Beyond Church Walls: What Christian Leaders Can Learn from Movement Chaplains [Interview]

Beyond Church Walls: What Christian Leaders Can Learn from Movement Chaplains [Interview]

by Stacie Mickelson, Director of Applied Research & Consulting

People who profess no faith affiliation, often called "nones”—as in "none of the above"—comprise nearly 23% percent of the U.S.'s adult population. How do we develop meaningful connections with a generation that might never enter a church building? We sat down with anti-racism activist and spiritual director Tracy Bindel to discuss this question.

How do we develop meaningful connections with a generation that might never enter a church building?

SM: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself – what you do with your time?

TB: I spend a lot of time bolstering and equipping social justice activists in the Boston area and beyond. I do that through Lenten spiritual direction, and I also run Circles (supportive contemplation-action groups) mostly for young people—Millennials who are engaged in some sort of justice work in the world. 

SM: You use the term ‘Nones’. Can you explain what that is?

TB: It seems to be a word that is quite popular among faithful Millennials. There’s a group of people who are deeply spiritual and longing for deep and faithful community, and they aren’t willing to be affiliated with large institutional religions. 

SM: What is Movement Chaplaincy?

TB: It’s an emergent field. It’s somewhere at the intersection of the multi-faith chaplaincy that you would see in a university and the traditional chaplaincy like in hospitals. It recognizes that people are in the world doing work together and need support—and more dynamic support—to do this work for the long haul.  

At SURJ Boston, when we have meetings, between 3 to 500 people show up. When you have five hundred people anywhere, you need all kinds of support, you don’t just need programming. Conflicts come up. Interpersonal stuff comes up. People don’t know how to navigate bigger questions on race, privilege, etc. Those are actually spiritual questions. 

[Movement Chaplaincy is] somewhere at the intersection of the multi-faith chaplaincy (that you would see in a university) and traditional chaplaincy (like in hospitals).

There are a lot of deeply faithful people thinking about, How do we actually shepherd this movement towards health and wellness, as we seek to dismantle systems of injustice?

SM: Are there places for churches to engage in movement chaplaincy?

TB: I think there’s a huge need for churches to follow the leadership of people in movement building work right now. But there’s hesitancy I see. 

I don’t have a lot of criticism of the church. But I think we could be doing more if we would trust that the Spirit is working outside of our walls, and that it’s okay for us to wander out and not be afraid of what could happen. I think the hesitancy I see mostly has to do with fear of “those people”—a separation between spiritual and secular people, which I don’t believe really exists.


If you’re interested in learning more about engaging ‘nones’ or getting involved in anti-racism work, Tracy has some practical tips for you:

1. Learn New Spiritual Language.

Listen to the podcast “On Being”, which brings together intersections in spirituality. It will give you the language to access people outside of the spiritual language that you currently have.  

2. Check Your Fear.

Consider what you internally fear in people who don’t have the same values and faith that you do, because God is not afraid of that. Ask yourself: How much of my discomfort is just language translation? Where do I need to learn how to speak a different language to reach and connect genuinely with these people? And where do I fear our differences in values?

3. Support & Learn from Those Doing Frontline Ministry in the 21st Century.

I think most people in the United States know it’s bad to be racist. But most people  don't actually know what it means to live into a practice of anti-racism. Go and find the people who do. I guarantee there are people in your community who are trying, whether that’s through meditation or policy work or legislation. There are different ways people are committed to practicing that value. Go and learn from them—that is applied spirituality.

4. Look For God Already at Work.

If we were to pose the question as, “What do you know about God?” rather than, “Do you know him or not?”, we would enter into a much more dynamic conversation. I just like to put on my curious exploration hat and say, “I wonder where God might be at this meeting? Maybe I’ll go see.”

5. Invest in Church-Based Community Organizers.

Anti-racism work is deeply spiritual. But there are thousands of people outside church walls who are also talking about it, and churches need to be in relationship with them—we need to be more coordinated and connected. Will your congregation support someone to spend dedicated hours each week coordinating with other parts of the movement to do this work well? My really big hope is for churches to hire community organizers to connect and organize congregations around these social issues.

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Tracy is an anti-racism activist and spiritual director who describes her work as Movement Chaplaincy, an emergent stream of chaplaincy that supports activists and social justice movement builders. She is a co-founder of Freedom Beyond Whiteness, a nationwide network of contemplative action circles, and she works locally with the Boston chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a network of 3500+ people that is comprised of many small issue-based working groups.


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