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.