Welcoming churches: Greeting Nones and Jedi knights

Costumed Star Wars fans in a public park. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS LOOKED TO GREAT BRITAIN for religious inspiration. Sure, millions of us also look to Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca and regions of Asia. But Britain shaped American culture from early pilgrims through the era of John Wesley, whose Methodist forces built the nation’s largest religious group prior to the Civil War. Later, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings took America by storm. In fact, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is predicted, now, to set a new world’s record for opening-weekend boxoffice receipts. Even “our” American Shakers, beloved for their furniture and music, were founded by Manchester-native Ann Lee. And that’s not even mentioning the huge influence of Anglicans like N.T. Wright and Desmond Tutu.

There’s so much to this British spiritual invasion! New Year’s Day marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—which Steven Spielberg’s new movie rests proudly on the 16th president’s shoulders. But it was Bitish abolitionists in the 1700s, such as the visionary political activist Thomas Clarkson, who pioneered the course for eliminating slavery. (For more, read our story on the Lincoln-150 milestones about to sweep across the country in 2013.)

NEXT, from the sublime to the ridiculous … here is fresh news from Britain …


A Star Wars fan in Brazil appears as Obi-Wan Kenobi.As silly as this next news item may sound, there is vital news here for anyone who cares about a congregation. In Part 1 of our coverage of Henry Brinton’s new book, The Welcoming Congregation, we reported on the need for congregations to seriously embrace biblical mandates for welcoming strangers. Henry talked more about this in Part 2 of our series. Still, most readers leap to the conclusion that welcoming strangers is a matter of good manners, handshakes and big smiles.

But there’s more: The “strangers” who walk into houses of worship these days may be stranger than ever: like the Jedi knights, inspired by the Star Wars saga. News this week out of Great Britain is that—in a newly released census of religious affiliations—Jedi once again rank as one of the UK’s largest minority religions. Ten years ago, the Jedi shocked British Christians—who still make up two thirds of the island nation’s population—by suddenly appearing in the census totals with 400,000 Jedi adherents. The knights claimed a higher ranking on the list of UK religions than Jewish, Sikh or Buddhist Brits.

Ten years have passed. Now, eager to see how the Jedi would fare in the latest report on religious affiliation, British newspapers were poised to file stories about this Star Wars-inspired spiritual movement. This time, far fewer Brits entered “Jedi” as their faith. The new census of Jedi adherents is down to just under 180,000. That still ranks Jedis among the largest religious minorities in the UK, but safely moves Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists higher on the list.

Are the Jedi seriously a religious group? If you Google British newspaper reports, some of the leading papers on Fleet Street are reporting typically dead-pan stories on the current state of the Jedi faith—but clearly a good number of these reporters are writing with tongues in their cheeks. To American eyes, a few of these stories might suggest there actually are Jedi congregations holding services. In fact, the whole Jedi campaign was started by British humanist groups a decade ago to protest the fact that an official government census question was continuing to ask about citizens’ religious preferences. A nationwide campaign was launched to take an amusing swipe at the census by entering “Jedi.” British census-takers say the trend caught on especially among young adults.

Is there actually a Jedi faith? Like almost everything in the religious realm—yes, inded, there are people around the world who claim to follow a Jedi creed. One group uses this prayer-like affirmation: “Emotion, yet peace. Ignorance, yet knowledge. Passion, yet serenity. Chaos, yet harmony. Death, yet the Force.” Other Jedi adherents use other creeds. Mostly, however, occasional news stories about people who claim to follow the Jedi faith involve brushes with civil authorities. Every couple of years, a fully costumed Jedi gets into a scuffle in some UK business when the Jedi refuses to remove a hood or mask. A search of several journalism databases, this week, shows no recent coverage of actual Jedi ceremonies in any actual Jedi temples around the world.

