Are the Spiritual but Not Religious Turning East?

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post blog. Linda Mercadante is our Monday evening keynote speaker at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering.

by Linda Mercadante

Are we all Hindu now? That’s what a Newsweek magazine claimed in 2009 when it observed the burgeoning world of the “nones.” “Nones” are those not affiliated with any part of the American religious heritage. Surveys seem to indicate they prefer not to identify with any religion at all. But the Newsweek article suggested instead that we are not seeing so much a lack of religious affiliation as conversion to some other world of beliefs, in particular Eastern.

Are we seeing a “turn to the East” among those people unaffiliated with any particular organized religion, especially those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious?” I don’t think so. Of course, the influence of America’s increasing religious diversity is evident in the burgeoning world of alternative spiritualities. And there is, in fact, a particular attraction to certain ideas borrowed from such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, such as “monism.”

But after spending the last five years speaking with hundreds of SBNRs, attending their diverse gatherings and learning as much as I could about and from them, I don’t think we are truly seeing a conversion to Eastern religions or religious ideas. Instead, I contend that many SBNRs are creating a particularly American spiritual mix, borrowing, adapting and adjusting from many sources. The key ingredients of this mix, however, are distinctly American. Here are some of them.

First, it is individualistic. Americans have always valued freedom of religion, but until recently were still fairly committed “joiners.” Now, joining with like-minded religious others does not seem to be as compelling for many. While most religions promote some form of community to a greater or lesser degree, this new spirituality does not give this top priority.

Second, it is “detraditioning.” Given that most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, America has always held tradition a bit more lightly than other places. And much of American Protestantism did stress “the priesthood of all believers.” But this new American spirituality takes that impulse further. Now, the source of spiritual authority” has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” In other words, many feel they must rely primarily on their own spiritual judgment rather than looking to an authoritative figure or tradition as many religions advocate.

Third, it is therapeutic. Many Americans are focused on becoming whole and healthy, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Whereas many religions see greater goals beyond personal well-being, this new American spirituality often promotes this as primary.

And, fourth, this American mixture takes the freedom to pick and choose ideas, adapting them to the American context. There seems little felt obligation to take the whole religious package of any particular tradition. As a case in point, many of my interviewees believe in reincarnation. However, their version is often unlike an Eastern form, which allows that one might regress, rather than inevitably progress, in the next life. My interviewees Americanized this. Our belief in “second chances,” late-bloomers, and the rewards of perseverance, made them insist that endless lives of self-improvement were the trajectory of the afterlife.

There are many implications, both positive and negative, of this new American spirituality. But whether we applaud or lament it, it is impressive to see American resourcefulness at work. In the end, I don’t see a literal “turn to the East,” much less a rush to convert to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, among my hundreds of conversation partners, all SBNRs, I saw very few who actually “converted” to a different religion. Instead, they borrowed, adapted, and adjusted what they found attractive or compelling in the culturally and religiously diverse world increasingly around us. My interviewees often believe that, rather than joining any particular religious group, they must keep their options open on the journey of spiritual growth.

Linda Mercadante and the Spiritual but Not Religious

Linda Mercadante is one of our keynote speakers for the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2015, Linda was featured on the TODAY Show. Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering:

More about Linda:

Linda received her Ph.D. from Princeton and has been serving at The Methodist Theological School for more than 25 years. She is married to Joseph Mas, a native Cuban, an attorney, a leader in the Ohio Hispanic community and a political commentator on the TV show Columbus on the Record (WOSU). They have three children, Sarah, Emily and David.

Register now to hear Linda’s keynote on Monday evening!

