiney pastor

Too bad this isn't unique - but merely another pastor who squarely posits the responsibility of the faithlessness of people on culture rather than the shortcomings of the church to be effective in fulfilling their divine call into existence.

Thank You

Thank you for your work here. As a young worship leader and father/husband I find the local church a great blessing. When we sing off key and put up with each others quirky habits, God smiles. There is something precious about the local church. Here in Iowa church is not cool. We don't have a Saddleback Church down the road....we have the timeless truth of God's word and everybody's praying for so and so with cancer. Church is not perfect, but God's plan for his church is. We ought to love the local church as Christ does.

True religion


If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:26-27


My brothers and sisters, if

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James 5: 19-20

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching

Hebrew 10: 23 - 25

liberal protestantism = silliest man-made religion

The author is still a member of one of the fastest declining denominations because it specifically pushes one of the silliest man-made religions, liberal protestantism (LP). LP says that God gave us reason, but when you actually try to engage a LP-er, they say that they reject "old ideas" of logic and rhetoric in favor of relationships and feelings.

LP-ers reject the "hard" parts of Christianity - its condemnation of sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage, female clergy, etc. LP-ers reject the exclusivity of Christianity with "many paths lead up the mountain" talk. The resulting superficial insipid mish-mash, the "big warm hug" that is actually devoid of real charity, fools only a few for any length of time.

Bothered by "anonymous" comments

Lillian is a friend and colleague and I giver her great credit for stirring the pot and doing if energetically!  I'm confused at to why the CC allows "anonymous" comments. If you are going to take a shot at the author, or compalin about how maligned you feel by Lillian's point of view, if you are going to participate in a loving and substantial debate on this very important topic, at least have the courage to say who you are.  Good job Lillian--you made me think!

Rev. John F. Hudson

Sherborn, Mass.

Hi John. I don't like

Hi John. I don't like anonymous comments either, but it's very difficult to get people to register for a username. We tried disallowing anonymous commenting for a while, and the result was that commenting generally dropped by something like 90 percent. So neither solution seems to be a perfect one. --Steve Thorngate, web editor, the Christian Century

Folks can be more honest when anonymous

I think that peoples can be a bit more honest and open with sharing their thoughts and opinions when they know their identity is kept hidden.  So, in addition to quanitity, I'm sure that the quality of the comments is higher, too.

As for myself, the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn is my church, and Lillian is my pastor.  While I may not be the man she mentions, I very well could be.  After reading this article, I doubt I'll share my thoughts and opinions with her.  I also suspect that I'll be attending church even less than I currently do.

You did a good job here. It's

You did a good job here. It's spirited, funny, poignant, controversial and thought provoking. You stated clearly some things you hold to be truthful with which others may agree or disagree. I happen largely to agree. Well done.


So much easier to be an atheist. I don't need to rationalize my gratitude NOR my service to others. It isn't done to glorify "god" or unicorns or fairies. It can just be something useful in the world....or not. What a relief.

On a career-related note, this sounds like sour grapes to me. If you are a minister...and someone comes to you with the express purpose of discussing faith, it sounds to me like you are angry that they are asking you to do your job. Maybe you should be a math teacher.

1. You do need to reason -

1. You do need to reason - and funnily enough that's just what's happened here too.

2. I find psychologizing away points one disagrees with a risible argumentative strategy. The argument is still there should you ever wish to engage.

Leaving religion for spirituality

I'm inclined to agree with Amy Kn. The tone of this piece is almost condescending. Here's a news flash for the writer: people are leaving the established church in droves because of the direction that Christianity has been pulled in the U.S. as elsewhere. When highly visible Christians are telling people that they should divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's; that people without insurance should die; that natural disasters are God's retribution for homosexuality and democracy; that people who lose their homes in disasters should suck it up without aid like they did a century ago; that gay people and illegal immigrants are due absolutely no grace; that politicians who commit adultery are still quality persons as long as they belong to a certain party; that the death penalty is God-given while abortion is evil -- this is not a church worth belonging to or listening to. I still follow the teachings of Christ and the Bible but quit calling myself a "Christian" a couple of years ago because too many Christians have brought a taint to the name. It has become a force of evil in our society and should be avoided at all costs if real, Bible-reading and -believing men and women of faith will not stand up for the Truth that Jesus taught. Personal spirituality may well be misguided, but for many people it's a hope that is no longer offered by the institutional, hate-filled church of the modern era.

thanks Lillian

I wept as I read your sermon...thanks!
we need a savior who is divine!

Remember, it's Satire

I think Daniel’s writing has sparked a worthwhile dialogue about a particular sort of anti-religious mindset that exists in our society. Yes, this piece is snarky, but occasionally a little satire can go a long way toward making an important point. If you’re trying to describe the downside of getting too comfortable in a cocoon of narcissistic spirituality, then Daniel offers a powerful prophetic word.

Some Criticism

Mr. Daniel's main argument in favor of the church, when he isn't making snarky critiques of self-made spirituality, is Repetition and Routine, and the community moribund in that tradition.

Obnoxious essay -- it's not provocative, it's alienating

Daniel relays the story of a person whose experiences with organized religions pushed him away. He says he finds peace in the outdoors and in quiet Sunday mornings.

I was shocked that her response wasn't the simple and generous, "If you find yourself looking for community and ways to put that spirit into action, you're always welcome back."

Instead: "He dumped this news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave."

What a jerky reaction! Ms. Daniel, I think you have it wrong. From the way you presented his thoughts, I think he was just making conversation about something deeply personal and intimate with someone who might be interested in that part of his life.

Who are you to say that the person or family that recognizes its good luck, that spends quiet time together, that looks for a connection to the world of nature, and that "gives to charity and has a good supply of PBS tote bags," might not be finding just the right combination of community, commitment to social justice, and peace that their lives need at that moment.

Daniel and some of the people posting here imply that only through religious community can people do good works of social justice or find fulfilling community. Nonsense. People participate in good works all the time outside of the church and find communities that feed their souls everywhere. Maybe the people Daniel is so peeved at simply didn't share those parts of their lives with her. Can you blame them, given the aggressive spark that must have been flashing behind her eyes?

P.S., I came by this essay because it is referenced in the Oct 2011 church bulletin of the Scarsdale Congregational Church that was emailed 9/29. Senior Minister Larry Kalajainen uses a similarly dismissive voice about what he calls the "fatuous nonsense" of the people who find spirituality in places other than the church.

What bullies you both are.

Letter from Faith Jongewaard

I  would have loved to hear the sermon on which Lillian Daniel’s essay was based (“You can’t make this up,” Sept. 20). I laughed, I recognized people and encounters and conversations I have had, I was moved by the affirmation of a God whom we simply can’t make up, a God who surprises us again and again--especially by working in and through the imperfect people in the church. Thank you for saying what the rest of us in ministry often think as we try not to roll our eyes.

Faith Jongewaard

San Antonio, Tex.

Letter from Dennis Maher

Yes, Lillian, you can make this up. I fondly remember ten years ago hearing Richard Holloway, retired bishop of Edinburgh (Church of Scot­land), explain that “we made it all up.” And of course, we--or rather our ancestors--did. Some of it is rather elegant, but in the 21st century I and many others have a bit of a problem with revelation and things divine. If we made it all up, we can make it all up again. So we continue to find new meanings for the traditions, but we hope that we do so without doing harm, as so many have done before us. I do need to make it up for myself and with a community of other seekers. 

Dennis Maher

Lake Luzerne, N.Y.