Spiritual But Not Religious: Listening To Their Absence

Over the past few weeks, a debate has been roiling on the web about people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” a.k.a., “SBNR.” Kicked off by the Rev. Lillian Daniel (who is, in full disclosure, a friend whom I admire), a pastor in the mostly-liberal United Church of Christ, who confessed in a Christian Century column that SBNR “bored” her and expressed a preference for the more robust forms of faith found in traditional religions, an argument is raging between those who find meaning on non-churchy spiritual paths and those who think that the word “spiritual” is an excuse to skip religious services and opt out of community.

The debate certainly surprised many, especially because of the critical tone of Pastor Daniel in the initial article regarding SBNR folks.  After all, mainline Protestants are a generally genial lot, not given to launching spiritual attacks on other peoples’ spiritual practices.  A preemptive strike on contemporary spirituality would far more likely come from the quarters of the neo-Calvinists or fundamentalists than a UCC minister.

But I was not entirely surprised.  In the last year, I have been working on a book (Christianity After Religion, forthcoming HarperOne) about contemporary trends in religion and spirituality.  I have spent countless hours studying polls and surveys on American faith life.  Recent data makes one thing perfectly, undeniably clear:  American religion has changed in remarkable ways in the last decade, revealing an erosion of belief, practice, and identity in nearly every denomination, almost all congregations, and most every religious institution or organization.

Once upon a time, when reporters or scholars used the word “decline,” it was always in tandem with the phrase “mainline Protestant.”  No longer.  Mainline Protestant churches, evangelical Protestant denominations and congregations, and the Roman Catholic Church are all experiencing declines of membership, commitment, influence, and resources.  Indeed, sociologist of religion Mark Chaves remarks that the “burden of proof has shifted to those who want to claim that American religiosity is not declining.”

There is, however, one quadrant of American faith that is growing—and it is growing rapidly—the unaffiliated, those who claim no membership in a traditional church or faith group, and many of whom consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  In 1970, the unaffiliated were about 2% of the population; by 2008, their ranks had risen to some 16%.  According to a 2011 survey, that number now stands around 20%.

What does this mean?  When pollsters ask Americans how they identify themselves, the four largest religious groups in the United States are: Evangelical Protestants, 25%; Roman Catholics, 22%; Unaffiliated (including SBNR), 20%; and Mainline Protestants, 17%.  Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and mainline percentages are down; unaffiliated Americans are up.  Way up. (An aside: The question can be asked differently, and in that case, the SBNR rises to 30%.)

In a very real way, the SBNR are the new competitor group in the American religious economy—the upstart on the faith scene.  And their rapid growth is a specific criticism and rejection of the other groups.

And that’s why a mainline pastor jabbing back didn’t entirely surprise me.  The SBNR are sheep stealing from her denomination in a big way—as is happening across the board.  Sheep stealing is an old practice in American religion.  Churches have always struggled to keep up with the next big thing in worship, preaching, prayer, and theology in order to keep their flocks intact, fed, and engaged.  But, in this case, the sheep aren’t being stolen.  They aren’t heading down the street to join a new church.  They aren’t following a dynamic preacher, seeking out entertaining worship, or the best children’s program.  They have a spiritual mind of their own and are setting out to engage faith, God, and the world in their own way.  Nobody is taking them.  They are just going out the doors of their mainline, evangelical, or Roman Catholic churches toward somewhere else with no particular destination, except to hope for meaning, joy, and an open journey of faith.

Pastors sometimes ask me “What can we do about this?”  My first response is simple: Maybe we should listen as non-defensively and fully as we possibly can, with wide-open hearts and nimble theological imaginations.  Instead of criticizing those who already feel victimized or frustrated with church life, perhaps it is time to look more deeply at the churches people are leaving.  Maybe the SBNR are pointing the way toward a different kind of church or a new kind of Christianity, if only those of us who still care about old denominations and traditions can receive the criticism of their absence and learn from it, even as it comes with a sting.









Advent: Windows of Memory, December 5
Advent Windows of Memory, December 7
Advent: Windows of Memory, December 2
Advent: Windows of Memory, December 1