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?

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