Many today are taken with the “spiritual but not religious” category (SBNR). I’m not. Diana Butler Bass, in her new book, Christianity after Religion, is. Spirituality is good; religion is bad. The language is the rhetoric of combat or partisanship. It is also the language of the non-defined.

What do you think “SBNR” means? What message is expressed? 

Yet, many today do use these terms for themselves the way Jesus Freaks in the 60s wore tie-dyed T-shirts and sandals and were “into” Jesus. I doubt much has changed in fifty years on this score, though the language has surely changed. The problem with Diana’s book is the premise: the whole thing is rooted in her belief in the decline of attendance in American churches, and there are a number of studies — the best ones, GSS and Baylor — and a number of scholars — including Christian Smith and his crew of researchers as well as Rodney Stark, who simply don’t agree. There is no serious decline in attendance in churches in America. So as I read Diana’s book — and it’s well written and a delightful read — I’m perturbed on nearly every page about the assumption of decline.

Is something going on? Yes, I believe that. But the closing down of mainline churches is not the same as decline in attendance in American churches. What is going on is partly registered with this SBNR category. I’m with the pastors and clergy Diana finds irritating who think “spiritual but not religious” lacks clarity so in a survey it means so much it may mean almost nothing. It tends to register what people are against (churches) and not what they are for. Yes, I agree: those who think they are SBNR are people who are anti-institutional and pro-Ellenism (see previous post on this book) or pro-personal and individual spirituality, an almost bricolage of theology, beliefs, and praxis.

But right there is the problem: What does it mean if everyone is making up their own religion when it comes grouping them all into the SBNR category? The disaffected evangelical 27 year old who still goes to a megachurch but barely participates who likes the label is lumped with the non-church going Spencer Burke types and the Alan Hirsch/Frank Viola house church types but there is precious little in common other than that they prefer “spiritual” over “religious” in the SBNR! So I find the label useless for describing concrete realities. Furthermore, the word “religious” for Protestants and evangelicals and fundamentalists has never been a happy word; Catholics, however, have liked it — they, after all, have a group of folks they call the “religious.” If I had to choose between “spiritual” and “religious” I’d choose the former, but I’d never call myself SBNR.

Part of her argument is that, like now, pre Civil War American churches were less organized; they were more a hodge podge. I’m not an American church historian but it appears to me she is cooking the books here: Yes, some diversity but there were clear denominational structures — I read the biography of Charles Hodge not long ago and I was struck then by the powerful organization of the Presbyterians and the conflicts within the Presbyterians, and there were Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists and some Catholics (Maryland) … so while there was diversity I’m not so sure that after the Civil War the American churches began to organize themselves in a more business-like fashion, except to the degree that organization theory itself became more accommodating to businesses. Some church historian might step in here.

She has a nice sketch of problems in the church from 2000-2010: post 9/11 church drop off; Catholic priests scandals; Protestant conflict over homosexuality; Religious Right winning the Bush election but losing the battle (this one is sketchy because “winning” and “losing” are the QED); religious ratings going down. Discussions could be had about each: the rise in church attendance following 9/11 can be expected, as can a decline after the fervor. Etc.

This all leads Diana to her big question: “Are we all in the process of becoming Ellen?” (83). Well, here we are facing the problem: How big is this problem? What are the real numbers when it comes to decline? Millions and millions attended traditional denominational churches this weekend. Last week Barna distributed a study saying 70+% of women are satisfied with their role in their churches. Yes, I agree that Diana’s got her pointer on some holy discontent. And Yes, young adults are not in church, and probably not in church longer than in the past, but there are numbers that show their absence is no different in the past when it comes to significant statistics.

In her book Diana cites these two studies to show a shift going on in what she calls the Great (Re)Turning to the sense of wonder and awe in a global community. What needs to end, she says, is religion. Here is a comparison on the SBNR questions over one decade.

Gallup 1999: S (30%), R (54%), S and R (6), neither S nor R (9).

Princeton 2009: S (30), R (9), S and R (48), neither S nor R (9).

