Pastor Lillian Daniel of the United Church of Christ posted an article a couple of weeks ago in which she takes to task those who self-identify as "spiritual but not religious"--"SBNR" in religio-shorthand. Her post has sparked a lively debate.
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Most pastors have encountered plenty of this. "I can worship God when hiking up Mount Evans," someone said to me, not long ago, as if he were imparting some great truth, to which I thought (but did not say), "Yes, but I doubt you did worship God on Mount Evans, and, in any case, all that says is that you can recognize a good mountain when you see one." (On other occasions, I have said, straight out, that I'm the opposite of SBNR--I'm religious, but not very spiritual.)
On the other hand, we in the American church should take seriously that perhaps as many as 30% of the American people now define themselves as SBNR. It is the only religious demographic which is growing, and it is growing by leaps and bounds. If SBNR were a Christian denomination, it would be at least the second largest in the USA, and perhaps the largest.
What does this mean? Let's state the obvious: Modern people are in the active process of rejecting religion. They don't want to be told that only a certain way of worship is correct, or only a certain interpretation of an inerrant book is the correct one.
SBNR people want nothing to do with ecclesiastical power plays, dogmatic pontifications, pedophilia, the inquisition, the crusades, gay-bashing, syrupy platitudes, smiley preachers, Pope Benedict's prada shoes, pretty much all theology in general and evangelical theology in particular. (It's not for nothing that the rise of evangelicalism has led to the rise of atheism. People to church: If that's what you're selling, we don't want any.)
Yet, while 30% of our fellow citizens are clear in their rejection of religion, they want, at the same time, to affirm the spiritual. This is reminiscent of the findings of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, authors of unChristian.
They polled young people on spiritual issues, and found that young people overwhelmingly found Christianity to be judgmental and negative. At the same time, however, they also had a yearning for God. They were open to faith, and even to church, if it would turn from its judgmental and negative ways. Or, as a young woman once said to me, "I love Jesus just fine. It's the church I wonder about."
Sure, you can poke holes all through this. SBNR-ism is directionless and, quite often, rather shallow. It often seems void of any actual content. It only knows what it doesn't like. It purports to be profound, but is utterly common. Fair criticisms all.
Yet, we in the church are missing the boat if we don't try to hear what people are trying to say. Six times in Matthew's gospel, Jesus asks people what they think. This assumes, first, that people have opinions, and, second, that Jesus is open to hearing them. We should be doing the same.
In fact, in true Lutheran fashion, we should "put the best possible construction" on the thinking and motivation of our SBNR neighbors. Let's do so: Modern people have minds of their own. They are making their own decisions. They live in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "a world come of age," by which he meant adulthood, and by which he meant standing on your own two feet, and, as well, taking responsibility for yourself when you fall.
Bonhoeffer considered this a good thing. People were acting out of their freedom, which he called "a world come of age consciousness." They were refusing to be manipulated by religious authorities who would use all their "clerical tricks" (his phrase) to keep people in a "religious consciousness," i.e. dependent on religion to provide answers.
People are rapidly becoming "free catholics." They think for themselves--they're "free" of dogmatic conformity or traditional associations--but they don't necessarily see themselves as outside of the faith itself. They're open to God and to faith, but offering them mere pious bromides, or worse, invoking guilt, will utterly fail to engage them, and should fail to engage them.
The church will have to persaude rather than pontificate. The church actually has some resources--considerable resources--for helping people understand themselves, helping them navigate the task of living in the modern world, and helping them experience, yes, the "spiritual." "Spiritual but not religious" people could learn something from the church. (We have some pleasant surprises.)
We in the church can also learn something from those who are "spiritual but not religious." We can learn about our own defensiveness, for one thing, and our knee-jerk inclination to bash our critics. We can learn what teachings have some salience for modern people and which ones do not. We can learn to listen more and talk less. We can act more...Christian.
In doing so, we might find ourselves branching out into new territory, finding new dimensions of the faith in the modern experience, and new ways of being church for the future.