Author and pastor Lillian Daniel’s latest book, When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, is her attempt to surprise the rapidly growing demographic of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). She does this by appealing to the very authority that goes unquestioned amongst SBNRs – the personal story – and subverting it. Her smooth, witty, occasionally cutting yet always insides-warming prose soothes like Chicken Soup for the post-ironic, post-everything soul. Only later does the reader realize the chicken soup was being served at a potluck in a church basement!
Unlike other writers appealing to the SBNR crowd, Daniel unabashedly affirms the church as the locus of God’s work among humans. Refreshingly, she does so without defaulting to an idealized vision of the church. On the contrary, Daniel tells of a very human collection of doubters, pretenders, and wonderers, for, after all, “Church is a school for sinners, not a club of saints.” And, though she makes her living as a minister, she does not excuse herself from that class, offering honest reflections on her own winding path amid the communion of the saints.
Daniel’s book is a tapestry of stories, taking threads of biblical narrative and weaving them with her own experience (e.g., Mary and Martha meet Lillian in a yoga class). She does this as a skillful storyteller, not as a theologian or biblical scholar.
This is not a tightly-argued defence of the mystery of the church; Daniel has no strong central thesis to advance. Rather, she peers into the darkness of stories, looking for the mystery of the incarnate God and his work in real life. Telling of her own parents’ pain-causing separation and divorce, she reflects:
I realize that we human beings spend our lives in a trial separation from one another. We think we have these divisions, disagreements, past grievances, divorces, class differences, and separate paths in life, and to us they feel profoundly real. But in the meantime, the Holy Spirit keeps knitting us back together, miraculously often through the church, reminding us that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even one another.
Reading Daniel’s book as a pastor of an MB church, I cannot help but ask what her book may have to offer the Mennonite Brethren church today. MBs have often relied on the community emphasis of Anabaptism to counterbalance the individualizing pull of evangelicalism with its emphasis on a personal conversion experience. As MBs, we have always felt God to be at work among us. In a way, Daniel’s book gives voice to this pillar of our heritage.
Yet, maybe Daniel’s affirmation of mystery also includes a challenge for us and our tradition. I wonder how much our stress on the church as a community of disciples leads us to a demystified church. We are quick to point out God’s work among the “committed,” the “full-devoted followers,” for that is what we expect. But do we also see God’s Spirit as active – less fruitfully perhaps – among the lukewarm cynic, the wounded divorcee, the on-the-fringe seeker, and the weary life-worn senior who sit each Sunday in our pews? Or have we limited God’s activity in the church to the product of an algorithm based on the congregation’s commitment level?
Having come to know my own heart, I sure hope God doesn’t work this way. I want to trust that he is active in me even when my affections wane. In the same way, I have to trust that he is at work among us even at times and in ways I don’t expect.
While some may fear that such an expansive view of God’s mysterious work in the church waters down Christ’s call to a path of radical discipleship, I believe we can stand with Paul’s invitation to the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” while recognizing that “it is God who works in [among] you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13).
I cannot predict how Daniel’s stories will be received by her SBNR audience, yet there seem to be enough surprises to go around. An enjoyable and easy read, her collection may surprise you by widening your eyes to the often unpredictable work of God.
—Rod Schellenberg is lead pastor at Hepburn (Sask.) MB Church.