Our 2017 Ignite Presentations

We received multiple submissions for Ignite presentations – and we’re thrilled to share the five we’ve selected for the NEXT Church National Gathering in less than two months! Without further ado, here are your previews of the presentations:

Rebecca Davis, Joaquin Ross & Jacob Kennedy

Therese Taylor-Stinson & Glenn Zuber

 Lee Hinson-Hasty

Wendi Brockhaus & Nick Pickrell

Ann Hartman

But that’s not all! There are other presentations coming your way. Here are the Ignite presenters we invited to share with us:

Becca Messman & Chineta Goodjoin
John Wilkinson
Stephen Whitaker

Tom Charles and Refugee Resettlement

As with previous years, our 2017 National Gathering will feature testimonies from a variety of church leaders undertaking innovative work in their communities. This year, Tom Charles, elder at Nassau Presbyterian Church, will be delivering a testimony about his involvement with the church’s refugee resettlement program. Here’s a statement Tom wrote in 2015 when the church was considering sponsoring another family, which they did in 2016.

by Tom Charles

The congregation of Nassau Presbyterian Church has a long tradition of sponsoring refugees, welcoming nine refugee families to the Princeton community over the past 50 years.

They have come from eight different countries, including Bosnia, Burma, Cambodia, Cuba, Hungary, Iraq, Sudan and Vietnam.

Before coming to the United States, they endured political repression, threats of violence and, in some cases, torture; they travelled great distances, often surreptitiously and at great peril; they arrived at area airports not knowing who would be meeting them; but they all came to the United States for a better way of life for themselves and their children.

They have all proven to be hard working and good people, committed to the ideals that make America a great country. They have found employment as a restaurant manager… a mechanical engineer… a physical therapist… a teacher at a Montessori school… a computer network specialist… a dentist… an inventory manager… a tailor… a food preparation worker…  a librarian.

For our part, we have welcomed these families at the airport, hosted them in our homes, helped them learn English, assisted them in finding jobs, and learned much from them about courage, perseverance, and the love of freedom.

We have done all of this, not just to be nice people, but to welcome “the stranger” as Jesus would have us do (Matthew 25:35), being “doers of the word and not merely hearers” (James 1:22), and always receiving so much more from this experience than we have given. Welcoming refugees has rewarded me with some of the most faithful moments of my life.

Certainly, it is only natural to be concerned about the terrorist attacks around the world and ongoing threats to the United States … but I have confidence in the current refugee vetting process and prefer to respond to the current situation with hope and not fearmongering, love and not nativism, pragmatism and not negativity.


Tom Charles is a long-time member and elder at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ, and has served in the past as chairperson of its Mission and Outreach Committee. Tom has also coordinated the resettlement of the last 6 refugee families sponsored by Nassau, including a Syrian family who arrived last May. Partly prompted by the extensive publicity resulting from NPR reports on this family, Tom has also begun working with various faith communities around the country who are considering such a sponsorship.

Marci Glass: Ninevite Lives Matter

Marci Glass is one of our three preachers for the 2017 National Gathering. Here’s a sneak peek into Marci’s preaching – here’s a sermon she preached at her church last November. The sermon was originally posted on Marci’s blog, “Glass Overflowing.”

November 6, 2016

by Marci Glass

We humans often have a bad habit of “othering” people. By that, I mean we look at someone’s life that seems very different than our own, and we place them in some category at a remove from our concern. (For a great video series on this topic, check out “Love an other” from Theocademy. Videos here.)

Sometimes we “other” people with observation. Sometimes with judgement. Listen to the difference:

They are different.
or
They are weird.

They eat food that is new to me.
or
They eat food that is gross.

They speak a second language. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to get by in a place where I didn’t know the language.
or
I can’t understand them. Why don’t they speak English?

They’re from New York. or Bagdad. or Kuna.
or
They’re from a place without culture or civilization.

or the one that speaks to where we are this week—

They approach politics from a different perspective than I do.
They are voting for that person? Are they insane?

It is appropriate to notice difference, to embrace it, even. We aren’t called to pretend everyone needs to be the same.

Sameness is the darkside of “othering.” Because often when we notice the things that divide, we notice it with a judgment that we would prefer it if the other person were more like us.

The story of Jonah is all about this. God sends Jonah to call Ninevah to repent so they can avoid judgment.

