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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reaching Inward to Reach the SBNRs

All week long, I’ve been writing about the phenomenon that is the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” sector of our society. These SBNRs are thoughtful, intentional, positive people who want nothing to do with religion. As I wrote on Monday, sometimes that’s because they see no need for church, but other times it’s because the church has hurt them in some way. On Tuesday, I looked at the differences between spirituality and religion, and on Wednesday I pointed out that religion without spirituality is just a bunch of rules—no wonder SBNRs are staying away from church! Today, I want to look at what the church can do to reach out to SBNRs.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that, for the most part, SBNRs aren’t missing religion in their lives. People who identify as SBNR aren’t hoping that an evangelist will stop by and tell them about Jesus. They don’t wake up on Sunday morning wondering where all the churches are in their hometown and wishing they had somewhere to call their church home. They have either left the church on purpose or stayed away because everything they’ve heard about church turns them off. Because of that, churches can’t suddenly start a program or ministry that will attract SBNRs. Instead, the church has to change the way it does religion.

How does a church measure success? Some churches, like the Episcopal Church, use average Sunday attendance. Some use financial figures like budgets and stewardship results. Some use numbers of souls saved or people who come to an altar call. But all of those measures are based on religion and not spirituality. They are expressions of assimilation. They require commitment to a congregational identity rather than the mission of our faith. What would it mean to measure success in terms of meals served to the homeless? How could a congregation quantify peace attained in a centering prayer session? Is it possible to measure the peace in which we participate as Christians rather than the number of people who show up to our programs?

At a more basic level, that means letting go of the attitude that we need to get SBNRs into church. We don’t. The growth of the SBNRs will not mean the death of the church. Perhaps, in time, God willing, the church will learn from this phenomenon and change its identity to become more faithful and genuine and less legalistic and doctrinal. But we don’t have to start by stemming the tide of the SBNR movement. It isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s something to learn from.


What does it mean to be faithful? How can we live out our call to be disciples of Christ? It isn’t by memorizing the catechism or learning the difference between Nestorian and Chalcedonian Christology. And it isn’t by squeezing a bunch of new converts into our churches. And it isn’t by doubling our budgets or building new family life centers. Being faithful is a practice. It’s spirituality. It’s saying our prayers and studying the bible. It’s asking questions and inviting others to ask their questions, too. As an institutional church, we need to become more spiritual and less religious—not just for the SBNRs’ sake but for our sake, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Post: Sunday's 6 Parables

Alright, can we just accept that Jesus is saying to much this one Sunday for any one sermon? In the readings selected from Matthew 13, Jesus gives us six different statements about the kingdom. We call them "parables" because Matthew himself calls them "parables," but you could argue that none of them is more than a simile. Still, here's what we have.

The parables about the mustard seed and the leaven seem to suggest that the kingdom starts small and then grows beyond measure. Sounds easy enough. I could preach on that.

The parables about the field and the pearl seem to suggest that the kingdom is of incomparable value, requiring total dedication from us. Sounds ok. Again, there's a sermon to be preached there.

The parable about the net and the catch of fish is basically a restatement of the parable of the wheat and weeds from last Sunday, and it seems to suggest that God alone sorts out the good and the bad when it comes to the kingdom. I could preach on that, too, but didn't we just hear that sermon?

Lastly, Jesus says that the scribes in the kingdom are like a master who brings out both old a new treasure, which (after a lot of study and reading of secondary sources) seems to suggest that the kingdom of God is about both old dispensations and new revelations--the traditional Jewish understandings and the new spin that Jesus puts on them. I could preach on that--and probably will--but why all the other stuff?

How does one preach a sermon on the growth of a kingdom of incomparable value that is populated by those whom God alone chooses, all of which is revealed in old a new understandings? Easy enough? Hope you have a late tee time on Sunday.

RBNSs: Why Religious But Not Spiritual Is Killing the Church

This is a mini-series on the growing number of individuals who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNRs). On Monday, I tried to stress that SBNRs come from different backgrounds and can’t be lumped together as a homogeneous group. Then, on Tuesday, I tried to distinguish between spirituality and religion, suggesting that religion usually contains a component of spirituality and that being SBNR is about holding on to the practice without the framework and rules. Today, I’d like to take that last point—the rules of religion—a little further and discuss one group that I feel is driving people away from the church: RBNSs.

What is an RBNS? Do you remember that scene in The Princess Bride in which Wesley remarked to Princess Buttercup, “ROUSs? I don’t believe they exist,” right before the rodent of unusual size jumped out and attacked him? If not, you can watch the beginning of the clip below.



