General CBF / Leadership Scholars

SBNR: A Crisis or Spiritual Revolution?

By Leigh Reynolds 

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. 

2 thoughts on “SBNR: A Crisis or Spiritual Revolution?

  1. SBNR here. Sorry to have to tell you this, but the ship has sailed.

    Speaking for myself, I tried to work out my concern with church leadership, and literally couldn’t get face time until I announced I was leaving. Then the pastor gave me an exit interview.

    In that interview, I discovered that the man was not very bright, and the problems in the church were all partly his fault. I put this fact together with all my other concerns, and came to an inescapable conclusion: there is no church authority deriving from the Holy Spirit in our age. The true Spirit of God simply can’t be that stupid. All that stuff in the Bible about church is about a church that hasn’t existed in centuries.

    I have seen a similar pattern in multiple denominations. No church at all has a legitimate claim to authority. No pastor knows anything I don’t know. In order to grow spiritually, I had to leave them all behind.

  2. Building on what Harry said, there is -even in this article itself- the seeds of the problem. Most churches and denominations are still not willing to be reflexive. The problem is still 100% on those who leave, that their views and needs show their misunderstanding. The author here advocates listening but in words that evokes the current problematic mission process: listen long enough to find anchor points to bring people (back) to a specific individual’s or community’s definition of Jesus and Christianity. This type of listening avoids hearing critique, it avoids the hard work of seeing SBNR comments like Harry’s and those noted by scholar Mercadante as red flags that there are real and serious problems within Christianity today, problems that the churches and denominations need to own and do the hard spiritual and organizational work these critiques call for. It can be easily argued that the SBNRs leaving Christianity are those with the deepest sincerity, highest expectations, and the greatest disappointment…Christianity’s best.

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