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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Lisa G

    Well put. I think mainline churches have suffered far too long from a one-way conversational model; they preach, the congregation listens. As a result, I don’t think many churches know how to listen to the people in their pews, let alone those on the outside. We certainly don’t have a formal process for it. Not happy with your child’s school, your city council? It’s easy to express your discontent. Not happy with your church? Perhaps you can make some minor changes, but just about the only option you have is to leave.

    It’s time to talk a

    • Barbara M

      I couldn’t express my thoughts any better than Lisa. I was in “church” every Sunday and many times more than that. The whole experience has become rote and without passion to follow Jesus. Rather than go and become frustrated and sometimes angry, I just stay away. Any attempt to discuss these issues are met with hostility. What’s the point?

    • Ted S

      I think a lot of people want change in the mainline Church but aren’t sure what that change should look like, as a practical matter. I just read a very worthwhile book by Robin Meyers called “Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.” Meyers is a Pastor of a UCC church in Oklahoma. The nub of the book is that Christianity needs to become a practice, or way of life, rather than an assent to a set of beliefs. Of course there are many examples of church communities that hold orthodox beliefs and seek to live the gospel in may tangible ways. But Meyers argues, I think very successfully, that the focus on worship, and on personal salvation, can distract and dilute or even negate the focus on living according to Jesus’ teachings. He also argues that the Orthodoxy seems to foster much which stands in the way of following Jesus, such as the notion of dualism (saved/unsaved versus “in Christ there is no east or west”), excessive self-concern, and wildly off the mark ideas such as the gospel of prosperity (Joel Osteen).

      How to follow Jesus is something we all must discover for ourselves. I think Church must be a place in which we can undertake a communal exploration of a Life-way practice. That could mean dispensing with some traditional rituals practices. It could also mean reinventing the Story for a new time.

  • Rev. Amy Beth Durward

    I resonnated with Rev. Lilian Daniel’s article. I know there are many SBNR folk who are honestly seeking an authentic and powerful spiritual path. However, many people who declare SBNR are in fact opting out of spiritual and communal life. (These folks show up on airplanes quite often in my experience.). They critique the church for being boring or conflicted while they themselves are not trying to sort out what it means to be faithful in this day and age. In the church we struggle with belief and the consequences of that faith, we are challenged to live out love and grace as faulted human beings, and we come together from a variety of prefferences, experiences, and priorities to try to do something greater than we could do alone. I don’t wish to deny church deserves critique. Anyone who has spent some time there knows we have not yet reached perfection. I just get tired of critique from those who are not on the field, trying to live with justice, mercy, & God in the midst of cooking dinner, doing laundry, going to work, paying bills, etc. Living in covented, accountable community is counter-cultural these days. I believe that challenge is worth the effort and an exciting adventure as well. I am willing to learn from those “outside the walls.” I just don’t believe being outside the walls is in itself the credential of a spiritual person.

    • Donalbain

      It is of course, possible, that when someone says “Spiritual but not religious”, it is a self defence mechanism. They have found themselves sat next to a Christian, and they are afraid that if they say the wrong thing, then they will be subjected to a detailed description of why their particular faith or denomination is wrong. “Spiritual but not religious” could easily be an attempt to shut down that horrible possibility.

    • Dan

      Sometimes being on the outside of the wall is where people get pushed. My parents never made us go to church or went themselves. As an adult I joined the Catholic church. Between the hypocrisy and lies and two faced people I had to deal with and I attended more than one church I was sickened. I continued to go faithfully and sent my kids through catechism and they had their first communions and then they had questions. I told them to ask the priest. His response was “Thats where faith comes in”. My kids decided at that point if they couldnt answer the question it was time to stop going to church. I no longer attend but that does not I do not beleive. I do not need a group of people to be religious or spiritual. I have family and even though we all beleive a little differently we are tired of being judged and ruled by society when they are all hypocrits and liars. For you to say that being on the outside the walls is in itself no the credential of a spiritual person is a slap in the face. How dare you.

  • http://collationes.wordpress.com/ Joshua Brockway

    I appreciate the narrative here, especially given my work within a denomination and trying to articulate what “discipleship” looks like today.

