I’ve been thinking a bit about the whole Spiritual-But-Not-Religious (SBNR) classification. Folks tell us it’s growing; anecdotally, I’ve got a number of Facebook friends who identify this way. As the Church writ broadly looks at mission/evangelism/formation, this is the group that looms largest. Have we done a decent job of asking who they are, what they want, and what will be necessary to communicate the gospel to them?
Since some exchanges at the Cafe a few days ago, I’ve been pondering exactly what the relevant subcategories are of this rather amorphous mass, because I think that we’ll make some serious mistakes if we try to treat “them” as uniform. I’ve come up with a few, but I’m sure there are quite a number to be identified. Here are some that I can think of personally (and these are cartoony caricatures, not nuanced psychologically informed portraits):
In my experience, this is the most common sort. The SBND are those who are attracted to spiritual things but hate the idea of someone telling them what to do. These are the folks who like to make it up as they go along—then change it all (or drop it all together) on a monthly basis. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that neither a community or tradition can have authority over what they want to do and when they want to do it.
These are folks who may be highly spiritual but tend to experience spiritual practice as a “collect-’em-all” kind of enterprise. Yoga on Mondays, Kabbalah on Tuesdays, Centering Prayer on Wednesdays, Drum Circle on Thursdays…you get the picture. Related—maybe even overlapping—with the SBNDs, the differentiation here is not necessarily on a level of discipline or follow-through, but a lack of a big-picture framework that makes sense of the individual pieces. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t see a single religious tradition that enables them to hold all the things together that they want to embrace.
These are folks who tend to have a high regard for ideological purity. They may or may not be inclined towards spiritual practices, but they’re certainly not going to affiliate with a religious institution with nasty baggage. These are the people who like to remind everyone about the Crusades, the Phelpses, and abortion clinic bombings whenever the topic of religion comes up. They couldn’t possibly be part of something that promotes so much hatred. Their default stance tends to be that all religion is unreasoning fundamentalist religion and that therefore only unreasoning fundamentalists would be interested in religion. (Interestingly, I’ve seen this stance preached in some sci-fi books that my SBNR brother-in-law has loaned me recently…; a new missionary method for the New Atheism?) Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they may accept that there’s more to life than the flatly material; the “not religious” part affirms that they won’t have anything to do with a religious tradition that doesn’t pass their purity requirements.
These are the folks who tend to affiliate with particular lines of thought and may even self-identify with a religious group but for whatever reason just don’t get there. It may be a plea of busyness on account of the kids and their activities or it may be that they prefer bagels & the Times on a Sunday morning than dragging themselves to church. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that they don’t or can’t commit to the actual obligations of a religious community.
These are folks who also self-identify with a religion, maybe even a specific denomination, but are not satisfied with any of the local communities. They’re too high or too low or too stiff or too loose or whatever… In some cases, a lack of “fit” is a genuine reason, in others it may be an excuse–to others or even to themselves–that hides a more genuine reason. Thus, the “spiritual” part affirms that they think spiritual things are good and they may even connect with a tradition; the “not religious” part affirms that the religious communities on offer don’t meet their needs on the points they want meeting.
I see here that I’ve floated into the “‘Religious’ But Not Attending” realm as well, but I think that there’s sufficient relation between them that it makes sense to include them as well.
Looking across these groups (and imagining that there are more that I haven’t identified here) I can’t imagine that one strategy fits all. My hunch is that the SBNI are the ones who are most willing to have contact with a religious community or who would be most open to having a friend invite them to a religious “thing.” But trying to appeal to the SBNB the same way as the SBNI doesn’t strike me as likely to be effective…
I don’t know—what are your thoughts?