Alas, RBNSs aren’t mythical beasts of the Fire Swamp. They live in your church and my church. They are the religious but not spiritual people that suck the joy out of institutional religion. Remember, spirituality is the practice of our faith. It’s how religion becomes real. It’s the exercise of the tenets to which we ascribe. Do you believe that God loves the world without reservation? Then you should love the world in the same way. If you don’t—if you spend your religious life insulated from the world, certain that those on the outside aren’t recipients of the same undeserved love that you have received—then you’re an RBNS. If you care more about the rules of the faith than the practice of the faith, you’re an RBNS. And, if you’re an RBNS, it’s time to cut bait or fish—to get busy living or get busy dying—so that the church can live out its calling as the bride of Christ.

Recently on Facebook, a quote from Stephen Corbert has been posted and reposted. It’s a perfect example of what happens when spirituality is taken out of religion.



Who are the RBNSs? They are preachers who spend more time “getting it right” than living out their faith. They are the parishioners who show up on Sunday morning not to be transformed by the experience of corporate worship but to take their appointed place in the congregation of the who’s who in the community. They are the lay leaders and vestries who worry about whether the local newspaper will discover that a yoga group has been meeting downstairs after hours. They are the angry people who call demanding that the labyrinth (a.k.a. “portal to hell”) be removed from the church grounds and an exorcism be completed in the place where it once laid. They are the ones who hold the posters and picket signs silently screaming their cause at anyone who drives by. In other words, they are the people who give religion a bad name. They are the ones who drive the well-intentioned faithful who hate controversy away from the church. And they are the ones who make sure that no new seekers will darken the door.

But how do we become RBNSs? We stop praying every day. We stop reading the bible every day. We stop letting God surprise us with new insights into what his will for the world really is. We start lambasting things that are new simply because they are new. We start judging things based on whether they are familiar to us and to our tradition. We start worshipping the God of our political, social, and cultural persuasion instead of searching for the unknowable, unchangeable God of all time and space.

In our cultural landscape, the RBNSs have the microphones and the attention of the media. The television cameras don’t spotlight the quiet faithfulness of most Christians because daily prayer and daily study aren’t exciting. Instead, the people who give religion a voice are the rigid hardliners, whose faith isn’t a daily discipline but a voter guide. The same is true in other religious traditions. When the world thinks of Islam, what do they picture? When the world thinks of Mormonism, what comes to mind? All over the world, the RBNSs are squeezing the love and joy out of religion, and it’s time to put that love and joy back in.


Spirituality is our greatest asset. We need to put the spiritual back in religious. We need to show the world that being a person of religious faith isn’t all that different from being an SBNR. Tomorrow, I’ll finish the series with a look at how the church should reach out to SBNRs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SBNRs: When Is Spiritual Not Religious?

Yesterday, I wrote about the origins of SBNRs, suggesting that not all “spiritual but not religious” individuals come from similar backgrounds. Some just aren’t interested in religion, but others are actively staying away because the institutional church has hurt them in some way. Later in the week, I’ll look at how the church should approach SBNRs. Today, however, I’m interested in the difference between spirituality and religion.

Sitting in her office, the priest looks at the man who has come to see her and says, “Tell me about your faith.” He shifts awkwardly in his seat and replies, “Well, um, I don’t come to church very often—but you already know that, don’t you? But even though I don’t come, I’m very spiritual. I pray every day, and I try to be a good person.” As the conversation continues, the priest tries to assure the man that she isn’t worried about how often he comes to church and that, instead, she’s focused on helping him find the spiritual resources he needs to make it through the personal crisis he’s come to see her about. But, since they are in her office, meeting on her turf, it’s hard to separate the perceived expectations of the institutional church from the individual encounter. In other words, it’s hard for members of the clergy to talk about spirituality without sounding like they are talking about religion.

What is spirituality, anyway? In the context of SBNRs, it’s defined as something other than religion. It could be a practice or a philosophy or an attitude that guides an individual through life, but it is most definitely not a religion. Yet, for a priest like me, spirituality is an essential component of religion. For me, spirituality is the outward expression of a personally held belief. It is the physical manifestation of a way of approaching life. If one believes that peace should be valued, that person might spend time every day sitting in silence and seeking that peace.

