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Being Spiritual But Not Religious In Downtown Phoenix

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

This is a phrase that is becoming more and more commonplace throughout American society and a phrase I hear on almost a daily basis as I meet people in downtown Phoenix.

In fact, The Pew Research Center recently released a study that indicates:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

A colleague of mine mentioned recently that older generations were “religious, but not spiritual” while younger generations, today, “are spiritual, but not religious.” Certainly there was a time when going to church on a Sunday morning was the socially expected thing to do. As the suburbs grew and people started to move out of the cities and into bigger houses with higher fences, churches became the community gathering places and social clubs. Being religious was practical and normative and not so much spiritual or mystical.

Today, churches are some of the last places many young people would voluntarily walk in to. That, however, does not mean that they don’t hold religious beliefs. It often just means that many have given up on trying to live out their faith through institutions they no longer see as relevant or even damaging to society. So, religion becomes less practical and functional, in society. Conversely, there seems to be, more than ever, a deep longing that people have to connect with something bigger than themselves, on a spiritual level.

I’ve been living in central Phoenix and working in downtown for five months now. Brian (my co-pastor) and I were inspired to begin a new faith community in downtown because we had both seen something new happening there that resonated with us on personal and spiritual levels. Indeed there is an excitement about this emerging city, led by creatives, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, community activists and business coalitions. Central Phoenix is quickly becoming a magnet for young professionals and progressive minded urban dwellers.  As the price of gasoline increases and the light rail expands, people are finding living in the city more sustainable and beneficial to their pocketbooks, in place of living in larger and less expensive homes in the suburbs, which require long and grueling commutes to work and back.

It also seems that people are drawn to Phoenix because it is a city that seems set on building community. You need only walk into one of the amazing locally owned and managed restaurants or bars in Phoenix to feel the communal vibe, or the art galleries that also act as event and office spaces, co-working spaces, independent coffee shops, seemingly unlimited mixers for professionals and entrepreneurs, gatherings and events in pop-up parks, and community festivals, all of which create a neighborhood and small community feel in the nation’s sixth largest city.

These are the new gathering places and social clubs, these are the places offering creative transformation and hope in our urban centers.

I wonder sometimes, though, if people are coming back to the urban centers to escape religion. Suburban churches tend to be “attractional” churches, meaning they depend on offering the best music, sermons, and programs to attract members. Many do really good work in the community but often suburban churches are like anything else suburban: cookie-cuter, corporate, and consumeristic.

It’s not that Phoenix doesn’t have churches. In downtown, aging cathedrals and sanctuaries stand tall enough to notice and offer architectural beauty, yet many see declining attendance each Sunday and many of their members commute from the suburbs for one reason or another.

Many people I’ve met, who live downtown, are happy not to be a part of anything religious, however, they pray, meditate, talk about making good moral and ethical decisions, and envision how to make our world a better place. Yet these things are private, these things have deep meaning, these things are “spiritual.”

It’s not that people don’t want to talk about these ever increasing personal practices, they just don’t want to deal with the baggage that comes with talking about God, religion, and especially Christianity. No one wants the potential judgement and the hypocrisy that comes with it.

So faith and spirituality bubble underneath the surface, but everyone hesitates to name it or discuss it.

How do we begin, then, to bring the conversation and practice of religion, faith, and spirituality into the public sphere in downtown Phoenix?

There’s a couple ways to do this.

First, you can transplant suburban church into downtown. That’s what a non-denominational mega church from the east valley is doing. A few months ago they purchased a historic downtown church that could no longer be supported by the denomination that built it. In January they will move in with hundreds of transplanted members and will instantly become one of the largest downtown churches. This isn’t a new idea. Thriving non-denominational churches throughout the country have identified the trend of younger populations moving back to our urban centers. Recognizing that everything old is new again, they are purchasing properties from dying mainline downtown congregations and transplanting growing evangelical congregations into them. How will these churches and their members interact with what is already happening in these cities? Will they contribute and enhance the uniqueness and organic-ness of these emerging centers or will they simply create the very thing that everyone who came to the city was trying to escape from? I have no doubt that whatever happens they will do good work and they will change lives in the community.

