‘GOD INCIDENTS’ ARE ALL AROUND US
By DAVID CRUMM
A startling Pew Research Center report arrives just as thousands of congregations nationwide are gearing up for the busy autumn season.
No, it isn’t surprising to read Pew’s latest confirmation that a significant minority of Americans are opting out on organized religion (nearly 1 in 4 of us). What is startling to religion-watchers is Pew’s finding about the far-and-away, No. 1 reason that Americans choose to join a congregation. (And, yes, both “location” and a “welcoming atmosphere” are still relatively high on Pew’s list of factors contributing to church-goers’ choices.)
The shocker is the pinnacle of that list. More than 8 in 10 Americans told Pew that their No. 1 reason for joining a house of worship is: the quality of the preaching. How many bad jokes do you know about boring sermons or the irrelevance of preaching today? And, yes, there may be some truth in those jokes. But, the remarkable fact is: Americans overwhelmingly say they really need inspirational messages, these days.
Shoring up Pew’s finding is the latest report from the Association of American Publishers that find sales of inspirational books, as a genre, keep rising year after year. There’s a powerful and widespread desire for inspiration out there.
A WELCOMING FAITH
That truth about Americans’ need for a sincere, welcoming faith means that veteran pastor, preacher and new author Glenn M. Wagner is well poised this year in offering his book, God Incidents: Real-Life Stories to Strengthen and Restore Your Faith.
And, wait! There’s more news! The other body of Pew data that Wagner has been closely watching concerns the nearly 1 in 4 Americans who now say they have no religious affiliation—even though 78 percent of these “Nones” were raised in families that belonged to a congregation. This means that the vast majority of “nones” chose to leave organized religion. Many Nones say they are “spiritual” today; many Nones are essentially secular. What unites the Nones is their conscious decision to opt out on joining a congregation.
Why did they leave? One message comes through loud and clear in the Pew findings: There’s a widespread belief that churches are mean-spirited organizations that are divisive to friends and families. Nones say that congregations are especially divisive, because they are tearing people apart over issues like acceptance of LGBT family members. In blunt terms: For millions of Americans, congregations aren’t centers of goodness—they’re toxic.
At such a moment—with a significant minority of the population rejecting bad religion and an overwhelming desire for some inspirational preaching—Glenn Wagner has drawn from a lifetime of pastoral teaching in God Incidents.
‘PEOPLE ARE HURT’
“Wherever I travel, I’m hearing what Pew’s interviewers have been hearing,” Wagner says in an interview. “Yes, many people still love their congregations. Religious life is alive and well in many communities. But, at the same time, many people are hurt, disillusioned, frustrated and they have big questions that aren’t being answered by religious communities, today. In fact, many people feel that their questions aren’t even welcome inside our churches. So, they turn away. And, that is something we can change. Our congregations should honor people’s questions, should allow them to be raised, and should welcome people on our journey as we all search for answers.
“In fact, I wrote this book with those readers in mind—the people outside the church looking in,” Wagner continues. “Since this book was recently released, I’m already hearing that people within the church are welcoming these stories. But there’s a potential here to reach beyond the walls of congregations. I personally am calling on readers to help cultivate communities where people don’t have to check their brains at the door. I’m talking about congregations where we encourage questions as a part of our spiritual life.
“I believe in God’s math—everybody counts.”
Clearly, Wagner is a champion of the church. In Michigan, he is one of the statewide United Methodist leaders working to unite the two “conferences” that historically have covered the state into a single, new conference that is better adapted to ministry in this new century. But beyond that strong support for traditional religious life, Wagner says he always has one hand extended to people who have abandoned the church, often because of wounds over diversity.
“We will only be the church we should be when we recognize our shared humanity and can tolerate differences,” he says.
While an analysis of national trends is compelling news for religious leaders, the inspiring connections that Wagner wants to make come down to very personal experiences. His book is full of such moving stories—often involving glimpses inside his own family.
One of those stories involves Wagner literally breaking a leg as a part of a spiritual quest.
