Episcopal Outreach to Spiritual Independents

May 14, 2014
By: 
Lifelong Formation Team

Today’s guest blogger, Kathy Bozzuti-Jones, Ph.D., is associate director of Faith Formation and Education at Trinity Wall Street and chaplain to Trinity Preschool.

TFT-1.finWe’ve all heard the statistics on the growing numbers of Americans today who identify as religiously unaffiliated. Often referred to as ‘spiritual but not religious’ or SBNR, they take their spiritual and ethical lives seriously, but tend not to connect with traditional forms of religious life. After many years as a director of religious education and spiritual counselor, it has dawned on me that the Episcopal Church should take an interest in this group of seekers  —  in spite of the fact that they may never avail themselves of our beloved liturgical offerings or congregational life. So, why reach out and with what?

The Church reaches out to the poor in mission and service, we reach out with relief and aid in crisis, we open our spaces for recovery groups, all with no expectation that the people served share our religious ways. So why not reach out, in like generosity, to people who value the life of the spirit and offer them an expansive form of spiritual education for nurture and community? 

The impulses of welcome and diversity are certainly in keeping with the Episcopal ethos. To reach out to this population involves being intentional about learning to speak of the Divine in inclusive ways and discovering how values compatible with Christian values are expressed in different spiritual traditions or practices. The resulting offering would necessarily look different from a Wednesday Bible study or adult Christian education hour, but would be no less good and Godly. 

I want to share an example of how this kind of generous neighborhood outreach plays out in my NYC context, having now completed a year of design and facilitation of The Family Table at Trinity Wall Street. What we did was to develop a model (visitors tell us that it could be adapted to outreach in their churches outside New York). The model, targeted to religiously-unaffiliated families with young children, addressed this question: What kind of gathering would attract and nurture spiritually-independent parents seeking to deepen their family’s spiritual life, given the realities of frenetic city living?

In response, we created The Family Table. At first glance, it might be mistaken for a church supper, but it is intentionally programmed with these ideas in mind: 

  1. Quality family time is essential and difficult to come by in the rush of city life.
  2. Sharing wholesome food around the table with another family and listening to one another’s stories makes it feel like home. 
  3. Open-hearted spiritual conversation with our children and neighbors builds up the family and community. 
  4. Giving back to the local community to help other families is a practice that grounds a good life and models loving-kindness for our children. 

These ideas and their implied values show up in The Family Table’s guided program in the forms of: 

  1. Parent-child conversation prompts (like “Share about a time when you knew you were loved for who you are” or “Share with your parent/child some ways that s/he is a blessing to you”), 
  2. Wholesome meals served family style
  3. Neighbor-to-neighbor conversation prompts (like “Share about a book or movie that presents an aspect of love that is especially meaningful to you” or “How do you bring a sense of wonder into your family life?”) 
  4. A chance to give back to the community (a family’s $25 donation to attend The Family Table goes directly to the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables to another local family in need.) 

The meals are facilitated and last 90 minutes. The placemat is pre-printed, designed to interweave menu, conversation prompts, drawing space, inspirational quotes on the monthly theme (e.g., compassion, gratitude, joy, blessing, generosity, play), opening and closing blessings, and family take-home practice suggestions (like “Go on a wonder walk this weekend, giving thanks for all the signs of spring.”). A children’s activity during the adult conversation time and live guitar music in the background round out the evening’s gentle attempt to allow for meaningful conversation in a slower-paced, peaceful atmosphere. 

Parents say they are grateful for the opportunities to unplug. Some have inquired about participating in Trinity’s Brown Bag Lunch preparation, to serve as a family in a committed way. Many have said something to the effect of, “I know of a struggling family near me that would really appreciate a spiritual opportunity like this.” The spirit of The Family Table is joyful and grateful; the sense of community that is developing is the same!

Different congregations will interpret the call to serve the growing spiritually-independent population in different ways, depending upon what they are hearing about needs in their neighborhoods. While the individuals in this population may embrace a variety of practices from different spiritual traditions we, as Church and as God’s people in the world, are called to be present to them. We are called to be creative. We are called to know who we are in God and to help our neighbors to grow spiritually, too. We can do this by creating ways to connect at the level of shared spiritual experience, if not religious practice. Connection at this level leads all to a deepening experience of God’s embrace. Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:16, NRSV). 

In the face of so much need for support and community in our time, why not do our parts to honor, serve, and build up those who do not belong to “our” fold, now —  and leave the final gathering to God?