    One thing I think this narrative misses, however, is the anthropological frame for the Spiritual but not Religious conversation. That is to say that sociology and cultural studies helps us understand the times, but that is not the full picture. It seems to me that writers from the last century in cultural anthropology (Geertz and Turner) and cultural philosophers (Bourdieu, Taylor, and now James K A Smith) are making the case that humanity is a religious animal. Smith most fully describes both the affective part of the human being as one who desires, but also the reality that we are creatures formed by practices.

    What “SBNR” hides is the role of formative practices, both consciously and subconsciously. So things like democracy, capitalism, and traditional religions point us in a particular direction. To affirm that our Spirituality or Desires are not given form and direction, but some how can just be there, feels really disingenuous to me. I think even to have language for a the spirit of the human person is a part of a kind of religious formation in a culture that has traces of particular religions within its language games. So it would be appropriate to ask plainly, what religion are you rejecting or even more constructively, which religion are you choosing.

    So when I give a presentation, I state pretty boldly that there is no such thing as SBNR nor its Evangelical counter part “I am not religious, I just love Jesus”. I state it so starkly in order to make clear that there are practices in our daily lives that 1) give shape to our desires and 2) put before us a vision of what it means to be us.

    • Bridget Fidler

      I suppose there is no coincidence that we run into SBNR people on airplanes and wedding receptions – were else are they going to sit next to a clergy person for any length of time! I have had many conversations in these settings about religion, the church, etc. Most people have rejected something but never found or looked for a new path that clicked for them and they unwittingly become a member of the church of SBNR! I believe as humans we are religious and spiritual beings, the question as Josh notes, is WHICH religion are you practicing? It may have nothing to do with God! I believe, Paul Tillich was correct, whatever your ultimate concern is, is the basis for your religion.

  • Gary Goldacker

    As an Episcopal Church interim who travels all over the country, I see a lot of good imagination in the majority of clergy, but an unimaginative and rigid traditionalism regarding liturgy in the majority of congregations. It’s as if having a dynamic and creative litugical expression on Sunday morning would require more attention and participation than most are willing to give. Those congregation where I do see inspiring liturgy have large portions of the congregation deeply involved, liturgically, religiously AND spiritually! One of my favorites has a very traditional Anglo-Catholic liturgy, but they make it alive and inspiring week after week because they care enough to do it well.

  • Ted S

    I agree, it’s easy to take shots and be critical from outside the walls of the Church, or Mosque or Synagogue, or any institution for that matter. Far more challenging to work within community, trying to build meaningful relationships and to work together. I also agree that we have an intrinsic need for one another, and that living our faith is really a communal enterprise, because Jesus calls us to be community. It may be that people who walk away just aren’t finding meaning, or don’t sense the potential to discover meaning within the Church community. Or to say it another way, they don’t sense the Spirit.

    Perhaps we need a more deliberate conversation about what it is we/they seek, what is meaningful to us, and how we, who are the Church, can create a space which is more inviting. I’m just guessing.

  • http://www.shawncoons.com Shawn Coons

    “(SBNR) have a spiritual mind of their own and are setting out to engage faith, God, and the world in their own way. ”

    Really? I haven’t seen this. Most of the people I know who embrace being SBNR seem to lack any real engagement with faith or God, except in their talk. They say they are seeking God on their own but their actions and the way they live their life look exactly the same as someone who claims no spirituality whatsoever. The tag SBNR seems to be a way for them to Bless the manner in which they live a life of completely their own choosing and authority.

    But before you accuse me of being too harsh, I would level this same criticism at most “religious” people as well. They claim to be religious but other than attend a specific place of worship their lives are identical to anyone else’s.

    I think what most of us religious and SBNR people are lacking is the discipline to follow and yield to a higher authority than ourselves that at times can correct our beliefs and actions.

    • Tara

      “The tag SBNR seems to be a way for them to Bless the manner in which they live a life of completely their own choosing and authority.”

      As it should be? Are you stating that choosing how to live our own lives and having full authority over our own lives is a negative thing?

