On Labels and Returning to Church


This past winter I started going to church again. Emotionally exhausted and spiritually drained from current events and personal circumstances, I made a point to actually set my alarm and show up to the 10:45 service of a congregation within walking distance of my home. It was the second Sunday in Advent, and the congregation was doing its pre-Christmas musical extravaganza. There was a brass ensemble, an organ and a piano. The tunes were gorgeous, the prayers of the people mentioned the sins of rape culture and racism, and the pastor discussed implicit racial bias in her sermon. I found myself choking up during “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It was precisely the balm I needed, and I’ve since become a regular.

So what does this mean for my previously discussed unaffiliated status? I proudly tell people where I spend my Sunday mornings when it comes up in conversation, and I’ve even marked the “interested in membership” box on the attendance roster. Every service opens with a brief speech about how every part of us is welcome there, “no matter what you believe or don’t,” and this is a major reason why I feel good attending this church. I don’t feel like I have to evaluate my personal belief/disbelief ratio every time I attend.

Associating with this congregation isn’t a problem for me, but when I think of shifting this church’s denominational label onto myself, I get anxious. My doubts feel too big to fit into that demographic box, and moreover I don’t think it accurately communicates how I spiritually nourish myself. I do get a great deal of this nourishment from attending church, but I also listen to a variety of religion podcasts, read spiritual memoirs and reflections, and strive to curate a diverse set of religious voices on my Twitter timeline. Some of this stems from pure academic interest, but I’ve also had my own beliefs shift after mulling over different theological frameworks and belief systems that I’d had limited exposure to previously.

A demographer would probably roll their eyes and tell me to stop being such a special snowflake, that most polls aren’t really for measuring in that level of detail anyway. But since it seems like plenty of clergy, professors and columnists are concerned about the increasing share of unaffiliated young people, maybe they should be. Pew asks some decent preliminary questions–for example, if any of these “nones” are in fact looking for a faith that is right for them, but doesn’t ask how those who answer yes (10 percent) are doing this. But then there are those weird numbers about how many of them believe in God (68 percent of self-identified unaffiliated) and various Eastern or New Age ideas, how often they pray (21 percent say daily, 20 percent say weekly or monthly). This sure sounds like seeking to me, though perhaps not always the most proactive kind.

Labels are useful, to a point. They certainly make it easier to keep track of trends and to gauge how much to fret when some institutions’ influences wane. But if the growth of unaffiliated young people continues, polling firms and religious organizations alike are going to have to probe deeper if they hope to reconnect in a meaningful way.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.