And Jonah won’t do it.

Because he wants Ninevah to be judged. They’ve been a basket of deplorables for so long that he can’t even remember if they ever used to be friends. They are nastydisgusting people, seriously bad hombres. Those horrible articles they post to Facebook. They are fully deserving of God’s wrath. And no way, no how, is Jonah going to preach one of his awesome sermons to them so that they’ll be saved from judgment, which will be yuge, I tell you.

Sound familiar?

So Jonah goes to Tarshish instead. It would be like God calling us to preach to Portland, and we instead drive toward Denver. You can’t preach to the Ninevites if you’re hiding out at your friend’s doublewide trailer in the mountains of Tarshish, now can you?

God will not abide having the message of grace and repentance withheld from any of God’s children, even the nasty, deplorable ones. Until Jonah acknowledges that Ninevite Lives Matterspecifically, God won’t let him get away with saying “all lives matter.”

The ship Jonah escapes toward Tarshish on ends up in a huge storm and Jonah recognizes his culpability. He is tossed overboard and swallowed up by a giant fish. God decides 3 days in the digestive juices of a fish ought to give Jonah some time to think about his choices.

And then Jonah agrees to the plan, and gets spat out on the shore, where he heads to Ninevah to preach.

You can almost hear the glee in his voice when he announces their destruction and doom.
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Ha! That’ll teach you horrible people! You ought to be in jail, crooked Ninevah! We’ll see how you feel when God’s judgment puts you in your place!”

Jonah delivers the message, gets out a lawn chair and maybe some popcorn, and sits down to wait for a ringside seat of the destruction.

But the people repent. The King repents. The cows repent, for pete’s sake.

This isn’t an isolated repentance of a few people. This is a repentance of all individuals, the government, and even creation.

God’s message of repentance and grace prevails. God shows mercy on Ninevah and doesn’t destroy them.

Jonah’s front row seat to the destruction of his enemies doesn’t turn out the way he had hoped. Despite his greatest hopes for their doom, they are converted. His very success as a preacher and evangelist annoys the heck out of him.

God will choose to be merciful to whom God will choose to be merciful. We don’t get the final say in the people who are beyond the reach of God’s love.

I’ve shared this quote from Anne Lamott before, but it bears repeating:

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

Our job, as it turns out, is not to judge.

Only God gets to do that, and even then, we can’t presume God will hate all the same people we do. God doesn’t “other” people.

There’s a lot of “othering” taking place in the story of Jonah. And not just between Jonah and the Ninevites. On board the ship when the sailors are trying to figure out who’s to blame for the storm, it says “each one cried to his own God.

Even though they are all dying in the same storm, they are not together.

There’s a lot of “othering” taking place in our world. I know we’re all waiting for this election to be over, but unless we have our own repentance and changes of heart, it won’t all get better the day after the election.

The things that divide will remain. The ways we disconnect ourselves and our well being from the lives and welfare of other people will remain.

It is up to us to tell a different story.

Or maybe to claim an old one. To remember who we are and whose we are.

We’ll be coming to the Table this morning, and it is here that the contrast between God’s Kingdom and our kingdom is most apparent. We speak of all people being invited to this Table. And I’m sure we mean it. But not all the people who should be at this Table are in this room. Our religious life is not exempt from “othering.” in other words. The most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning worship. Somehow, despite God’s message of radical inclusion and grace, we still divide into sanctuaries of sameness, where the only lives that matter are the ones like ours.

We have systems in place in our culture that make racism and sexism, and the other ‘isms’, ingrained and invisible to us. So we can say “all are welcome” but until our divisions become more visible to us, until we can face our privilege with both honesty and grace, until we bring our very woundedness to the Table, how can we know of the fullness of God’s mercy?

That’s what Jonah faced at the end of his story. God calls him to awareness of his privilege. “I care about you, Jonah. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, as well?”

Jonah has to tell himself a different story.

