One Person. Multiple Spiritual Communities.

One of the prominent features of the historic Mainline Church seems to be that each congregation had their own rolls with their own members and those members were committed to that one particular church.

This has changed.

Perhaps the first time I realized this shift was about 20 years ago when a friend in rural Virginia told me that she attended the Sunday morning Bible study in the Baptist Church, worship in the Presbyterian Church and coffee hour in the Episcopal Church every Sunday.  I was a little shocked that she was not fully committed to just one of these three congregations.  Instead, she was connected to all three and her commitment was shared.

I later worked with a colleague who identified our congregation as just one of his spiritual communities.  He was also part of another church in town and he occasionally worshipped there.  And he also claimed a neomonastic community in another state as a spiritual home, as well as a couple on-line communities and a spiritual director who was from a completely different tradition.

Most of us who remain in the Mainline Church find that our congregations change weekly.  Maybe our membership includes interfaith or ecumenical couples and they spend this Sunday in our community but next Sunday they’ll be at the Catholic Church or at the Quaker meeting.  Maybe our membership includes busy families who gather for worship only once or twice a month when they aren’t in the minivan headed to a soccer field or a basketball court.

A Muslim friend of mine once introduced me as “the pastor of her Presbyterian Church.”  Sometimes she visited an Episcopal Church.  But actually she was Muslim.

So here we are in a very different world.  Yes, there are still many church people who gather with their longtime congregations – and perhaps sit in the exact same pew – every week.  But there is a shift happening in which commitments are looser and more varied.

Just as we church people used to offer most of our charitable giving to a single congregation, we now spread out our financial contributions to more than one organization.  And trends seem to be that we also spread out our time among multiple organizations – church, but also school, sports teams, informal meet-ups, work-related groups, and social groups – when 50-75 years ago, church was our primary spiritual and social outlet.

At least this is what I’ve noticed.  Today,  church connections continue to shift.  Maybe I’m a member of the Lutheran church but I also attend a Bible study with Roman Catholic friends every once in a while, and I also occasionally attend a Faith on Tap gathering in a local bar.  And all of it’s church.  My church.

Can we be okay with this?  Do we need exclusive devotion from our members?  Can we share parishioners with other congregations?  Do we mind if our people can only participate occasionally?

What do you think?

7 responses to “One Person. Multiple Spiritual Communities.

  1. Jan,
    As always, great post. This is not only true of parishioners, but pastors as well. I suspect there was a time when many Presbyterian pastors did their continuing ed in Presbyterian locales with Presbyterian speakers. Now, we go where the important work is being done and where we can get help. As an example: my wife (a Lutheran pastor) and I (a Presbyterian pastor) are working on planting a new church (supported by both denominations, but seeking to connect with people who don’t necessarily have a background in either, in fact, who don’t have a background in any church–Pew’s “nones”). Our church planting training was done by evangelicals (from the Missionary Church), our coaches are Disciples of Christ, our person spiritual practices are Roman Catholic (Ignatian), and we frequently do Bible study with an Orthodox rabbi. And it all makes sense!


  2. I think we not only can be okay with this, but I think we should be okay with this. We are living in the midst of a new and quickly changing movement within society and within the Church. People are searching for places and communities in which they can ask and seek those difficult life and faith questions. And, yet, they are also not just seeking one specific way or answer: they are searching for diverse ways of exploring such questions about God, life, and how to live so that they can find and articulate informed and thoughtful answers or meaning for themselves. I love what Dr. Phyllis Tickle said at the Presbyterian clergy retreat in January when she described Rowan William’s understanding of the Church’s mission: It’s not to save the Church of England, but rather to save the Kingdom of God.

    May we all have the courage and boldness to let go of the anxieties revolved around increasing the numbers in our pews and small groups and instead focus on bringing forth the Kingdom of God here and now – no matter who we might have to share our parishioners with.


  3. An insightful and thought provoking post as usual. I serve a two point rural circuit now where this seems less true than when I was serving in a metropolitan area. Anyone else having any observations about how this translates in the town and country setting?


  4. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    The shared ministry and how it plays out today!


  5. Just this week at Bible study, a regular attender at my church asked me if it is “okay” to be a Catholic coming to a Presbyterian church. I was in an Ignatian spiritual direction program at the same time I was attending a Presbyterian seminary, and I attend Catholic masses when I need to worship rather than lead and worship. I know Presby pastors who go to midweek Episcopalian compline services for the same reason. The last three funerals in my nonreligious Methodist family of origin have been conducted by Catholic sisters (in a very rural area). My home Presby church has several people in the pews each week who would probably claim a dual religious identity. So yes — I’d say it’s increasingly common (and wonderful) for people to seek commonalities and be comfortable across differences. If our allegiances are to God and community and relationship rather than to institutions and polity, I see that as progress — although it does create funding challenges.


  6. I’d like to republish this article in our diocese newsletter, with your permission… I’ll give you credit, of course, and a pointer to your blog. This is the Diocese of Central New York…



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