If it’s so silly, then why does it matter? It matters because the Jedi protest—and the ongoing debate surrounding it in the UK—is a sign of just how outspoken religious skeptics have become in defending their right to be skeptics. Now across the UK, humanist, agnostic and atheist organizations are arguing that it was a mistake to encourage the Jedi protest ten years ago. These days, the consensus of UK skeptics seems to be: Instead of poking fun, they should urge people to freely stand up and identify themselves with whatever response to organized religion they may have.

On this side of the Atlantic, we may not have Jedi … but we have the rise of the Nones …


CLICK this Pew chart to visit Pew’s website and find our more about this report.ReadTheSpirit has published interviews with dozens of leading experts on American religious life, including Harvey Cox and Kenda Creasy Dean and Diana Butler Bass, all arguing that religious leaders need to adapt to dramatic changes in the American mindset about religion. Since the beginning of human history, religion always has involved both a call to accept revealed traditions—and a desire to to engage in spiritual quests. These two strands (revelation and quest) form the DNA of what we call “religion.” In the current era of American culture, however, that passion for individual spiritual quests is dominant. Americans have strong opinions and questions. Religious leaders no longer have the authority to teach without interruption. Certainly, millions of us still accept revealed religious traditions—but the excitement of the individual spiritual quest is rising nationwide. From the realm of pop culture, many observers point out that the huge popularity of super-hero movies and even the new Hobbit holiday debut are signs of the ascendancy of the spiritual quest in American culture.

Want to be a welcoming congregation in America? Brace yourself. No, you won’t have to fend off costumed Jedi. But you will have to contend with opinionated “Nones” who may walk through your doors. “None” is the term widely used to identify the millions of Americans who answer polling questions about religious affiliation with the word: None. The Pew Forum’s latest tracking research on this phenomenon concludes, in part:

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. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

A new website to watch for insights into Nones: Journalists watching this historic transformation of the American religious landscape conclude that—like Britain and Europe before us—America is becoming more secular. However, even with that trend, American culture remains distinctively religious. We continue to rank with countries like Iran, Mexico and Pakistan in our religious intensity, compared with other nations surveyed around the world. New American spiritual trends are arising especially among the Nones. This month, longtime religion expert Martin Davis has opened a new website just to explore None phenomena. He calls his site NEW NONES: Tracking the Birth of New Faith in America.

Consider what the Pew data, Martin Davis and writers like Cox, Dean and Bass are arguing: This is not a time for people of faith to hang their heads and assume that the tide is shifting away from us. On the contrary! This is a time of vigorous spiritual seeking coast to coast. No, the strangers walking through our doorways are not arriving to humbly bend their knees and automatically accept whatever we are preaching. These new strangers may not come with light sabers flashing—but their questions and opinions and criticisms will, indeed, flash brightly in our congregations.

And that leads us back to Henry Brinton …


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.In closing his book—and in closing our three-part series with Henry Brinton (see Part 1 and Part 2)—we are reminded of the ancient patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah. Brinton writes: We should always begin by looking for the presence of the holy in the guests who come to our door, much as Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers and discovered that they were the Lord, in Genesis 18. These guests “can be both gift and challenge,” says Ana Maria Pineda, “human and divine.”

Then, a page later, Brinton writes: We have learned that practicing God’s welcome includes ongoing efforts to make worship accessible to guests. In the Iona Abbey, barriers to participation in services are broken down by the teaching of songs as the service begins; at Saddleback, guests are told that they can expect to enjoy the service and that no one will do anything to embarrass tehm. In all services, orders of worship should be projected clearly on screens or included in comprehensive printed bulletins that minimize the amount of juggling that a worshipper needs to do, especially in churches that use both hymnals and prayer books. The focus on the service should be on “creatiing comunity for that hour,” says Sam Lloyd, dean of the Washingotn National Catehdral.

That’s the kind of solid advice you can find throughout Brinton’s 133-page book. Right now, start talking about the ideas we have shared in this three-part series with Henry Brinton. Get a copy of his book and ask church leaders to discuss it over a series of weekends.

And: From all of of us at ReadTheSpirit—
have a Merry Christmas and a very Hopeful New Year!

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By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and …
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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