Current Issue

“It’s not that we’re exactly atheists,” Peggy said. She was the mother of three young children. She paused, clearly seeking for words. “We’re just not into religion—organized religion, that is. I guess I’d say we’re spiritual but not really religious.” That was 20 years ago; and it was the first time I’d heard the expression “spiritual but not religious,” but I’ve heard it more and more often over the years.

Today, “spiritual but not religious” has its own acronym—SBNR—and its own Web site: A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly one in five Americans—and a third of those under 30—identify themselves as unaffiliated with any religious body. Yet many of these people still consider themselves to be spiritual. The same poll identified those who are unaffiliated with any religion as the fastest growing religious group in America.

The Pew Forum report on the survey breaks the religiously unaffiliated into three groups. The first group is made up of those who were raised outside of any organized religion. Second is those who left their religion because they were dissatisfied with it. The third group is those who never participated with a religion, even though they grew up in a religious home.

This movement from “religious” to “spiritual but not religious” especially took on steam in the 1980s and 1990s, and it mirrors another movement I’ve observed in the families I work with. Although most are religious, many have left mainline denominations for independent or “Bible” churches. It’s a movement away from doctrines and creeds and toward what is perceived as more spiritual worship.

Back in 1993, one researcher observed that “for generations on end, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and kindred denominations reported net annual membership gains. As recently as the 1950s their growth rate equaled or exceeded that of the United States as a whole. . . . [But] by 1990 these denominations had lost between onefifth and one-third of the membership they claimed in 1965.” And of those still counted as members, many attended only a handful of times each year.

When researchers looked into the reason for this phenomenon, they found these results: “Statistical analysis of their responses to our Gallup-style telephone questions revealed a ‘pick and choose’ pattern. . . . For example, almost all our active Presbyterians believe in God and that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but almost 60 percent also believe that ‘all the different religions of the world are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.’ ”

Heather Cariou, a New York-based author who identifies herself as SBNR, told CNN in 2010 that she “adopted a spirituality that blends Buddhism, Judaism and other beliefs. ‘I don’t need to define myself to any community by putting myself in a box labeled Baptist, or Catholic, or Muslim,’ ” she said. “When I die, I believe all my accounting will be done to God, and that when I enter the eternal realm, I will not walk through a door with a label on it.”

Are churches to blame?

How can we explain this exodus from churches? Most important, are churches themselves to blame? Do churches need to take a long, hard look at themselves? I believe the answer is a definite Yes.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a series of high-profile scandals involving prominent evangelical preachers, scandals including infidelity, prostitution, and financial irregularities. Then there was the ongoing and seemingly endless series of revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that too often was ignored or covered up. Others objected to the relationship between churchgoers and hot-button social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. Still others reacted to the links between religion and politics, especially right-wing conservative views. Many felt that the impeachment of President Clinton was an overreaction to a sexual peccadillo.

Yet instead of being a refuge from these controversies, too often churches were embroiled in them. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why young people would feel uncomfortable. As one observer put it recently, “It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.”

What Christianity experienced on a grand scale nationally, many experienced up close and personal in their congregations. Some church members, their sensibilities outraged by what they perceived as the flaunting of their values both by politicians and the popular culture, reacted strongly against all immorality, sometimes resulting in the harsh treatment of wounded souls in the church.

If churches that claim to have answers and remedies for people’s spiritual problems appear to be a source of those problems, it isn’t surprising that people should abandon them.

What do SBNRs want?

SBNRs are actually helping us all to focus on a profound truth: a deep, personal spiritual experience is vitally important. This is not to discount the importance of church teachings—sometimes called doctrines—but it is to say that a doctrine that does not contribute to a personal experience with God isn’t worth much.

Don’t just tell SBNRs your beliefs are true. Tell them how those beliefs work, how they have benefited your life, and how they can benefit theirs. That’s really a challenge to return to our roots.

