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How can we address the decline in religion?

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Mainstream and institutional religious practice is on the decline among Americans — at least statistically — and has been for some time now. But 83% of us think we have a soul or spirit in addition to a body. Nearly three-quarters of us believe in Heaven.

An interesting theme, once you start breaking down the polling on religion and spirituality, is that there remains a ravenous desire for spiritual connection. It’s expressed and understood in different ways by different people, of course. Some seek harmony with nature, or with an alternative spiritual community. Some meditate. Some exercise or fast.

But connectivity, harmony and peace are the emotional core of these efforts. We are a nation full of indefatigable spiritual seekers. Americans may very well be leaving religion, but this research — and my own experience — suggests that we are as spiritual now as we’ve ever been.

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And while it’s tempting to frame this dynamic as new or modern, it’s not. It’s as old as Christianity itself. In fact, Jesus personally addresses it:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me,” He says in Matthew 11:28-30. “Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

This passage is important. God is inviting us into a loving relationship. He is inviting us to be known and cherished. He is inviting us into an abiding, dynamic commitment.

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings,” we read in Hosea 6:6.

God wants us. He doesn’t want us to adopt a posture of hollow obedience. He knows we can evade intimacy with Him even while we pray, and He sees us do it. God seeks authentic connection with us, not perfect behavior.

He wants and asks for nothing more and nothing less than all of us, as we are, here and now. And we’re drawn to Him, no matter how clouded our pursuit of Him has become by our experiences, disappointments, or past.

What’s more, He seeks us relentlessly — and delights in the chase.

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one,” Jesus begins one parable. “Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it — there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue” (Luke 15:4-7).

The statistical decline in explicit religiosity is counteracted by the precious, insatiable spirituality God can use to call to us. If we are seeking Him — or, frankly, “seeking” at all — God can still find us and throw us over His shoulders with joy.

He loves us so tenderly and tirelessly that we don’t need to be religious for Him to find us. Sometimes, all we need to be is a little lost.

And no matter where we are, He is there. He is calling every one of us to Him. He works through our suffering, confusion, disbelief and unknowing. He works through our triumphs, our spiritual curiosity, our many and varied loves.

And beyond all of this, He waits to teach us how to rest. In a place beyond our seeking and strife, God invites us to “live freely and lightly” at His side.

Russ Ewell is executive minister of the Bay Area Christian Church. A minister for more than 40 years, Russ’s teaching is rooted in providing hope for those turned off by tradition, and infused with vision for building the transformative church for which the 21st century public hungers.

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