For me, Christianity is my religion. More specifically, I’m Anglican, which, as an American, means I’m an Episcopalian. We can talk about what I believe, but that’s another series altogether. Instead, let’s talk about my spirituality. Corporate worship is important to me, and I exercise my faith by gathering with other Christians on a weekly basis (or more often for the ├╝ber-faithful). Communion is central to my experience of faith, and, usually when we gather to worship together, we share a representative meal of bread and wine that allows us to physically engage multiple aspects of what we believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection and his call to gather in his name. I also exercise my faith through daily study and meditation. I sit alone every morning and read a prescribed set of scripture lessons. Usually, I use a combination of standardized prayers (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for the Day) and my own personal prayers. I sit in silence for a while, reminding myself of God’s presence. I write in a journal, searching for God’s work in my life. And I exercise—physical exercise. As I run or walk or ride a bike, I explore God’s presence in the world around me, and I manipulate my body in ways that internalize the blessedness that is my physical life. There are lots of other practices, too, like giving away at least 10% of my income and spending time with close friends. But that’s how I do it. That’s my spirituality.

So what does it mean to have a spirituality but not a religion? The authors that Mark Oppenheimer cites in his NYT article “Examining the growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’” suggest that it means a wide range of things. The Rev. Lillian Daniel, in her book When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (Jericho, 2013), wrote, “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…’ In the article, she said of such people, “[They] always find God in the sunsets and in walks on the beach.” Her attitude seems a bit cynical, but I can appreciate it. Nature—its beauty—is often a focus for the SBNR.

Courtney Bender, who teaches at Columbia, went looking for SBNRs and discovered that there are many manifestations of their spiritual practices. In an interview, she said that they “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes.” Where these groups come from is part of Bender’s focus. Although SBNRs reject a need to belong to a group that stretches back into the past, they seek shared expressions of spirituality that honor the present. She names alternative medicine (shiatsu massage and acupuncture) and the arts (painting and dance) as examples of movements that draw SBNRs.

But when does a shared set of values expressed communally become a religion? If you and I and thirty other people believe that the goal of life is to experience beauty, and we believe that such beauty can be attained by painting and then discussing our paintings, have we not started a new religion? What’s the difference? Well, religions have rules—at least most of them do. Who is in and who is out is defined somehow. As Mitch Hedberg said, “I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member.” Anyone who likes sandwiches made with three pieces of bread and cut into triangles can join. But, as he went on to say, if you like alfalfa sprouts, “you’re not in the f***ing club!” In other words, as soon as a spirituality becomes defined, it loses its appeal to the SBNR.

Several years ago, I was doing some premarital counseling, and the groom-to-be balked when I asked him to sign the canonically required document that the couple believes about marriage what the Episcopal Church believes about marriage. “I can’t sign that,” he said. “I’m an atheist.” (Hmmm, I wondered to myself, our four sessions just became six.) I asked a colleague about it—how do I get him to sign the document? Should I even marry them? He said, “Just tell him he’s an Episcopalian but doesn’t know it yet.” Good point. Sometimes the reason people aren’t religious is because they haven’t found the right religion yet.

So what’s your reason for being? What’s the goal or telos of your life? Do you love nature and think that the purpose of life is to be found outdoors? Maybe you should be a Wiccan (But do remember that Rowan Williams was made a druid before he became Archbishop of Canterbury.) Do you think that this life is about being a good person and that you will be rewarded if you follow the Golden Rule? The Baha’i faith or Zoroastrianism might have appeal. Enjoy sitting in silence? Find peace when you meditate? Why not bite the bullet and become Buddhist? Think life is best when you go with the flow? Taoism may be for you. Still not happy? Take a look at this chart and see what you can find.

For me, all of those religions and all of those spiritualities are expressions of the same (false) truth: you get out of life what you put into it. My religion and my spirituality are based on the opposite premise: that you are rewarded with something that you do not and cannot ever deserve. Christianity, it its various forms and denominations, is about believing and living your life around the principle that God loves you regardless of who you are or what you do. Christian spirituality is the reiteration of this fact. There are no deities to appease. There are no steps to complete. Everything is about remembering that you are loved undeservedly. That could involve yoga. It might mean meditation. You could incorporate nature and charity and peace and a whole lot more into it. But what makes Christianity distinct is that thing we call grace. In some ways, at its furthest point, it’s religion without rules. Maybe all Christians are really SBNRs without knowing it—or at least they should be.


Tomorrow, I’ll look at what happens when people become RBNSs—religious but not spiritual—and why RBNSs are likely what’s pushing people to become SBNRs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

SBNRs: Where Do They Come From?

Usually, this blog focuses on the lessons appointed for the upcoming Sunday according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Sometimes, I will write about the readings from the Daily Office. Occasionally, I will break away from that lectionary-based focus and discuss issues that affect the Episcopal Church or the place of religion in popular culture. For this week, I am going to leave all of that behind and write about the phenomenon known as “spiritual but not religious,” a categorization that is often expressed by the acronym SBNR.

