By Leigh Reynolds
Recently, while preparing a research paper on the rise of those claiming the designation spiritual but not religious (SBNR) and its impact on the Christian church in North America, I discovered the work of Linda Mercadante. Mercadante, an ordained Minister, Professor of Historical Theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and leading expert in the research of the SBNR movement felt called to engage in in-depth conversations with those who identify as SBNR because she recognized that though many conversations were taking place and conclusions being put forth, rarely did those conversations engage with individuals who claimed the designation.
Mercadante engaged in extensive conversations with approximately one hundred individuals across the United States who claim the SBNR designation. The invitation to participate in these conversations was met with gratitude as her conversation partners shared that rarely do people ask them about their faith or seem to care why they have chosen this designation. Through these conversations she learned that the majority of SBNRs are not hostile toward the church. Instead, they are frustrated by an institution that they feel does not welcome their questions or their doubts. They are more interested in practicing spirituality than engaging in doctrinal disputes.
Polls and surveys have shown a steady increase of SNBRs over the last fifty years and now indicate that they represent the third largest “religion” in our country. So, if those who claim affiliation with SBNR are happy, why should we care? We live in a nation that espouses free expression of thought and individual freedom, after all.
Among other reasons we should care because Christian congregations are essential to faith development and the nurturing of religious commitment, are agencies for charity, social advocacy, and transformation, build tradition through communal worship and study, build networks that serve those in need, and nurture traditions through practice and participation. We should care because we want to see all people grow and develop in ways that the SBNR lifestyle does not naturally promote.
The question for the Christian church to consider is do we allow this movement to become a crisis or a spiritual revolution? The SBNR movement certainly poses risks to the church as it rises in number. It also, however, presents an opportunity for, both, those currently inside and outside the church to grow in spirituality and religion.
So, what if we, the Christian church in America, began to ask questions and to listen? What if rather than leading with doctrine and dogma, we led with a desire to understand and relate. I am not suggesting the Christian church bend so far it breaks, but I am suggesting we listen long enough to understand what it is about organized religion that is causing nearly one-third of Americans to say they would rather be a “none,” seeking spirituality on their own.
SBNRs are thinking theologically, seeking meaning for their life, discerning reasons to approach the difficulties and joys of each new day, and searching for a source for hope. They will continue to do this somewhere. For this movement to become a spiritual revolution the church must help SBNRs think, seek, discern, and search within the body of Christ.
I found Linda Mercadante’s work both interesting and informative. Her conversations and the conclusions that came from them are presented in her book Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. If you are even remotely interested in learning more about the SBNR movement this book is an excellent starting place.
Leigh Reynolds serves as the Coordinator for Youth and Communication Ministries at Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill, S.C. She is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing her M. Div. with concentration in Congregational Health through Formation: Christian Education from Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C.