      • Terence

        the problem is not doing what you want with your own life, but presuming that finding God or how to follow Jesus by your own authority. when really, the way to do that is sinking into the Gospel and allowing GOD to be the authority of your life. remember, your life is not your “own” anyway.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com/2011/08/attempting-to-define-spiritual-but-not.html Mark Baker-Wright

    Although it seems to be generally understood that SBNR folks have a problem with how churches are generally run, and churches would do well to consider what this means, I’m increasingly of the opinion that most of this understanding is not especially conscious. Indeed, what do the terms “Spiritual” and “Religious” mean that they are being juxtaposed in this way, beyond “I love God (however I understand God), but don’t like the church”?

  • http://www.derekmaul.wordpress.com Derek Maul

    Well done!
    As a fellow “thinking Christian” and an Upper Room Books author, I appreciate your perspective. It’s all about listening. That’s how we ever earn the right to say anything. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines too, for years, and I wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to say if I didn’t – first – put in the listening legwork.
    Blessings – DEREK

  • Terence

    i would definitely agree with shawn coons, on all accounts.

    some have touched on this, but the thing missing from SBNR people is the body of Christ. unless, of course, the “spirituality” which they look to their own means to attain is not of Christianity. in which case, the body of Christ would have no significance to them.

    “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25)

    are these SBNRs meeting regularly to support each other in their for “spirituality” in their own lives? if this is a Christianity thing, let’s keep it just that. Jesus Himself spoke about how important every part of the body of
    Christ is, so i would challenge these SBNRs to continue along this, but IN CHURCH, with others who are seeking their own journey to a higher level of knowledge and faith in Christ. having your brothers there to encourage, admonish, and edify you will shape you on the journey that it sounds like SBNRs seek.

    i believe that the journey towards holiness or “spirituality” (whatever that means…and however much being spiritual can actually benefit anyone’s life) IS a personal thing. but if were completely up to us, what would have been the point of Christ’s death and establishment of the church? furthermore, how much, by our own power, can we change our own lives?

    it is of ignorance to sit in a church, run by SINFUL people and expect it to do what only God can in your life.

  • hippiekenny

    “organized religion” is more followers of the apostle Saul/Paul than they are of Jesus . . . I got a completely different message . . . Love the line “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.” (peace and love are the only words I would have added). . . That pretty much sums it up . . . peace

  • http://www.magpiegirl.com Rachelle Mee-Chapman

    This is a fascinating article, and an intriguing discussion. Thank you for hosting it!

    I’m a formerly ordained minister who now works exclusively with “recovering Evangelicals” and SBNR peoople. I’ve coined the term “relig-ish” to describe what we are exploring and creating together. We want to curate the best of our past, and buuild new (or re-newed) practices for our present, while creating space to grow and change in the future. Moreover, we want to do that within some form of community or tribe.

    It’s very true that this growing group of religious ex-patriots “have a spiritual mind of their own and are setting out to engage faith, God, and the world in their own way.” And it’s a beautiful thing — perhaps even the next evolution of faith.

    Having served as a traditional minister, my advice to those who still hold that roll would be to not see this as “sheep stealing” or as competition. Neither should you see it as a requirement to change. (Although if you feel called to deconstruct/reconstruct your congregation’s way of being, by all means, do so!) In our postmodern culture, a helpful approach to the SBNR phenomenon would be to look for place where our core values overlap, and to celebrate in that space.

    As for SBNR being a “less robust” form of faith, I humbly disagree. Evaluating your religious past, and creating a spiritual practice that authentically reflects your current beliefs and values is difficult intellectual, emotional, and spiritual work. (But so worth it in the long run!)

    If anyone would like to speak more with me about being a SBNR minister, or if you are presently in transtion to a new kind of spiritual practice, please feel free to contact me. I’m at rachelle@magpiegirl.com.

    Much Warmth!

    • http://www.dianabutlerbass.com Diana Butler Bass

      You’re welcome! I enjoy sharing my reflections and listening to those of folks who find their way to my page. Most are so respectful and engaging. I appreciate that. Peace.