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  • Scott Gay

    It always needs to be mentioned that Diana Butler Bass has an orientation- she is a Scleiermacherian. Today the word liberal is used without really understanding this stream. I doubt a disaffected mega-churcher, a Stephen Burke type, or the types who blog to John Frye that house church is the only true church are intuitively attuned to Bass. I believe she is thoroughly with Schleiemacher in putting an end to the unreason and superficiality of supernaturalism and reason, and to deliver religion and theology from perpetually changing philosophy. She is a true reformer and that of the reformed.
    And as to putting a pointer on some holy discontent- let’s at least admit it’s real. It doesn’t matter if numbers haven’t dropped. I believe Rod Dreher( in 8/25/12 weekly meanderings) when he notices that many today have some form of default religion, a type of illiteracy. And this is the numbers.
    I don’t think the experiential model that Diana Butler Bass promotes is the way(we don’t need another awakeneing akin to Barth). But I am saying that the spiritual formation people have hit on a problem in church life. It became evident in seeker friendly confines that they attracted numbers but weren’t helping the growers. Growing isn’t an attraction, purpose-driven, or numbers game. The church dis-allusioned like the late imonk recognized that church activity wasn’t helping maturity. Our buildings, entertainment centered worship, and success centered preaching just don’t cut it for those who wake up to what God is doing. This entire subject implies that there is much western baggage implied in thinking church. I see “Praying with the Church” as part of the key to gaining the perspectives for growth and change needed. So I’m disallusioned also. I think we do need another awakening, and it is promulgated on the shrinking of the world via all that has happened. I think we are operating on obsolete paradigms that Leslie Newbiggin and other “foreign” missionaries were only the first to show.

  • Kel

    SBNR = God a la carte.

  • Gary Lyn

    “Yet, many today do use these terms for themselves the way Jesus Freaks in the 60s wore tie-dyed T-shirts and sandals and were “into” Jesus.”
    Ok, I’m being picky!! But the Jesus Movement in the 60s and 70s was, I believe, a significant spiritual movement. It was one of the formative parts of the faith for many people who are still actively involved in the Christian movement like me (Minister, pastoral counselor in what is called a mainline denomination). It was way more than Jesus Freaks walking around in tie-dyed t-shirts and sandals. It was also way more than being into Jesus. Or being into Jesus did have some substance.
    Felt important for me to say something since that movement is being compared with whatever Bass is saying.
    Ok, my rant is over!! 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    Gary, thanks for that. I was analogizing the accoutrements of a movement, not the substance.

  • “Growing isn’t an attraction, purpose-driven, or numbers game.” Bingo! Thanks, Scott.

  • Oh, SBNR is Western individualism gone to seed in the church.

  • SamB

    I haven’t read Diane’s book. I am close to finishing Bethge’s biography of Bonheoffer which I have found it to be fascinating. The section I am in is titled the new theology. Is there any connection here with what Diane is saying? I am concerned that the church (religion?) is already so identified with western individualism that the move to SBNR is a small step. I am deeply concerned that we are not responding to a move of God that is asking us to turn and face Jesus and follow him, living in the ways that he did, demonstrating to the world that there is another way to live.

  • AHH

    Good point that “religious” is a word that many Evangleicals shy away from on principle.
    Partly for good reasons, partly because we grew up on sermons about how the “religious” Pharisees were trying to earn their salvation.

    I don’t remember who did it, but the sentiment was expressed by a song I remember from High School: I’m not religious; I just love the Lord.

  • Alan K

    SamB #7,
    Bonhoeffer is often appropriated as a witness by those drawn to so-called SBNR. But in what Bonhoeffer refers to as “religionless Christianity” in his Letters from Prison can only be understood in light of the ecclesiological meltdown of the church in Germany during the era of National Socialism. Or, to put it another way, only in Bethge’s narrative does the new theology make sense. When it is utilized elsewhere the remarkable witness of Bonhoeffer’s life gets falsified.

  • I have to agree that there are real issues with the language used. Of all te people I know in and around churches today, almost 90% would recoil in horror at having to select the label ‘religious’. Any kind of survey that did not factor in the repulsion of that term with evangelicals is not worthy of serious consideration, never mind a whole book being written based on its findings!

