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.”

I “Like” God: Building campus ministry community with social media

A recent American Libraries article promoting the benefits of Facebook for library communities quoted the following statistics:

  • Approximately 41% of the US population has a personal Facebook profile
  • About 50% of  FB users in the US log into Facebook every day
  • Globally there are over 600 million Facebook users
  • Most users have an average of 130 FB friends

This got me thinking about the comparative benefits of Facebook and other social media for church congregations in general and campus ministry programs specifically.  More and more mainstream churches have gone online now, realizing that a well polished website with sermon clips and an inviting schedule of activities is often what a church visitor sees first today, long before he or she walks into the church building.  This may present a bit of a learning curve for some congregations, especially among those parishioners who see social media as frivolous trivial pursuit.  In the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, author Paul Lamb concedes that, for churches,”the ability to understand and leverage the use of social media tools like blogs, social networks, and interactive media presents a clear communications challenge during the age of the one-minute attention span.”

However, Lamb also warns that this is about more than just learning how to publish the same message using new tools.  It is in fact a cultural shift, a “sea change” as he dubs it, in how people interact and how they view institutions.  While the Church has traditionally maintained an authoritative structure, organizing and directing its congregations, the online world is a place of bottom-up participation, thriving on interaction and individual input, a little messy perhaps but also energetic and creative.  (Think Wikipedia, for example!)

Of course, campus ministry should be at the heart of this new engagement, a practical lab for exploring new communication venues for the Church at large.  The millenials are light years ahead of the rest of us in this new territory.  According to the Pew Internet Reports, nearly three quarters (72%) of young adults (ages 18-29) use social network sites.  This is about communication but it is also about building community, and there is much that we can learn here.  Paul Lamb writes:

It is critical to understand, for better or worse, that today’s youth want a personalized religious experience. They want to have their say, be listened to, and engage each other directly—beyond the physical walls and formal dictates of the church. Just as the TV generation demanded an “edutainment” experience, the millennials are demanding a two-way interactive experience. They want to participate in a conversation with their religion and their religious leaders, and not be lectured to.

Facebook fan pages certainly make a great community bulletin board for reminders about where and when, but I’m interested in hearing about other ways campus ministries are using Facebook and other social media to connect their local community and engage the Church at large.  How about it, folks?

Millennials & the Church: What does the research tell us?

Look around a typical Sunday morning congregation and chances are you won’t see many college students.  Is this a new trend?  Is it getting worse?  What do we really know about college kids and their religious practices and beliefs?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has done some extensive research on Americans and religion, interviewing 35,000 adults and reporting on their religious beliefs and practices, as well as social and political attitudes.  The resulting report, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, includes a full section on the religion among Millennial age group (age 18 to 29). 

There is, somewhat predictably, good news and bad news.

The report subtitle categorizes Millennials as “less religiously active than older Americans, but fairly traditional in other ways.”  Specifics issues  include:

  • One in four (25%) in this age group are unaffiliated with any religious tradition, describing themselves instead as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”
  • Nearly one in five (18%) in this age group say they were raised in a religious tradition but are now unaffiliated with any particular denomination.
  • More young adults in this age group are unaffiliated now than young adults were in recent decades.  (Compare the current 25% with Generation X at 20% in the late 1990s and Baby Boomers at 13% in the late 1970s.)
  • Less than half of adults under age 30 said that religion was very important in their lives.

There are, of course, some brighter (or less dark?) spots:

  • Among the Millennials who claim affiliation with a religious tradition, the intensity of that bond is as strong today as in previous generations.
  • Young adults in general attend religious services less frequently than older adults but this generational difference is fairly small between young and older adults with a strong religious affiliation.
  • Millenials engage in a number of religious practices (reading Scripture, prayer, and meditation) less frequently than older adults; however, these numbers are in line with what Gen-Xers and even Baby Boomers reported at the same time period in their lives.
  • More than three-quarters (76%) of young adults believe that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Interestingly enough that percentage is almost identical in older age groups (77%).
  • More than half of young adults (55%) think that churches should speak out on social and political issues.  (49% of older adults said the same.)

There is much more information available on the Pew Forum website on this topic!  The Millennial report concludes with the following recommendations for further reading:

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (2009)

After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow (2007).

And this in a review of this last book from Publisher Weekly: “Wuthnow argues that our society provides lots of structural support for children and teens, but leaves younger adults to fend for themselves during the decades when they’re making crucial decisions about family and work.”

Food for thought indeed…..

Thanks for reading!

P.S. You may have noticed that I’ve added a blog roll.  (It was a bit of a challenge for me and I’m rather proud of the accomplishment.)  I’ve started with just a few Episcopally relevant blogs/sites.  If you have recommendations for more, please let me know!

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