  • Ted S

    This is becoming a Life, the Universe and Everything blog :)

    A lot of the SBNR people I know left (and are still rejecting) the faith of their childhood experience. I think its good and necessary to ask questions, and to reject what doesn’t make sense, but leaving at age 13 or even 18 without ever looking back or giving a second thought usually means retaining a narrow or parochial view of things. I also don’t practice the faith of my childhood, nor do I retain the image of my childhood God (the old man in the sky).

    I think SBNRs should challenge us to ask critical questions without engaging in negativity. Do we as Church foster new ideas, new ways of thinking about God, and new ways of imagining what it means to follow Jesus in the world today? We are evolving as a species. Are we evolving as Church? I think by fits and starts we are, but it may mean dispensing with some forms of worship that no longer make sense to us. In fact, I cordially dislike the term “worship”. I think its an antiquated notion of how we should be in relationship with the ineffable. I think the Toaists have it right on that score.

    I also have to say that I know SBNR people who are deeply committed to social justice and find other ways of living in community. The Spirit is not confined to our way. I think we should take care not to pass judgement.

    Thanks to all for sharing. Peace.

    • http://www.magpiegirl.com Rachelle Mee-Chapman

      Thank you, Ted. And amen!

  • http://celticfrog.blogspot.com/ Alex

    Great discussion. I like Phyllis Tickle’s thesis that the church is in the midst of a major upheaval and that formally separate concepts are being blended in new and sometimes unsettling ways. Leadership (lay and ordered) in the church really needs to be sensitive to where the Spirit is leading them. I am wondering if a lot of the SBNR arises from people continuing practices that have lost their depth as rituals.
    I know some people who are just religious loners, like the desert monastics. But others who, as Shawn mentions above, are just running away from commitment to the discipline of deepening themselves.
    If church is like a hockey team, the SBNR are more like marathon runners. The thing to watch for is if you see them training on the side of the Road.

  • Herman hess

    This whole brouhaha is nothing more than another case of the ‘religious’ attempting, yet again, to dictate how people approach their spirituality. It’s silliness like this that made me leave the mainstream religions a long to ago. The holier-than-thou, self-righteous ramblings of people who think that they have the only way.

    • Ted S

      Some religious think they have all to answers, are self righteous and holier than thou.
      Some nonreligious think they have all the answers, are self righteous and holier than thou.
      These folks may have more in common than they realize.
      Here’s to a world where we all work for justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with whatever our philosophical or theological outlooks may be.

      • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

        Frankly, that sounds a little self-righteous, too. In fact, it’s hard to call someone else, even an unnamed someone else, self-righteous, without sounding self-righteous oneself, don’t you think?

        Self-righteously yours and still in need of saving,
        Ryan

  • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com priest’s wife

    Part of the answer lies in clergy and commited lay persons being saints so they attract others and aren’t hypocrites.

    But also- WHY are so many religions trying to ‘MTV’ their services and ministry? I am not forced to be in church (like the old days)- church is not the ‘only show in town’- people who are uniterested will remain that way- may as well be faithful and see who comes to worship

  • Jon the Baptist

    I struggle a lot with this as a college professor and sometimes pastor. I respect the importance of allowing people to define themselves and find the path that is right for them, although I do also sometimes feel that the SBNR label is a cop-out for some. I know that there are congregations and clergy that would welcome such questioners and that in many cases SBNR’s would be able to have input as members and help create the kind of congregation that will meet their spiritual needs. the challenge though is what the congregation should do – should we change everything about how we do church just to try to attract some people? How do we deal with the fact that some people like traditional music and others don’t. Some like powerpoint, etc. in the sermons, others don’t. there’s no single cure that will attract everyone and some changes will alienate some of the people we want to attract and even alienate long-time members. The challenge as I see it is how to be open and welcoming to people who are SBNR (and get the message out there that we are welcoming) without losing what makes our congregations special.

  • http://dailybenigneye.blogspot.com Lynn Park

    Perhaps SBNR folk are a contemporary manifestation of prostitutes and tax collectors. We all know who enjoyed their company. In any case, casting stones is neither an attractive nor effective public relations policy.

