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The 150,000

The San Ramon Valley, where I live and serve as a first responder chaplain, has a population of around 170,000. It is located in the East Bay Region of San Francisco--the Bay Area. It is predominantly white upper middle class. You'll find a number of Bay Area executives and professional athletes living here in one of the many luxury homes throughout certain locations in the area. At the other end of the spectrum we do have a few areas of Section 8 housing and there are numerous areas of high density apartment living filled with blue collar workers. We do have some diversity but not completely across the board in numbers. The school district is about 35% Asian and Indian. I've been in massive mansions on call outs as well as tiny homes or apartments, some of both that were hard to enter due to hoarding or having been trashed for many years. The stories I could tell about some of the homes I've been in.

In the San Ramon Valley there are around 35 churches most of which are made up of small congregations of 50 to 200. I can name 2-3 churches that have an attendance of 300 to 500 and another 2-3 that might have 500-1000 on any Sunday. There are two Catholic churches that have large membership rolls with an attendance of a few hundred or so on Sundays. All in all, my best guess is that there may be around 5,000 attending church on typical Sundays. Double that just to be safe...10,000. Let's double that to say perhaps 20,000 at least would say they are an active member of a particular church.

So we might assume here that there are 20,000 people out of 170,000 who are members of local churches, some attending regularly or on occasion at least. That leaves about 150,000 who do not belong to nor attend a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. These are the people I first had in mind writing my book Used to Go to Church. Though I am a talking about Christianity here, I discovered that those of other religions who live around here quite often used to go to whatever their religion offered as a place of worship or fellowship. As I write about in my book, I also discovered that a vast majority of these 150,000 people do have a faith or belief in God but are not interested in the organized church. Many would tell me that they are "spiritual but not religious."

Evangelical churches strategize "how to reach the lost" in their communities and put in a lot of effort to make their Sunday services cool and contemporary attempting to keep the current generation of Boomers connected but equally, if not more so, to attract the millennials and Gen Z'ers. A few of the churches have attracted a growing number of folks, in the hundreds perhaps, but it is hard to say if those folks are a part of the widespread phenomenon of church hopping or are just new to the area looking for a church. Surely, there are a number who came via invitation from members. But all in all, my sense is that most of the 150,000 are not interested nor willing to attend church or return to that which they had already decided to walk away from. Been there, done that. No mas.

A number of churches are doing some very benevolent works in the community all in the name of the love of God. Many churches do some amazing works, both here in the community and in other places around the world. Most of these churches are filled with loving, caring men and women of faith. I have been a pastor of some kind in three churches where I've made lifelong friends whom I love dearly and became acquainted with hundreds of amazingly wonderful human beings I still consider friends. Therein lies the heart of the gospel--the Good News! Love! Having been out of "church ministry" for ten years now and being inside the homes of hundreds and hundreds of people in the community, I've experienced a movement in my heart and mind toward those who have a faith or belief in God but aren't in step with the tenets, theology or doctrine of our evangelical Christianity.

Richard Rohr writes in his book, Breathing Under Water, "Organized religion is no longer good news for most people, but bad news indeed. It set us up for the massive atheism, agnosticism, hedonism, and secularism we now see in almost all formerly Christian countries (and in those who just keeping up the externals). I now have more people tell me they are 'recovering Catholics' than those in recovery from addiction. I am told that for every person that is joining the church, three are leaving. Are these all bad or insincere people? I don't think so. Perhaps we failed to give them the good news they desired, needed, and expected?"

The gospel proclaimed has sadly become far to complex with too many strings attached for "the lost." We far too often proclaim our church or church experience as attractive more than the good news of God's grace and his great love for humankind. As the 150,000 find out we label them "lost" or "unsaved" or "not walking with the Lord" or "condemned" or "sinners" or "unredeemed" or "pagan," it confirms to them our tendency to view the world as an "us vs them" condition. I'm speaking about the church as an organization, not the true church which is the living organism of God's love in the lives of people who share that love with other human beings.

Here is the good news...there is a God...God is love...Jesus shows us the way...the spirit of God is in us. Faith, hope and love. There are many different beliefs, conceptions, understandings, theories, teachings about who and what God is. But one thing everyone agrees on: if God exists, God is whole, absolute, complete, illimitable, unconfined, all-encompassing, and infinite.

God matters because life is not complete without God. I do not necessarily mean the “God” many people learned in church whose image was crafted by human hands. I mean God as the ultimate and highest reality in the universe –the alpha and omega, the first word and the last word, the now and the not yet, the imminent and the transcendent. This description is not some poetic theological statement for a Sunday sermon. It is the basis for having peace, joy, hope, strength, faith, courage, meaning, well-being, and contentment in a world of tragedy, heartache, sadness, and suffering.

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Nick - so glad you're out of the church and into "the people". I resonate with your reflection on the potential divides we construct between "us" and "them". It's a big step of spiritual growth to realize we all are "us" (or "them", if that helps).

That divided dualistic thinking is part of what has turned amazing good news into a Christian cudgel. Besides, quoting Richard Rohr is always a good sign in my book!

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