However, an alternative way we can bring religion, faith and spirituality to the surface is to recognize the work that God is already doing in the city. We can create space and opportunities for open and honest conversation about our beliefs and spiritual connectedness. We can identify and name those sacred spaces that provide meaning and hope for the community. We can join together as partners in showing what it means to offer grace and love to those in need. We can celebrate and mourn together through shared practices and rituals. We can vision together and challenge each other, our leaders and elected officials to continue to create a community that offers a future of hope for all of its people and the environment we live in.

As downtown Phoenix emerges and finds its voice, how will religion and spirituality be a part of it?  Will faith and spirituality be as unique as the city itself? Will it be creative, innovative, and artistic? Will it be prophetic and visionary? If faith is to become part of the fabric of Phoenix, it won’t be through the work of one church or faith community, it will be through the work of many partnering together, along with those who individuals and groups who are non-religious. That’s been my favorite discovery about Phoenix: it’s a city being built on community partnerships and togetherness. It’s not perfect and at times it’s messy, but overall, it’s hopeful and it’s beautiful. I’m honored and privileged to be a part of shaping the future of Phoenix. If you’re part of this community, I hope you feel the same way and I hope you will join me on this journey of creating something new and meaningful for a great city.

About the author: Rob is the co-founder and current co-pastor of City Square Church, a new and innovative United Methodist faith community in downtown Phoenix. In his years of experience in spiritual formation and creating active and engaged communities, Rob has become an expert at connection and networking. He now uses these experiences, along with technology and social media, to bring others together around creative ideas and events that aim to inspire innovation and bold leadership.

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  • Wes Magruder

    So glad to hear that you’re NOT emulating the megachurch model. You’re on the right track, and I’m sure you will find where God is at work. But remember — it’s usually where we least expect, least want to be, and are most surprised.

  • John Meunier

    Rob, thanks for this really interesting post. I have two questions that I really, really intend as friendly but fear they won’t come across that way. So, here it goes:

    1) Are we at risk in the church of chasing too much after young, professional, and the well-off at the expense of the people who were downtown before it became the hip and hot place to be?

    2) I think your friend is 100% right about many folks being religious but not spiritual (reminds of John Wesley talking about the form of religion without the power). But are those young people spiritual in the sense that they have what the merely religious are missing? Do their lives really reflect the power of the Holy Spirit and the life of Jesus Christ? Or is it something else? More like a form of cultural religion in a culture where the church has been displaced from the center of the culture?

    • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

      John, if your intent was to make these “friendly” questions, then I would say you’ve accomplished that!

      1. First and foremost, I am a “young professional,” so I tend to naturally be more effective at gathering/attracting other young professionals. Having been a campus minister I tired of seeing my students graduate and then not sticking with a congregation, the main reason being there was no one else their age there, and they were just downright lonely. All that being said, we’re intentional about trying to reach beyond a particular demographic, which is hard work, but can be done. All things being equal, our downtown congregations would have remained contextual as the downtown neighborhoods changed, unfortunately that was not the case. We closed our three downtown churches and our UMC in midtown was once a formidable presence but is now hanging on by a thread. City Square is an attempt to be relevant to the current context while also trying to discern where things are headed. It would be nice working from out front, for once! 

      2. It’s hard to say and perhaps it’s a combination of all of that. I think many folks (including David Kinnaman, who spoke recently, here in Phoenix) want to focus on what we need to do to attract folks(young and otherwise) back to the church. After these past five months I’m more inclined than ever to say that those days, in many contexts, are over. I think people no longer see the Church as a change agent (whether for individuals, communities, or the world) so their energy to transform themselves and the world gets lived out in the culture, which actually looks and feels a lot more like church to me. We think, however, some folks are willing to call themselves Christians again, or for the first time, if Christian community looks/feels/acts like a place where the teachings of Christ are actually lived out, in the culture. We’ll know if we were right if we’re still around in a year! The bottom line is that I see more folks, who don’t identify as Christians, making positive change in the community and casting a vision for the future, than I do from brick and mortar churches. That’s something we can’t ignore.

