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Human touch is power behind today’s churches

Walking a path between fire and brimstone and the religious equivalent of “whatever floats your boat” was the aim of Saturday conference in Superior. Pastors and congregation members from the Presbytery of Northern Waters met to discuss the nones, and how to invite them to give church a chance.

That’s “n-o-n-e-s,” not “n-u-n-s,” said Rev. Lillian Daniel, a nationally-known speaker, author, pastor and teacher. Pew Research surveys have tracked a gradual decline in religious commitment in the nation. When asked their religious affiliation, one out of every five adults — and one third of adults under age 30 — said none. Many of these describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” crafting their own religion that finds God in nature, sunsets and trees.

Media and entertainment often portray church, religion and religious leaders in unflattering ways, said Daniel, whose latest book is “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough.” Showing the reality of church — the quirks, the fun, the humanity — can counteract that. That includes pulling “code language” out of bulletins and worship material.

Worship is a counter-cultural act in today’s climate of social media-fueled narcissism where folks shop for the best benefits from their religious institution, said Daniel. Church is a place for people from all generations to mix, share and turn to God together. As they do, they are transformed.

“Everyone gets to grow and change by God’s grace, not because you’re awesome,” Daniel said.

Facebook has encouraged a culture of over-sharing, where focusing on what we’re going to post overrides living in the moment. Sharing of a different kind can lead others to church. When laypeople give their testimony of faith — how God and the church community made a difference in their lives — others can see the benefits for themselves.

These stories can build each other up and strengthen us in some way, said Daniel. But the story has to begin with God.

“I like her ideas,” said Jan Simmons, a member of Glen Avon Presbyterian in Duluth. She, too, gets tired of hearing about people who are “spiritual but not religious.” They are missing out on the big benefit a church offers, the human network.

“The church is not just the minister,” Simmons said. “The church is people. It’s all of us together,” reflecting God to one another.

When she sits down to talk with someone who says they are “spiritual but not religious,” Sue Goodin finds they have a lot in common.

“One of the things the church perhaps needs to be is more human and less dogmatic,” said Goodin, co-pastor of Clear Water Parish, which encompasses four churches in Duluth and Carlton County.

Joel Huenemann, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Superior, said Daniel’s talk made him consider how to incorporate testimonials into services.

Leaders from Willow River Presbyterian said it reinforced that they are on the right path. Elder Deb Stuart described their congregation-led worship when Pastor Betty Starkey is on vacation.

“We work together to make it happen without her,” Stuart said. “It’s fun for the whole church.”

“I think it’s so powerful to let lay people be creative forces,” Daniel said. “I think that’s wonderful.”

As for those “nones” out there, Daniel encouraged them to treat the search for a church as seriously as they would a search for a college. That includes looking online, but people should attend the church a few times before making the decision whether or not to join.