When we come to the Table, we say we “remember” on the night Jesus was betrayed…. We weren’t there.

Our remembering is recalling the story of our past in a way that “re-members” it,
re-orders it for the present.

We remember that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own. And we remember Jesus still offered his betrayer bread. We remember the body of Christ, broken for us. And we look around at the body of Christ and realize, remember, that is still broken today.

What story of our life, of our faith, and of our nation do we want to remember? How can we tell it differently in the days to come?

One thought is to remember the Table. Because it is here, today, in this very room, that Trump supporters and Clinton supporters will gather. Together. In unity despite their differences to share a feast. Around a Table which has room enough for all.

Can we remember the Table as we go out into a fractious and divided world? Can we remember being fed together and nurtured by each other, trusting that if the mercy of God is wide enough to include us, it is wide enough to include people who would vote for the candidate from Ninevah?


Marci Auld Glass is the pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho and blogs at www.marciglass.com. She co-moderates the board of the Covenant Network, and serves on the boards of Ghost Ranch, Planned Parenthood Clergy Advocacy, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  She and her husband, Justin, have two sons, Alden and Elliott. Marci is a professional espresso drinker, bourbon snob, labyrinth walker, and lapsed cellist who voluntarily listens to opera.

Tamara John and Hope for Life

As with previous years, our 2017 National Gathering will feature testimonies from a variety of church leaders undertaking innovative work in their communities. This year, Tamara John, director for the Hope for Life Chapel RV ministry, and Tom Cramer, presbytery leader for vision and mission for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, are teaming up to deliver a testimony.

Want to learn more? Here’s a sneak peek into Tamara’s RV ministry:

Learn more about the 2017 National Gathering and register today!

Transformative Learning at the National Gathering

by Jen Kottler and Leslie Mott

For the last several years, NEXT Church has been inviting its National Gathering participants into a new way of thinking about and doing church, challenging us to live into Christ’s calling in ways that are life giving and life affirming. NEXT Church is not about change for change’s sake as much as it is about missional change, rethinking what it means to be the church in the 21st century.

This year, we are National Gathering attendees to re-think – or at least consider – what it might look like if we used our time together to practice a new way of being with one another.

We won’t give you a system or process or list of do’s and don’ts. (We hate that kind of stuff personally.) As pastors and yogis, we have been processing how we bring the most transformational elements from our yoga practice into our work as ministers. We wonder what might change if we thought of our faith as a practice rather than a set of beliefs?

During our time together, we will introduce you to a simple yet transformational way to re-think our work in the church. How would our meetings or worship services be different if they began with a clear intention that moved us into engagement and on to reflection that did more than evaluate what was done, but really challenged us to go deeper and shift our original intention?

As people in ministry, our personal and professional lives overlap, so the questions of the heart, our intentions, our engagement and our personal and professional reflection have much to inform each other.

What do you wonder about? Bring those thoughts with you. Share them with others. Be open to meeting new friends and having a few heart-to-heart conversations – ones where you are listening to connect and grow through sharing with others.

Someone once proclaimed to Maya Angelou, “I am a Christian,” to which she replied, “Already?” We wonder how our churches might change if we focused on loving people into discipleship with the challenge of living out our faith on a daily basis, worrying less about what that looks like, and more about a fresh appreciation of wonder.  In essence moving from the ‘how’ to the ‘wow.’

This is what happened to the woman at the well. Because she was open, because she listened and wasn’t afraid, she had a conversation that transformed her life. Indeed, it transformed not only her life, but the lives of others – and is one that can continue to transform our lives even today. You are still welcome to come to the National Gathering with your to-do list and set of tasks for learning that you wish to accomplish. But we also hope that you will come with an open mind, an open heart and a desire to connect deeply with others.


Jen Kottler and Leslie Mott are pastors, spiritual directors and yoga practitioners who love Jesus, are passionate about the church and will be inviting all attendees of the 2017 National Gathering to consider a different way of being together during our plenary time at the conference this March.

