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Or “Neo-Pagans” and “Unchurched”
Neo-pagan. It’s a term I toss around frequently, often endearingly. I think of many friends and acquaintances who I describe as neo-pagans. It isn’t meant as disapproval, more just description. They’re my neighbors and your co-workers.
I’m not implying they’re into the black arts, hexagrams, or child-sacrifice. They may have a figurine of Buddha in their den—more as a cultural artifact than any statement. They might host a solstice party, but more as excuse for a party. They certainly celebrate Christmas, but might be conscientious about wishing others “Happy Holidays!” not “Merry Christmas!” They like Jesus, at least the Jesus of Gandhi or Jefferson.
But they are highly skeptical of the church, or any “organized religion” and very good at sniffing out even the mildest of sales pitches. Like most of us, they are probably most devoted to the worship of mammon. Sometimes I describe them as “happy pagans” for they seem happy enough, at least as happy and well-adjusted as most Christians I know. There are days, honestly, I sort-of, half envy them.
When I wondered aloud, at a wider church assembly, how we as Christians can make meaningful contact and build trust with our neo-pagan friends, I was surprised at the pushback I received. “Why do we want to be in contact with witches and druids and idol-worshippers?” I was asked, with more than a drop of intensity.
We were gathered together to discuss the Reformed Church in America’s recently adopted “strategic goal,” Transformed and Transforming. Among its earliest bullet-points is “loving and embracing all people.” As Bill Mallonee, a favorite singer-songwriter of mine, is wont to say, “Apparently, some restrictions may apply.”
I tried to dial down the tension by explaining what and who I meant to describe (although I did wonder how even the deepest and more thoroughly pagan people don’t qualify as part of the “all” we are told to love and embrace).
But it felt like something was surfacing here, more important than a lack of clarity about what “neo-pagan” means. An assumption about who we want to love, to invite and welcome to our churches seemed to emerge.
Often the term to describe these people is the “unchurched.” With this term we’re trying to be nonjudgmental, merely descriptive (as I am with neo-pagan). But I wonder if when we say “unchurched” what we’re unconsciously conveying is “good people,” “people like us,” suburban soccer moms, nice, well-mannered children, hardworking and sincere families. Almost exactly like us, except they aren’t active in a church. People probably raised in the church, but somehow they got out of the habit. Make a small adjustment, a shift of an 1/8 of an inch and all will be well. Then they will be all those good things they already are, plus “churched.” Neo-pagan, meanwhile, sounds much more frightening and challenging.
I tend to believe that many of the unchurched are also neo-pagans, more than we know. Of course, that still means that they truly are nice people, good neighbors, fine families, kind and decent and fun folk, who are also deeply skeptical and secular. Thinking we are inviting them only to make a small 1/8 of an inch adjustment in their life would seem to underestimate what we hope for or should easily expect.
I’m not trying to be either especially discouraging or encouraging about this. It is simply my observation. Perhaps I’m wrong and there is a big difference between neo-pagans and unchurched. Regardless, aren’t they still part of that “all” that Transformed and Transforming tells us to love and embrace?
Given their deep distrust of church and Christians, and their finely honed skills at sensing even the earliest and most non-threatening of Christian overtures, I am left to wonder how we build trust and make meaningful contact? How do they not feel like targets? Can we not push, and instead listen to them, and enjoy them? And understand that it isn’t as simple as making the unchurched become churched?
*Sorry. Obviously my title is misleading and off the subject. But numbers and/or lists seem so popular. Come back for my next post, that will include a fun test “Which of the Twelve Disciples Are You?”