    I see many people washing their hands of the traditional church format, but not of their faith. New expressions of Christianity are slowly starting to emerge in the UK, with the common thread that almost every participant is ‘spiritual but certainly not religious’.

  • I think the word “religious” has gotten a bad rap. As a United Methodist, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s another way of saying that God is real for people and that they have some kind of connection with God. It’s also saying that they have some theological beliefs.

    The word “spiritual” probably means the same thing. But it probably also allows people to make up whatever they want religiously.

    As to pre-Civil War church, Bishop Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church is probably rolling over in his grave! If there was any church that was as organized as the M.E. Church, I’d like to hear about it. The church organized in 1784, and it continued planting churches in a young America.

  • Christy

    What do you think “SBNR” means? What message is expressed?

    I don’t think you will get the answer to this from a survey. I think the meaning varies greatly from person to person, and the only way to know what someone means by that term is to ask them. Perhaps the confusion over the term is that you have two distinct camps that take on the SBNR label – In Group 1, you have Christians disillusioned by the institutions of Christianity in some way – such as the ones you refer to – the mega church hanger on, Spencer Burke, house church types, etc.

    The rejection of the term “religion” was always something I’ve found annoying about evangelicals (and I used to be one.) Christianity is a religion, is it not? That is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a factual statement. If you are a practicing Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu or whatever), then you are religious. I’m not the label police, but I would call the types you refer to Christians – disillusioned or apathetic Christians perhaps, but Christians nonetheless.

    Then you have a second group – many people who say they are not religious are not necessarily making a judgment call – they are just saying that they are not a member of a particular religion, such as myself. I’m not crazy about the SBNR label, but when faced with a survey or an online dating profile, well – sometimes you’ve got to check something. I am not an atheist, agnostic or materialist, and I am also not an adherent of any particular religion – ergo “spiritual but not religious.” After careful consideration, I really and truly do not believe the basic tenets of Christianity, and have not joined up with another religion, so I just don’t have a better descriptive term.

    In my experience, SBNR is not necessarily a term of “combat or partisanship” with people who are truly not religious. (Disillusioned Christians tend to be far more vocally negative about Christianity in my experience than those who are truly outside it. I know that I am far more charitable towards the whole enterprise than I was when I was a part of it.) Are some people in the SBNR camp obnoxious or idiotic or angry? Of course. (I live in Los Angeles. There are some people here who believe some bizarre stuff.) I could easily spend an hour discussing a number of Christians with the same failings, so let’s call that one a draw, shall we?

    Perhaps the answer is to have better surveys that define the terms they are using. I think it would prove to be more illuminating.

  • I am religious but not spiritual.

  • Norm

    SBNR = I no longer desire to be accountable to anyone (or any larger body) on matters that concern how I express my faith. This is the unfortunate reality of individualism gone to its extremes – you can have your god and I’ll have mine…sad.

  • “you can have your god and I’ll have mine…sad.”

    Norm, perhaps many SBNR’ers are moving away from religion as institution/polis simply to find and express more effective and robust expressions of love. In seeking to maximize love for others, self, enemy, and God, many are questioning whether serving in a traditional religious or institutional role is the best platform for expressing that love. I’m not convinced that SBNR’s are fleeing accountability from a “larger body.” To the contrary, I see SBNR’s becoming accountable to new forms of tribes, affiliations, alliances, shared ideals, and communities outside of traditional / inherited religious structures. Just finished a book that is helping me to see some of the reasons behind these dynamics ( Jon presents a research-based understanding of the dynamics behind religious and political organization. Empathic and eye-opening.

  • Lisa

    I tried really hard to believe for many years. I studied the basics of many sects’ theology. I wanted to believe with all my heart. In the late 90’s I still called my self a christian but I knew I had many doubts. A year into the Bush presidency I became totally repulsed by what Christianity has become. I continue to feel that way toward the Christian right.

    Now I’m 50, and I have thought deeply about Christianity done some research into the Bible. I have come to the conclusion that the Bible is not “the word of God’ I still like the Gospels but I don’t hold them to be true events. I believe in a higher power and live by a strict code of ethics, but I think Christianity lost it’s soul once it became part of the Roman Government. So I’m spiritual but not religious, not because I don’t want accountability, but because I simply can’t believe the story