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Gravediggers in the Pew...

The church is creating the conditions for its own demise. It’s resistance to this fact only serves to make it a more likely self-fulfilling prophecy. It is facing a ten-year sunset.

It is not simply the fact that young people are leaving the church in droves—over a three-fold increase in the past 25 years (7% in 1990 to 25% in 2015)—but that the vast majority of those now identified as “religious nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” are young people who come from churched backgrounds. Seventy-eight percent of "nones," those whose future participation is critical to the churches’ survival are being spawned in the church. The religious gravediggers are to be found within the church walls. Some have compared this situation to Blockbuster and Netflix. The church does not want to be Blockbuster. “Everyone is concerned about millennials because if you have a business, and you don’t capture their attention, you’re going to die,” says church consultant John Poitevent.

Understanding the dynamics of this phenomenon is timely and crucial. We can be grateful for the forthcoming release of a documentary film on this topic, Becoming Truly Human, by writer/director Nathan Jacobs.

Erik Lokkesmoe’s Nashville-based distribution company, Aspiration Entertainment and Media, is distributing the film. I’ve worked with Erik in the past at Walden Media and his involvement with this film is enough for me to trust its creative seriousness.

But further digging into the writer and director Nathan Jacobs highlights the unique opportunity afforded in this film. Nathan is an artist turned philosopher. He began his studies at Maryland Institute College of Art before pursuing a career in historical theology and philosophy. He is now a visiting scholar of philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He’s not your typical filmmaker.

But even more the film is a personal story of his own spiritual journey from religious non-affiliation to Eastern Orthodoxy with stops at Trinity College (Deerfield) and Calvin Theological Seminary as compared to seven other religious nones. And finally, his story has simmered in the broth of painful life experiences. My wife Kathryn advises, “Never trust anyone who doesn’t walk with a limp.” Dr. Jacobs walks with a limp from having a special needs child to being given a cancer diagnosis. This film is not “talking-heads” philosophizing, but reality confronting life in all of its complexity. It was when Nathan’s life fell apart completely that he was able to move his spiritual journey from abstract theory to live reality. Life has a way of bringing gravity to our casual spiritual musings.

All of our spiritual journeys are unique, nonetheless there are common lessons to be learned here about the “religious none” spiritual pilgrimage. Perhaps the first is that it is always a process and usually messy. Nathan writes in his forward to Kevin Scherer’s book, Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World, “When men turn from God, they don’t become all bad, and just because a person re-turns to God doesn’t make him whole. By degrees we slip into death, and by degrees we claw our way out of the grave. No single prayer nor ritual nor moment in itself can fix us. Virtue is not obtained in a moment. Each step is only one in a lifelong journey of turning and re-turning to God again and again through the hard work of honest self-examination, correction of thought, and rejection of the false foods we trade for the only life-sustaining food there is, the immortal life of God. For all else is counterfeit.”

There is in this affirmation a profound humility, a candid authenticity, and an acceptance of the cross-pressured nature of modern spiritual pilgrimages. He is thus a worthy teacher about the “religious none” experience. Here is a New Copernican exemplar that has now embraced an open transcendent perspective. Let the New Atheists write their books, New Copernicans will tell another story through the medium of film.

The film will be released through TheatriCast, the demand-driven distribution initiative from Aspiration Studios. TheatriCast focuses on event-centric film showings that can take place in alternative spaces like churches, synagogues, schools, bars, and other non-movie theater venues. We will be scheduling screening events for Becoming Truly Human starting August 22, 2017 that will run throughout the fall.

Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker is oft cited as saying “Jesus didn’t come to make us Christians. Jesus came to make us fully human.” This is a distinction not lost on the religiously unaffiliated. For most of them, they have a framing problem as much as a faith problem. To reject the ways the church has framed faith in the past, is not to reject faith altogether. Thus some of the most poignant lessons needed by the church may come from religious nones. Becoming Truly Human is a good place to start. Here we may find the dawn of a new day.

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