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.