      • John Meunier

        Thank you for your extended reply, Rob. This sounds like a fascinating experiment in the best Methodist tradition. I pray you bear much fruit.

  • johnwleek

    What is it that you believe these community-loving, downtown Phoenix folks lack? I don’t see you naming that, though you may in another of your posts. What you hope to bring to these people (my suggestion would be lives transformed through the living Christ) may be the first thing you need to define in “shaping the future of Phoenix.”

    • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

      John, my intent was to suggest that we don’t intend to “bring” anything to folks. There was a community being formed and shaped long before we arrived on the scene. God was and continues to be at work, but in ways that don’t look like “church,” to most of us, such as buildings with programs and services that offer things for people to consume. We believe our call is to first of all bring the discussion of spirituality and religion to the surface, offer a way of discipleship for folks who are called to live that out, offer grace to the community, yet also not discount the good work that others are doing. We don’t have a product to sell, but hopefully we have something of value and a safe space to offer folks who want to go deeper. We believe if we’re faithful to what were being called to, we’ll enhance, whether than replace or offer an alternative. 

      • johnwleek

        I’m not sure I really understand you, but I do appreciate what you are trying to do. I don’t think having a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish means something that looks like the average UMC today. I hope to be planting new communities of faith myself among largely un-churched (or whatever phrase you prefer) folks in the near future. I’ll look forward to seeing what will come of your work with City Square!

        • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

          No worries! It’s hard to fully explain if you’re not here in Phoenix, but I’m always looking for ways to tell the story better to those outside of my context! I hope you get a chance to be a church planter and when that day comes I’m happy to offer any help/advice. Blessings!

  • Kathren

    As a young professional,  member of the downtown community and City Square church, I am so thankful for what you and Brian have brought to our community.  I attended and was very active in a UM church for many years, driving 20 miles multiple times a week  to attend my home church (until earlier this year). 

    I became more spiritual than religious and felt like I had been burned by my church and the staff on several occasions. I started my career and like many other young professionals, began working hours and taking part in social activities that overlapped with the religious component of my life. I started seeing fewer and fewer young people in the pews, and when I did, felt it was increasingly difficult to connect with them through the traditional church activities. I also found it difficult to talk to friends/coworkers about my church activities, and on several occasions was shut down by folks uncomfortable with my talking about my church life. 

    Being part of a community like City Square has changed that. I have been able to participate in multiple parts of my life without feeling like I have to compartmentalize them. I meet new people who not only share a love of community, but also the willingness to be open with their passions, spirituality and other parts of their lives. We talk about how our faith improves our community, and how our community improves our faith. How we can walk humbly in our lives and use our God-given talents to grow our community & reduce the stigma (whether we like to think about it or not) that comes with many religions and brick and mortar churches.

    It is about being in a space that is comfortable, welcoming and accessible. Rob, you are doing an amazing job of providing an atmosphere that is all of those to us downtowners. If we are looking for a brick and mortar church, you are happy to help us find one. You provide a space for the spiritual, religious and even those who are unsure about where they stand. You incorporate the parts of our lives many of us have been told we had to give up to be a member of a church and most importantly to me, you grow City Square by being actively involved in a community that is also attempting to grow. Our group works with the change that is coming to downtown, not against, and thereby makes our folks an even more integrated part of City Square AND the community. 

    There is a lot more I would love to say, some tangible, some intangible that you, Brian and the church provide, but for now, I’ll just say thank you for being the change that so many of us were longing to have as part of our lives. 

    • John Meunier

      Thank you for posting, Kathren. I’m a distant observer of this ministry. It is really helpful to hear from you to widen the perspective on why and how this ministry matters.

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