Yesterday, for our Sunday school discussion class, I chose an article from the New York Times that addresses this issue (19 July 2014. “Examining the Growth of the‘Spiritual but Not Religious.’” Mark Oppenheimer). If you didn’t see the article last week, it’s well worth a read. In it, Oppenheimer cites four authors who have recently written about the rise of SBNRs and what that rise means for organized religion. After reading that piece and discussing it with a table full of super-faithful Episcopalians (those who actually come to Sunday school in the middle of July), I have enough thoughts floating around in my mind to spend a week blogging about it.

No, I am not a sociologist, but I do spend a lot of my time talking with people about spirituality and religion. No, I do not have a meaningful ministry that is effectively bridging the gap between organized religion and those who have shunned traditional expressions of faith, but, as a 34-year-old guy who dreamed of being a chemist before answering a call to be a priest, I’m not totally unfamiliar with the arguments against maintaining crusty old churches like ours. Still, admittedly I am not an expert, so I hope that this series will solicit as many contributions from others as it will serve to put my own thoughts into type.

For this first post on the topic, I would like to explore the origins of the SBNRs and, hopefully, demonstrate that not all SBNRs are the same. In fact, I believe that my culture and context is dominated by a breed of SBNR that would be largely unfamiliar to a clergyperson in a different part of the country. So, first, where do SBNRs come from? What makes a person “spiritual but not religious?”

Let me introduce you to Andy. Andy is an engineer who works in Huntsville for an aerospace contractor. He is not from Alabama. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of lapsed Irish-Catholic parents. After completing his college degree in the northeast, he went on to do graduate studies, where he met his wife, who is also an engineer. They have two young children. Andy’s wife is from Tennessee, where she grew up attending an Episcopal church. Although they come to church occasionally, usually Andy stays at home. To him, going to church is about going through the motions, and he gets no spiritual fulfillment from attending. He is happy for his family to pursue their faith, but he would rather spend Sunday morning at home as a family—the one time during the week when they can have a relaxed breakfast, go for a bike ride, or play in the backyard.

Rebecca, on the other hand, stays away from church not because it fails to appeal to her but because church itself is a source of deep pain in her life. Hers is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and invitations to church are not uncommon. Her friends in her yoga class keep asking her to join them on Sunday morning, but she shrugs them off. She doesn’t quite know how to tell them that church is part of what broke up her marriage. She was raised in a conservative Christian denomination, and she married her high school sweetheart, whom she had grown up with at church. But, as the years went by, her husband’s drinking became a problem for their family. He could never admit it to their teetotalling church, so she suffered in silence. Finally, when she approached their minister with her problem, she was told that the bible required that she “honor her vows” and “tough it out.” She left her husband and the church, and she is scared to come back.

Spiritual but not religious can come from anywhere. Maybe someone grew up in a home that valued individual inquiry but never engaged organized religion. Maybe someone was raised in an ultra-religious household and wants to leave his or her past behind. More likely, SBNRs come from somewhere in between the “never-had-it” and the “anti-upbringing” poles of childhood. It’s worth noting, however, that not all SBNRs are the same. Some aren’t scared of Jesus; they’re just scared of organized religion and the damage done in its name. Others worry that by putting a label on their inquiry they risk ostracism by their peers as a “Jesus-freak.” How we include SBNRs in our work, therefore, requires sophistication.

SBNRs in Decatur, Alabama, are different from those on Long Island or in Seattle. Although I feel certain that there are isolated exceptions, being from Alabama means being from a religious household. Some are more religious than others, but it’s hard to grow up in the south without growing up in some sort of relationship with the church. We might leave it when we grow up. We might even run from it and never turn back. But, for the most part, we don’t happen to be SBNR. For us, SBNR represents a departure from something. For the secular humanist from the northeast, SBNR might be the opposite—a sign of spiritual growth.


Tomorrow, I’ll look at the difference between spirituality and religion. What does an SBNR want out of life? How is that different from what a traditional, mainstream religious adherent seeks?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Parables Better Left Unexplained

Some things are best left unexplained, and I’m beginning to wonder whether Jesus, when he was asked by his disciples to explain the parable of the wheat and the weeds, should have said, “No, you go figure it out.” The interpretation he gives is an allegory—each element in the story corresponds to an element in real life. That would be great if everything lined up in a way that made sense, but I’m still scratching my head. I don’t think the interpretation is finished. Maybe Jesus was just beginning the conversation about what the wheat and weeds meant. In fact, as I continue to I consider the interpretation that Jesus gave, I find myself wondering whether the interpretation itself is yet another parable.

