In this journey of faith, we really do need each other

The “spiritual but not religious” group is growing. These “believers” do not participate in formal religious communities. They are faith freelancers: carrying God and moral values in their hearts, but not worshipping with others on Sundays, serving or teaching or praying with others, or giving their money to the mission of a religious institution that they belong to.

The trend away from religious practice in America is disturbing (especially to a pastor, for obvious reasons). Every new report brings worse news than the last about the disappearance of people from the pew.

Reasons for disaffection are diverse, yet not all defensible.

Some have left church because they have been wounded or offended by judgmental believers or unbending leaders. Upholding moral standards can morph into scorn for those who fall and fail. Instead of mercy being the air we breathe in the church, it is reluctantly doled out to contrite sinners. Since we are all sinners, some sinners therefore are in charge of reminding other sinners of their sin and then dispensing grace grudgingly. A lack of humanity and humility in spiritual leaders is demoralizing. Some dropouts have grown weary of the unhealthy encounter.

Others can no longer reconcile their faith with their intellect. The faith that made sense of the world to them as children makes less sense to them as adults. They accept the theory of evolution as fact. They believe the equality of women to men and gays to straight are self-evident. They can’t mesh a loving God with one who condemns most people to hell because they haven’t professed Jesus as their Savior. Appeals to reject science, qualify equality or insist on eternal damnation in the name of faith leaves them cold if not hot, and some take their leave from church because of it.

Increasing numbers are not closing the door on church; they are just not darkening the doors of churches. I see more drifting away than running away. It happens when kids get involved in sports activities on Sundays or after kids are gone from the home. The habit is broken, even if the faith isn’t.

But if faith isn’t practiced within a community, is it not broken? The church may be broken, but what about those who leave it behind? Attitudes of pride and superiority can creep in there, too. Neither scorn nor apathy is a virtue, even if directed toward church.

Most churches work to pass on the meaning of a good life that pleases God. Practiced religion — more than unanchored spirituality — points to that life, reinforces those truths, and bears witness to God by concerted acts of justice and kindness.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel has written a new book titled “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.” Says she: “Throughout time and history people grow closer to God by going deeply into a religious tradition. … There is value in landing somewhere and going deep, … allowing yourself to be shaped by a tradition that is bigger than you are. I think the danger of creating your own spirituality is that you simply create a God in our own image. That works when your life is going well, but when things fall apart that is not really much of a foundation.”

Relationships are hard work, even — maybe especially — a relationship with God. Working on it with others is time-tested wisdom. We get better together. Together, we get better.