Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

“Searchers”: The Ignored Demographic of Spiritual Secularists (Guest Post)

searchers

Guest

Aaron Bjerke is planting a church in NYC out of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Having been an Assistant Pastor there for seven years, he is excited to see a new expression of the gospel take root in the city for those searching for a spiritual experience. Originally from Minnesota, he lives with his wife, Erica, and two kids in Manhattan. Visit his church at www.TheWellNYC.life

Throughout my pastoral experience over the past decade, I’ve noticed a new demographic emerging through questions that I’ve been asked by other congregants. There is a growing sub-demographic in the secular population that is searching for a spiritual experience, and it hasn’t received a lot of attention from the church. Whether it’s feeling stressed at work, increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship or money, postmodern Americans are increasingly seeking a spiritual remedy.

In 2017, the meditation market (as it has been called) was a $1.2 billion industry in the U.S. Some project it will be worth over $2 billion by 2022. This growing trend is everywhere. For example, meditation rooms are the hottest new work perk, and CEOs are personally seeking out a practice of meditation in order to become better leaders. One observation is that the meditation movement is where the yoga movement was in the mid-90s, which means the ceiling for the meditation market is still miles high.

The meditation market represents a spectrum of practices—such as mindfulness, transcendental meditation, or various forms of Buddhism—and promises an experience of peace, productivity, happiness, etc. This is done by taking back control of the mind and taming it. 

Consumers of these practices are generally not “skeptics”—the Richard Dawkins of the world who are hostile toward spirituality—nor are they “seekers” who are exploring the Christian faith and dialoguing with other Christians. These two groups have been engaged with success through various evangelism programs. Rather, those in the meditation market are what I’m calling “searchers”: seculars searching for a spiritual experience. 

Is it true? Vs Does it work?

This difference comes down to Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernism attempts to construct a coherent worldview through the pursuit of an absolute truth. The Church’s response was to make a fact-based case for Christianity—e.g., eight reasons why Jesus was historically real, five reasons why the resurrection is true, etc.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, is marked by relativism and individualism, which has produced a culture defined by the phrase “you do you.” The value proposition for a Postmodern person is whether or not something works. “What works for me works for me, leave me alone.” This is where searchers reside, and they are not initially looking for a 200-page book of claims or a bulletproof sermon. They would rather taste and see whether what is offered is good.

In other words, the modernist asks the question “Is it true?” whereas the postmodernist asks, “Does it work?” And if it works, then for the postmodernist, it is true–because truth is found in something that works. 

This is not to say that facts do not matter to the postmodernist. But the searcher says, “If something gives me peace, relieves my stress, gives me satisfaction, or provides a feeling of transcendence, then it works, and it surely must be true.” This is the story I’ve heard when Ivy League-educated lawyers in New York convert to Buddhism—it gives them an experience of peace. 

Re-imagining Ministry

The church must respect the searcher posture if it’s going to make any missional inroads into today’s culture, and the Bible gives us a picture to consider. In John 4, Jesus first told with the woman at the well “I work.” He said “I know you’re thirsty. I’ll quench your thirst forever.” It’s only after that that he has a theological conversation about mountains and her sin. He interacted with what she wanted to satisfy most—her thirst—and showed her that he works.

What is it for the church to take a “Does it work?” approach to ministry? It means we must consider how we can help others experience God in non-modernist ways. The Bible and prayer give great opportunities for such a mission.

Regarding the Bible, the skeptic/seeker approach (modernist approach) would seek to show that the Bible is presenting facts: spiritually, historically, and scientifically. The searcher’s approach is more reflective in nature, asking questions such as “What does this mean?” This question points to the importance of story, because what drives a story is meaning—“What’s the point?” And, if it’s true that the best stories always win, then a ministry approach for searchers does the hard and important work of learning how, as the hymn says, to re-“tell me the old, old story, of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love” in a way that is less about facts and more through the lens of the story of the power of Jesus in one’s life. For what could be more powerful than quenching your thirst forever?

Regarding prayer, the claim of Jesus working in one’s life is not the prosperity gospel: follow Jesus and your life turns around. Rather, it’s saying that even if your life doesn’t turn around you can still have peace and joy amidst the chaos and unmet expectations, which is exactly one of the promises in the meditation market: peace in a chaotic life. Except unlike meditation, which is a form of control (and any therapist worth his or her weight knows the problem emotion of control is anxiety), the path of Jesus is one of prayer. This is significant because when you pray, you learn that God is in control—not yourself. Therefore prayer is not a posture of control but a posture of surrender, and it is that posture of surrender that the church needs to introduce to searchers. 

Up to this point, this demographic has largely been ignored by the American church. Like the woman John 4 who told her friends “come and see” the one who told me everything about myself, the church too must decide to strive to introduce and show searchers the same claim that Jesus revealed of himself at the well: I work.

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