Are You “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

Our upcoming Young Adult retreat at Dayspring, our diocesan conference center, is entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious,” referencing that ubiquitous label many folks use today to indicate having an interest in matters of the spirit without making a commitment to traditional organized religion.  Both the phrase and the acronym (SBNR) have become commonplace in today’s lingo, on the web and Facebook.  It has even been used as the title for a book on alternative American spirituality, in which author Robert C. Fuller states that one out of every five Americans currently describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

The label is perhaps a little misleading.  After all, both “spiritual” and “religious” start from a similar premise: a belief in a Higher Power, the desire to connect with that Higher Power, and an interest in some sort of ritual or behavior having to do with that connection.  In today’s society, however, “spiritual” is often used to refer to private or personal belief, while “religious” generally involves public membership in a religious institution (i.e. church).  In comparisons such as “spiritual but not religious,” the word “spiritual” tends to carry a more positive connotation than “religious,” which is used to imply blind adherence to the outward rituals of belief without the underlying commitment, rather like the difference between playing a rhapsody (“spiritual”) versus practicing scales (“religious”).

The word “religion” may be derived from the Latin re (“back”) and ligare (“to bind”).  Thus, to be “religiouscan literally be interpreted as “being bound” and, in this sense, SBNR reflects a desire not to be bound by traditional beliefs, rules, and community.  Baptist seminary professor Timothy Paul Jones says: “‘Spiritual’ has, in some sense, come to mean ‘my own personal religion with my own individual creed.'”

In a Christianity Today article (“Faith Unbound: Why Spirituality is Sexy but Religion is Not“), author Mollie Hemingway goes a step further: “Being spiritual but not religious is the perfect fit for people who don’t like the demands of religion but aren’t quite ready to say they have no soul.”  Is SBNR  perhaps just “Burger King” spirituality?  (Have It Your Way?)

A look at the SBNR website just might make you wonder.  Under a banner of “Love is the answer/You are the question” you will find the following statement of purpose:

Dedicated to serving the millions of people worldwide who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion.  We honor your personal journey and offer inspiration, education, and entertainment to aid your experience of being human.

Not exactly something you will find in the Book of Common Prayer, though after reading this I did wonder how many times I myself have come to worship on Sunday morning hoping to be “inspired, educated, and entertained”!  I also wondered what it is that Young Adult seekers are looking for in church and how it is that so many of them leave to become “spiritual but not religious”?  What do we as the Church need to do to “pull them in”?  Should we add that “Contemporary Worship” service to the church schedule?  Do we need to plug in guitars, roll out the drums, and add some upbeat music with snappy Jesus lyrics?  Should we ditch time-honored liturgies for some trendy, relevant sermons pulled from today’s headlines? Or does this carrot-on-a-stick approach only do more harm than good? 

In “Spiritual But Not Religious: Reaching an Invisible Generation,” author Roland Martinson describes young adults as the “invisible generation,” mostly ignored by the Church and left alone to sort out the larger issues of life (i.e. foundational choices of career and mate).  The prevailing laissez-faire attitude of the Church towards young adults seems to be that they are “too busy”at this point in their lives for church and that they will “be back later” when they’ve finished this part of their life journey.  Many young adults are certainly “pilgrims” in our midst, here temporarily on their way to other schools and jobs.  However, as Martinson writes:

The church does well with settlers but not nearly as well with pilgrims, that is, people living in transition theologically, morally, relationally, and geographically, who ask tough questions.

How do we change this?  In examining the young adult who have stayed in church (the “YA remnant”), a number of “faith factors” emerge,  common denominators that strengthened ties with the faith community:

  • The presence of adult mentors and leaders
  • Service (“doing God”) with others
  • Apprenticeship into leadership roles at an early age
  • Finding a safe and open place for questioning
  • The foundation of a strong senior high ministry
  • Engaging worship experiences
  • Friends within the faith community
  • Community support during times of crisis

Martinson asks: “Will our faith have children?  Will our faith have adults? Will our faith have leaders?”  The answer to all these questions lies in the young people in our midst.  We need to designate the resources–as individuals, as congregations, and as the Church–to develop the role of YA’s in our congregations, making sure that they do not feel invisible and do not become “spiritual but not religious.”

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