  • Pat Pope

    “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. ”

    AMEN! Generally, the first response is defensiveness.

    • terence

      yes, maybe the churches should be looked at. but it seems that many are missing the fact the church is the vessel of the means by which we have a relationship with Christ, and not the means itself. no church is perfect, and there are too many people with their individual preferences of what an ideal church would be like for them. CHRIST is perfect, and spiritual guidance in ANY form (in accordance with God’s will) is beneficial to your journey toward following Christ.

    • http://www.magpiegirl.com Rachelle Mee-Chapman

      “nimble theological imaginations”

      Love that! Thank you.

  • http://thepaperwitch.blogspot.com/ Bibliophile

    Here is an example of a once Christian and her opinions on the issues that helped drive her away:

    Perhaps the issue within all churches is the entire basis of Christianity as is most commonly known? That people are wanting to think for themselves more than they did in the past (in the realm of religion and faith) and that is something, along with questioning, that Christianity often does not encourage. That oftentimes Christianity attempts to demonize science yet, the church is built with mathematical and scientific knowledge, the lights come on because of science, they microphone spreads the message because of science, prayer lines are started because of science, etc, yet other proven, viable branches of science are deemed evil or incorrect. The Bible is full of contradictions and unclear messages that different denominations take upon themselves to interpret or fill in and flesh out, yet many believe that their interpretations are the only viable path (often because of their pastor’s preachings) and sometimes become hurtful and hateful to those that are different from them (and especially those not of the Christian vein).

    Whenever I read about Christians “struggling with their beliefs” it makes me wonder and awe that someone can have so many issues with their beliefs and their God, but then I think back on some of the things I just mentioned and it makes sense. And that is exactly why I don’t partake in a mainstream religion (not meaning to offend, I simply mean the big 3 monotheistic religions). My faith incorporates that the Creator is not only amazing enough to make every last detail in the world as it was when it was created (right down to the amount of carbon in our thin atmosphere), but created numerous intracate systems that did and continue to develope and change our world. My faith and the realities of science do not contradict and clash with one another, they flow in harmony and where one leaves off, the other can take up. When physics gets so big that it becomes philosophical (and all the physicists who are not trying to sell you something often agree it gets to that point) then my faith flows in to answer those questions like a grand orchestra playing across one sheet of music to the next.

    I feel that if Christianity wants to keep followers, it needs to embrace the world as being what it is, rather than trying to falsify or cast off science and other faiths. Those are the two biggest problems I see. God said his followers will have no other Gods before him, not that there weren’t any other Gods, and then he begins to lay the path for his followers, not the followers of other Gods. I have never heard a pastor discuss how the Bible talks of giants, of how God, at worst, lies to Adam and Eve saying that eating from the Tree will surely kill them or, at best, doesn’t really know if it will or not, or how there are other people that were around after God created Adam and Eve and their son Cain was cast out of Eden and joins another society–and this is all before the story of Noah.

    I understand that not all Christians fall into the issues I have described, but I see it as a large trend in the religion as a whole. I hope that I did not offend and that, as the article has said, this is heard “as non-defensively and fully as we possibly can, with wide-open hearts and nimble theological imaginations”. This is simply what I have felt and feel that drove me from Christianity as a whole.

  • Penny Hammack

    Well maybe this is due to the aging population. I am 72, suffering from fibromyalgia, back and other problems from a botched surgery and many other problems associated with old age. My first problem is that I can’t sit that long, I have to get up and move occasionally or my arthritis freezes my knees and back.
    I also am reluctant to get involved in what I call franchise churches; no denomintation, just a preacher who promises untold riches if only you belong to his church.
    My sister (5 years younger) is very active in her small town Baptist church. I’m glad for her because her husband died recently and she is in a supportive community. If God allows my health to improve I will try again but for now I am contented to say that I am SBNR.

  • Rev. Frank Szewczyk

    I am in the UCC like Rev. Daniel. I disagree with her comments. We, the church, created SBNR. We did that in so many ways.

