The Power of Ritual is the “How-To” Guide for Reaching the ‘Nones’
There has been no official poll to prove this point but I suspect the phrase, “We just need to bring in more young people and young families” has been uttered in a church leadership meeting in most congregations in recent years. I have said it myself more than a few times!
This statement is then usually followed by a conversation about how we attract young people to church, which then leads to debate about music preference in worship, discussion about designating parking spots for visitors, a decision to offer a class on a topic we are sure the young people will be interested in and a vote to pay for a Facebook ad to reach the younger demographic in our community.
These are not bad ideas, it’s just that…well, they don’t work. They haven’t worked. The average age of our congregants in the United Methodist Church is still 57, one of the highest of all religious traditions. We are still not ‘reaching’ young people. So, what’s the deal?
This may be Old News for some, but it has been well documented by historians and scholars that we are experiencing a paradigm shift away from ‘religion as belief’ and towards ‘religion as practice.’
The growing number of people in America who identify as ‘nones' (those who check off ‘none of the above’ when asked religious affiliation) are not uninterested in God, they just are not interested in God in the same way older generations have been interested in God. Our churches are perfectly oriented towards the “religion as belief” crowd but the ‘nones’ are not looking for Sunday School classes or sermon series to shore up their beliefs.
So what do the ‘nones’ want?
This is where Casper ter Kuile’s book The Power of Ritual is so insightful. He is a ‘none’ writing to other ‘nones’ for one reason: to give them what religious institutions have not been able to provide, what he knows they are yearning for…which is, are you ready for this?Ancient spiritual practices. That’s right. The ‘nones’ want ancient spiritual practices that help them to connect to self, others, nature, and transcendence. This is in our wheelhouse, church!
Ter Kuile teaches the ‘nones’ about sacred reading and sabbath and pilgrimage and prayer and the liturgical calendar and small groups and let me just name it: this is a very Wesleyan book.He doesn’t use the words “means of grace” for the same reason he stays away from all religious language: it is a trigger for too many folks. Ter Kuile understands and respects that religious language doesn’t work for a whole lot of people but unlike the church, he has found a way to beautifully articulate each ancient practice so that the ‘nones’ feel truly welcome to participate.
Look at how ter Kuile gently nudges readers to be more intentional in order to observe the sabbath and connect with the sacred.
“You probably do some or all of these things already. But it might take an intentional shift to start thinking of this time as a sacred time for solitude. I invite you to change that. Whatever your practice is, make it an intentional ritual. Light a candle. Recite a poem. Breathe ten times. Whatever you do, try to notice how taking this time heals and softens you. Our inner life is the foundation for our outer lives, so committing to this practice will yield countless gifts. This is the paradigm shift: everyday moments can be the sacred foundation of your spiritual life.” -The Power of Ritual, p. 73-74
The Power of Ritual offers the clearest guidance the church has had in a long time for how to speak to the ‘nones.’ Use language that is more invitational than institutional, for starters.
But the main point not to be missed is don’t just talk to them. Join with them in participating in ancient spiritual practices. They want to experience the spiritual life and this may not (most likely will not) include the typical sit-and-get Sunday service standard.
The pandemic has given us all a great pause to ponder deep questions such as what is our purpose? It is the right question for the church right now. Perhaps our purpose is more obvious than it has been in quite some time.
We Methodists are especially equipped to teach methods for engaging in the spiritual life and regularly practicing them. We are Method-ists, after all. We know the power of ritual and how to turn everyday activities into soulful practices. Let’s reclaim our leadership as people of spiritual practice and not just belief.
Rev. Blair Thompson-White, Director of Leadership Ministry
Blair is from Norman, OK. Growing up, she spent a lot of time in the principal's office (waiting for her mother to finish her work for the day). Blair graduated from the University of Kansas with her B.A. in English and Communications Studies. After graduation, Blair became a teacher through Teach for America. She taught sixth and seventh grade English and coached girls basketball in Houston.
Blair attended Perkins School of Theology for her Master of Divinity degree. She has served as a pastor in a variety of settings, including small town Kansas, downtown Dallas, and most recently in suburban Richardson, Texas. She completed her dissertation on pilgrimage in the development of clergy leadership for her Doctorate of Ministry degree in Fall 2018. Blair joined the staff of TMF as the Director of Leadership Ministry in July 2020.