The First-Ever Crowdsourced NEXT Church Band

It started, in true NEXT Church fashion, with a “what if….”

What if Tuesday morning worship at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Kansas City was predominately music, with some stories and liturgical pieces added in?

And…. what if the music was entirely from the “non-church” genre – the kind of stuff you’d hear on the radio (if you still listen to the radio)?

AND….. what if the band for the worship service was entirely crowdsourced from NEXT Church conference attendees?

Welcome to the first-ever crowdsourced NEXT Church band!

We are looking for musicians and singers who are willing to try something pretty “next-y,” don’t have a problem being up in front of people, are pretty darn flexible and can “roll with it,” and can learn songs from a chord chart (sorry, no musical score will be provided). Steve Lindsley will work beforehand with interested musicians and singers to familiarize them with the songs that will be played, and we’ll have one group rehearsal on Monday before Tuesday morning comes.

In particular we need:

– Guitarists and others from the acoustic family (mandolin, banjo, uke, etc)
– Bass
– Violin, brass and anything from the woodwind family
– Percussion
– Piano
– Rappers (yep, you heard right. Rappers!)

Other instrumentalists are welcome, but those are the main ones needed. And you’ll need to bring your own instrument or make arrangements to use one already in KC. Except piano. We’ll have one there. That would be nuts of us to ask you to bring your own piano.

Questions? Interested? Shoot Steve an email.

Get excited!

Meet Our 2017 National Gathering Speakers

Today we’re excited to announce our preachers and testimony speakers for the 2017 National Gathering!

Preachers

Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People
Marci Auld Glass, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church
Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary

Testimony Speakers

Tom Cramer, Presbytery Leader for Vision and Mission for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos
Tamara John, pastor of Hope for Life Chapel RV Ministry
Charlie Scoma, chaplain with the Seattle Police Department
Glenn McCray, director of church-based community development with Urban Impact
Tom Charles, member of Nassau Presbyterian Church

Want to learn more? See photos and bios here!

NEXT → PLAY

NEXT → PLAY 
Integrating ministry practice through improvisation

Date: Wednesday, March 15-Thursday, March 16—noon to noon

Facilitator: Lisa Kays, LICSW—Licensed Clinical Social Worker, improv instructor and improviser

Wrap up your time at the NEXT Church National Gathering with an additional day of debriefing, learning, and play! We know the “church that is becoming” will be flexible, dynamic, and agile. Improv can be an indispensable tool for leaders as we step into God’s future for the PC(USA).

Lisa Kays has worked with groups of clergy and mental health professionals in the Washington DC area, helping them approach their work with creativity, collaboration, and vision. Lisa will help us process what we’ve experienced at the National Gathering and give us tools for our work back home. And we’ll have lots of fun as well! No experience in improv necessary—just a willingness to come and say “yes” to a little bit of play.

Lisa will be joined by Paul Vasile, a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. Paul will be offering workshops at the National Gathering, and we’re excited to have him stay on to help lead NEXT → PLAY.

This event is a grassroots effort spearheaded by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a member of NEXT Church’s strategy team. Thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor, cost for participants is just $75, plus meals and the additional night’s lodging.

How to register:

  1. Secure your lodging for Wednesday night! NEXT Church’s negotiated rates are still in effect, but rooms may be limited.
  2. Register on Eventbrite (please note this is a separate registration page from the National Gathering. That registration info is here).
  3. (Optional but recommended) Join the Theology of Improv Facebook group to connect with other folks interested in theology, ministry and the spiritual life.
    See you in Kansas City!

NEXT PLAY Planning Team
Ryan Bradney, First Presbyterian Church, Winchester KY
MaryAnn McKibben Dana, free-range pastor, Reston VA
LeAnn Hodges, Oaklands Presbyterian Church, Laurel MD
Chris Keating, Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church, Wildwood MO
David Westerlund, Tierra Nueva, Burlington WA