    1) We stressed religious data versus spiritual experience

    2) Our kids finished their religious education in 7th grade and went on to Bachelors degrees, Masters Degrees, and Phds. They went on to job training and technical training. They went on to the school of hard knocks and the best we could do in the mainline church for spiritual growth was cleanup days at the church and meaningless other tasks. We totally neglected adult spiritual growth and now we have generations who are spnr.

    3) As pastors we neglected to reveal our own doubts about the Resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, and a myriad of other questions of faith that people were asking. We did not address the tough issues and we had no safe place to ask the tough questions and struggle with the answer. Our silence spoke volumes and the people, hearing no reasoned voice, left because the church was “irrelevant”.

    Rather than criticizing spnr we should be embracing their doubts, their fears, and their needs. If I am in an airplane I will accept whoever God puts next to me because they too are children of God.

    Rev. Frank Szewczyk

    • Ted S

      Thanks for your thoughtful remarks Reverend Szewczyk. I think there are two very different Christianities out there, nowadays, which to me renderes the term Christian meanigless. One Christianity is principally concerned with individual salvation by faith in Christ (faith understood as an assent to historical orthodoxy), a literal factual understanding of the Bible with the epistles as most important parts of the new testament, and with the resurrection as the central revelation in the passion story; the other is principally concerned with living a way of life (i.e., following Jesus, as best we can understand what that means), with promoting social justice, a mythic understanding of the Bible, with the synoptic gospels as the most important part of the new testament (particularly the beautitudes), and with an understanding of faith as radical trust in providence. Yet these two different Christianities use the same language; most notably, words such as sin, salvation, and faith. Same words, different meanings. I think we either need to distinguish these differences by using new language, or we need to reclaim ancient meanings: salvation as healing, wholeness and being in harmony with nature versus salvation as being rescued from Hell, “sin” as communal (e.g. racism, despoiling the environment), versus sin as individual, such as pre-marital sex, God as a being versus God as ground of being, faith as radical trust in providence versus an assent to a set of propositions. In my experience, I find that most religious in the mainline Church are far more progressive in their thinking than the laity. I agree with you that the clergy need to be brave and forthcoming about where they really are in their theology. I think there must be a fear of frightening the laity away yet if that risk isn’t taken, we should expect to continue to foster the view that Church is irrelevant among people who can’t accept mythical stories as historical fact, which is plainly silly. We need to reclaim the mythos, and the truth it reveals about our human condition. Perhaps then we will become understandable and accessible to SBNRs.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      Rev. Szewczyk,

      I would only like to suggest that you did, probably, in fact reveal your own doubts for years. If the pastors don’t believe in the direction of they are leading the flock, why should the sheep follow, sir?
      The only thing that makes Christianity “relevant” is its irrelevance. If it is just like whatever I can find at the Kiwanis, then why should I either join or abandon it? In fact, the situation is what has happened – for generations, some denominations have not attracted new converts at all, and have fallen prey to the law of entropy, the gradual dissipation of its members who do not object to being members but have no particular reason to stay. In such an environment, dissolution is the eventual outcome.
      But Christianity – properly understood – is distinct, sir. I beg your pardon, but a third grader can guess the relative importance of episodes like the parting of the Red Sea, Noah’s Ark, and the Resurrection. Many of the events of the Bible might be fabulous without making a two figs’ difference. But the Resurrection from the dead of the man whose followers claimed he was God makes a difference. If it is false, then Christianity is a ritualized version of the Kiwanis. But twenty centuries of Christians have believed that it was very, very true – and that truth has made all the difference.
      You might consider exploring it again at the hands of a solid scholar, forward thinking and far from a “conservative,” and yet who believes it is true: I can recommend nobody more highly than N. T. Wright.

  • Nixon is Lord

    Church is boring. It’s full of old ladies of both sexes, it costs money and gives nothing back and you lose Sunday mornings.
    It’s ironic that so many “Progressives” in the Mainline churches praise Northern and Central European countries and their societies and social systems; these are among the most atheist and agnostic places anywhere. They started to become more “Progressive” about the same time religion became less influential and less involved in most people’s normal lives. Clearly, from the “Progressive” point of view, you don’t have to be religious to be “Progressive”; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case.


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