Christianity was never supposed to be just a creed, a set of practices, or a body of knowledge, important as these are. It has always been about living in a loving relationship with God and others. Rules and creeds are easy; relationships are difficult. And so we often settle for the creed, as so many did in Jesus’ day.

Indeed, Jesus’ appeal in Matthew 11 could have been written for the SBNRs: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me— watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28–30, The Message).*

Ekklessia, the word for “church” in the New Testament, means “called out,” and that’s what SBNRs are doing for those in churches today. They are calling us out of our cloistered comfort, asking us to make our religion practical and to bring healing to a hurting world.

Does this mean SBNRs have found the answer to achieving a healthy spiritual experience? Only partly. The problem with SBNR is that it’s a solitary— and, in tough times, a lonely—pursuit. Heather Cariou’s spirituality consisting of Buddhist, Jewish, and other beliefs may be a rich experience. But it is hers alone. She no doubt has family and friends who care for her, but, at the deepest level, they cannot share her experience. And that is a crucial loss. An old proverb says, “Grief shared is grief halved; joy shared is joy doubled.”

So what can churches do?

The vast majority of the SBNR people in North America have come from Christian families. They have not rejected God, and they have a real need for the fellowship a church can provide, but which they doubt it will provide. Increasingly, people see churches not as a refuge from the storms of life but as a source of much of the turmoil.

And if we are honest with ourselves, we in the churches have too often succumbed to the addiction of focusing on small things. We may have retained our religion while losing our spirituality. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment— the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it” (Matthew 23:23, The Message).

According to Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University Professor at Stanford University, organized religion provides three specific benefits to churchgoers: “social support, attachment to a loving God, and the organized practice of prayer.”

I believe that SBNRs need what churches can offer, but the first thing that churches must set aside is any ambition that these seekers will join, or even attend, church regularly. The slightest whiff of a hidden agenda, and the SBNRs disappear. Churches—and church members—must focus on what they can give and abandon any desire to receive.

SBNRs need to feel at ease when they walk into a church. Churches that don’t have greeters at the door should make it a high priority to appoint them, and these greeters should become well enough acquainted with the church’s members that they will recognize visitors who walk in the door. They should welcome these visitors warmly. And every church member needs to be blind to the way visitors dress. We must remember that Jesus accepted people where they were and then led them to where He wanted them to be.

I also suggest that churches seek ways to make spiritual sustenance available in nonthreatening ways at a nonthreatening venue. Churchy settings, furnishings, and activities tend to be threatening to SBNRs.

For a number of years, I conducted “church” outside the confines of a church building. It was called the Grounds for Belief café. We had casual food and drink, board games, live music, and conversation. We also had an annual Christmas Party and a twenty-first-century Christian seder at Easter time, which included music, a meal, and an Easter egg hunt. We also had discussions about Bible topics and how these could improve everyone’s spiritual lives.

A factor that churches need to remember is that social activism is a high priority for the SBNRs. As an example of “nonchurchy” activities, my “congregation” had great success with kindness ministries—success being defined as making up to 20,000 spiritual contacts in one year, representing more than 500 for each attendee. These ranged from simply giving someone a Valentine’s Day card that said, “God Loves You,” to buying groceries, providing short-term lodging, volunteering for civic activities, and purchasing toys for children at Christmas. And every year, numerous SBNR volunteers participated.

I have no doubt that if moving SBNRs from my café into a church had been my agenda, they would have soon recognized it and stopped attending. My agenda was simply to help SBNRs achieve a deeper spirituality and to guide them in thinking through their beliefs.

I suggest that churches adopt the same agenda as they reach out to SBNRs. Make friends for the sake of making friends and leading them into more meaningful spiritual experiences. In due time, they’ll decide what to do about church. Some may choose to return; others may not. But if we’ve helped them in their walk with God, we’ve achieved a worthy goal.

* Scripture quotations from The Message. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Spiritual but Not Religious

by Ed Dickerson
From the June 2013 Signs