For more than 40 years, Wagner has traveled back and forth to the Middle East, beginning with the school year 1973-74 when he attended the American University of Beirut and the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon. In fact, he played basketball for the Beirut university and was part of a Lebanese national championship team that year.
Later, in the 1990s, serving as pastor of a church in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, he was involved in an interfaith network that made national headlines for the scale and quality of the diverse programs hosted by various congregations.
His ever-growing interfaith outreach dovetailed with his deep love of communities in the Middle East and especially in Israel, where one of his visits in the 1990s led him up onto a mountaintop with a Bible scholar. “The main reason more Americans should go is to discover how the actual geography opens up the Bible in a whole new way,” Wagner says in the interview. “In fact, that’s why I was up on that mountaintop that day.
“I remember a group of us were listening to a fabulous lecture about Psalm 23 with connections to the lands we could see all around us. Then, the professor pointed out so many fascinating places surrounding us that we should look at more closely before we left. Below us, we could see St. George’s Monastery, more than 1,000 years old. And, I decided to take some photographs of that.
“I thought we were on solid ground, but I suddenly felt the stone on that mountain shifting beneath my feet. I slid. My leg shot up in the air! I came down hard and that surface may look soft like sand, but it’s certainly not as forgiving as sand. This is rock and crumbling rock—and the fall snapped my leg in two places.
“Fortunately, we had a doctor in our group and he was able to give me some help immediately. Then, a medical crew came out from Jerusalem. To this day, I am grateful to an Orthodox Jewish group from Chicago that donated an ambulance to the crew of Jewish rescue workers that came out to get me. One day later at the Hadassah Medical Center, surgeons operated and put a rod in my leg to repair the breaks.”
What happened next is a scene Wagner describes in his new book. Most Americans are unaware of the diversity within Israel itself and Wagner’s eight-bed hospital ward included Jewish and Palestinian patients.
“I learned a lot about building a healthy community in that ward. I was there less than a week, but as the newcomer to that ward, it was amazing how quickly we all got to know each other,” he recalled. “We needed to know what each of us could do, and couldn’t do, given what skills we had before we arrived and what limitations we had from our surgeries.
“For example, one of the Jewish patients was multilingual and could help us all talk with each other. Some could get up and walk to get something that someone else needed. One Palestinian was from a family that ran a restaurant and they brought in this marvelous food. I can still remember the sweet desserts they brought us. And, because this was a teaching hospital, the doctors made rounds and talked about each of our cases in the ward. So, we all knew a lot about each other’s problems. This whole week of sharing so much just fascinated me!
“After that experience, I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if the world could learn from a hospital ward like that. The truth is—we’re all injured or broken in some way. We all have talents. Together, we could help to heal each other and even heal the deep rifts that divide so many of our communities in the world today.”
WHERE IS GOD?
Ultimately, Wagner says, the Pew data on the importance of good preaching makes a lot of sense. “Excellent preaching is something you just have to have in a vital church, but there’s something more we need to say about that. Your words alone can be powerful, but what’s most important in a healthy community is for people to speak with absolute honesty and integrity. That’s what I try to do in this new book.
“What you’re trying to say—and the message people can see in your life—they must be in alignment. We need congruence in our messages about life and faith.
“People don’t want heavy-handed preaching. People want honest help in looking at their lives through new lenses that can help them to see God already working around them. My wish for this new book is that it will help readers begin to think about all that has happened in their lives and remember some experiences that made them stop and think, like I did in that hospital ward: ‘Wow! Look at this!’
“It’s with that new vision that we can discover God at work in our world, even when we weren’t even aware of God. I hope readers are surprised not only by the book, but by what they can discover about their own lives.”
Care to read more?
FROM PEW—Here is the main Pew report on “Choosing a New Church.” Here is the latest report on why “nones” are leaving. In addition, Glenn Wagner and this column about his new book also have drawn from Pew’s extensive reporting on “nones” over the past year, so you may want to search around within the Pew website for additional reports.
GET THE BOOK—You’ll be glad you ordered a copy of God Incidents.
CONNECT WITH GLENN—Wagner has an active schedule of speaking engagements, programs and retreats. Connect with the author and learn more at: glennmwagner.com.