Here are some of the reasons that Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of his own parable won’t work: 
  • “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” Why is the Son of Man sowing seeds? Why is he responsible for scattering the good people into the world? The “Son of Man” is typically an image associated with the end of the world not its beginning or its ongoing processes.
  •  “the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” Since when has the devil been the source of anyone? Maybe the devil leads people astray, but you can’t change wheat into a weed. If seeds really are bad from the time of their sowing, God must be responsible for that.
  • “while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…” Who is sleeping? The Son of Man? God? Everyone? If the allegory holds up, then evil snuck into the world when God wasn’t paying attention. That means that the devil’s work is only possible because God isn’t doing his job. But that can’t be right. The one who keeps us neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121).
  • “…an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away” Since when is the devil’s work over? The evil one didn’t just sneak into the world, sow his seeds, and then depart. Surely the devil is still active.

All of that to say…let’s remember that Jesus’ interpretation still needs interpretation. The work isn’t done yet. Jesus might have explained the parable to his disciples, but they still had some thinking to do, and so do we. It’s not supposed to be a complete or perfect answer. Jesus’ response only begins the conversation. He’s inviting them to start thinking about the parable by looking for connections between seeds and people, the harvest and judgment. Then, we have to start there and let the fuller understanding grow in time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wheat and Weeds and Cups of Water

So far this week, I’ve been blogging about this Sunday’s gospel lesson—the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). In it, the enemy sowed weeds in the master’s field one night, and, when they grow up amidst the wheat, the master decides to let them remain until the harvest (i.e., the time of the last judgment), at which time they are bound and cast into the fiery furnace. As Jesus interprets his own parable, those weeds are depicted as “the children of the evil one”—people who seem to belong to the devil rather than to God. But that still leaves me wondering who they are. What does it take to be a weed?

Today’s lesson in the Daily Office is from a later passage in Matthew’s gospel account (Matt. 25:31-46). Although I’m wary of making connect-the-dot comparisons from one part of the bible with another, since it’s from the same gospel account, it seems fair to let Matt. 25 fill out Matt. 13. Like Sunday’s gospel, it is also a passage about the last judgment, but this time Jesus makes it clear what distinguishes the righteous from the cursed, and I don’t like what he says.

[41] “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [42] For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, [43] I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ (Matt. 25:41-43 ESV)

This is one of those passages that I know intimately but still don’t take seriously. What about you? Essentially, Jesus seems to be establishing a righteousness that is based on works: those who minister to the needs of others are worthy of heaven, and those who don’t are worthy of hell. (Did you see that? That was Pauline theology flying out the window.) How important is this approach to righteousness in our daily life?

I’ll admit that there are times when someone walks through the door of the church asking for financial assistance and I wonder to myself, “Could this be Jesus?” Occasionally, when I’m driving down the road and see a hitchhiker carrying a backpack on a swelteringly hot day, I wonder whether I should pull over just in case it is Jesus I’m about to pass by. Sometimes I worry that when I get to the last judgment, Jesus will look at me and say, “Do you remember that sixty-year-old black woman who stopped you in the grocery store parking lot on March 27, 1999, and asked you for five dollars? Well, that was me. You’re going to hell!” But that’s not what this gospel lesson is about. And that’s not what Matt. 13 is about, either.

Jesus isn’t hiding himself. This isn’t Candid Camera. Our journey toward the end of time is not one big reality show, where God is watching to see whether we’ll recognize his son in disguise. Instead, Jesus is asking his disciples and us to shift our understanding of what it means to serve our Lord. The surprise doesn’t come when Jesus takes off his mask and says, “Aha! It’s me!” It comes when we realize that serving him means serving others—when we look at those in need and see that there never was any difference between them and Jesus. That’s a mindset-shift that Jesus brings to the earth. Being a servant in the kingdom does not mean waiting for the king to ask you to bring him a cup of water. It means serving everyone as if he were the king.

That’s a different sort of eschatology that isn’t really a works-based righteousness at all. Jesus doesn’t really care whether we gave the glass of water to the right thirsty person. This isn’t about water at all. It’s about seeing the kingdom as it really is. What does it mean to belong to the kingdom of God? It’s realizing that it’s here and now. It’s acting as if Jesus’ lordship is the dominant principle in our daily lives. Sure, of course that means giving water to those who thirst without considering their status or deservedness.


Maybe that’s the difference between being a stalk of wheat or a growing weed—a child of the kingdom or a child of the evil one. Despite living in a world that is full of wheat and weeds, we live as fully inaugurated citizens of the kingdom. Maybe that’s why the master refuses to pull the weeds up before the harvest. Maybe that’s why he says that to pull the weeds would uproot the wheat—because being wheat means growing and bearing fruit in a mixed field of good and bad.
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