Lent Blog #2: Spiritual but Not Religious? The So-Called “Salad Bar Spiritualists” (Or at least according to CNN…)

 In the spirit of Lent, I am not going to keep the tone of my blog that of “unfiltered stream of consciousness,” as these types of blogs are just the type that I despise to muddle through for any amount of content (oh wait, my blog has been just that for quite a while! Sorry readership!). Instead, I decided that I would tackle the cultural, theological, spiritual and what I see to be a modern issue in our churches of “Spiritual but not Religious.” 

The demographic of the US is dramatically changing from the way it looked 40 years ago, let alone the way it looked even 25 years ago, when the Moral Majority reigned supreme in the Conservative Christian circles of American culture. As these next generations (X and Y) of twenty-somethings have grown up and aged out of their parents’ homes, culture has seen an increase in the use of the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This seems especially prominent as the twenty-somethings leave home, go off to college, seek employment, and mold an identity as an adult apart from that of their parents and their home communities. 

In college, I frequently bumped up against many who identified as “spiritual but not religious,” (when I found people who identified as anything at all at my tiny, extremely secular prestigious single-sex liberal arts institution, where most identified as Agnostic, or even more firmly as an Atheist), and at the time, I was perfectly fine with settling with this title without an explanation for exactly why they were as such, or what it meant. But now that I am a few short months from graduation from a theological institution, and also from ordination into the ministry, I am deeply troubled by and concerned with this fuzzy term. Given that I am not headed directly to the church, but rather to ministry within the confines of the hospital, and in a city that identifies more commonly as non-religious than affiliates with any one denomination or religious tradition, I found the need to reflect on this deeply emotional and personal designation. In college, many people I encountered seemed to use this phrase as a trendy copout, a way to describe themselves in any of the following ways: 

-A way to say that they had been raised in the church, but now, church conflicted with their Saturday night binge drinking 

-They went to Yoga, and since yoga wasn’t a part of traditional church, they were spiritual, but not religious

-They leaned more toward Agnostic, but still believed in “something up there in the sky so yeah” 

-Church seemed more like their parents’ thing and not much like their thing and so they weren’t really interested, but could see themselves maybe going back later in life, maybe when they got married and had kids

Regardless of which option, which “excuse,” which reason a person gives, I found that the “spiritual but not religious” moniker often came with a lot of excuses, but very little justifications for what beliefs followed. Since it wasn’t a total denial of God (or faith entirely), there had to be 

Only a week ago, CNN’s Belief Blog wrote a blog post on just this very topic (thanks Google!), with the hope of overturning any assumptions that Christians like me might have regarding the “nones” or the Spiritual but Not Religious affiliates. (I will include the link to their blog post at the bottom of my blog post if you are interested…) All summaries aside, CNN concluded that despite any prior presuppositions, the SBNRs (as CNN calls them) actually have real and firm beliefs (and oppositions): They oppose secularism and the firm confines, systems and structures of their parents’ generation, and in addition, are tired of having their spirituality squelched and confined. They also oppose secularism, but on the other side, they oppose religion. A seeming contradiction to this Christian and faithful individual, indeed. But let me back up and take some ownership of this last statement, as it isn’t just religion, but the structured, rigid, conservative remnant religion that is likely that of their parents, all the rage of the 1970s and predominantly of the 1980s. 

It is exactly this protest of the rigid, and conservative values (and even theology) of Christianity (among other faith traditions dominant in today’s diverse American culture) that I feel is the inherent problem. This rigid, “single way to express faith” dominant attitude that is present in many Mainline and non-mainline faith communities can be (and frequently is) a turn off for those who are seeking a faith home, but one that also allows them to express their relationship with God in a less than traditional, “out of the box,” yet still within the Doctrinal boundaries manner.

Is this a reflection of the decline in church attendance over the last 30 years? Perhaps. Is this a reflection of the media’s poor portrayal of the church and our generation’s over-obsession with social media, the internet and TV and the resulting disconnection with people face-to-face? Perhaps. 

I wonder whether it also might be religion’s incessant obsession with bad behavior, sin, death, resurrection and “the next life,” and how these very themes simply don’t reach a generation too eager to live in the moment. For example, mortality vs. immortality are not always relevant issues, and death is something to be dealt with when you’re really old. But these are major emphases in both scripture and also in church/sermon discussions, and therefore, less interesting and engaging for many. 

In summation, I think that the “nones” and the SBNRs (when they do fit into a category at all, as I think trying to generalize is futile and frankly far too difficult, let alone slightly disrespectful, however painful it is for me to swallow that idea in the first place…) are too seeking a better understanding of life’s meaning, just as I am. But this rise in non-affiliations is definitely a wakeup call for those of us who are feeling a call to the pastorate: to figure out why there are more younger adults (a term that makes me cringe) falling away from faith and the church, and finding an increasing aversion to faith in general.

So what can the church do to reach out and touch Gens X and Y? (And I don’t mean “save them and bring these souls back to church…” ala Jesus Camp, so you can close your mouths now!) I think the main problem is that the church of the past has not done a good job of modernizing, and when it has, it hasn’t addressed the issues and concerns from the ground up. Church has a terrible tendency of being “top down,” (as it often has to be), homogeneous and hierarchical and so the “nones” have seen church become a place of rigid, institutional, comatose people (to borrow the words of CNN). I wonder whether the “nones,” and the SBNRs might feel more included, and even find a home alongside those of us who have never left if the church community created a place – A HOME – that was diverse, expansive and filled with grace and love. 

These “nones” and the SBNRs are a wakeup call for those of us heading out into the church – a call to attention that if the church is to succeed, grow and flourish among the younger population, who identifies as the largest population of the SBNRs and “nones” at the moment, we need to do a better job of reaching them. But in order to reach the “nones,” the church is going to require a major facelift, an attitude adjustment, and most importantly, to recognize that reconciliation is necessary. 

And the same goes for the “nones” and the SBNRs. Christians are not out there to condemn (at least I’m not, ok?), but to live together in unity requires respect. Not all religions, faiths and churches are the same, and so if church didn’t work once somewhere, it doesn’t mean that it won’t elsewhere, another time in life. But please understand that a life lived in faith for another is not an easy road – it is cultivated, forged, nurtured and is a journey, not a destination. 

Jesus never intended for the kingdom of God to be a place where some would gather together and others would fall aside. The whole purpose for his coming into human form was to do something, not just to say something to God’s people. Therefore, it seems that the church needs to be a place no longer of just saying, but more of doing, as this new generation of incredible thinkers, creators, is one of action, not just of sedentary “armchair Christianity,” as Calvin said. As a generation, we are as a whole more inclined to action and social justice world and less inclined to the “sitting, standing, sitting, standing” Doctrinal tradition of our parents and grandparents. Therefore, this involves the church to move into the future to meet the needs of the demographics, interests and calls of the seekers in God’s kingdom, rather than asking the already slightly uncomfortable to conform further to the traditions of the past. Compromise and progress are the only two things that will ultimately allow for a blending and decrease in the “nones/“SBNRs, and a reconciliation of the church community. 

May it be so, and may all feel welcome in the kingdom of God, for who they are, not who they feel they ought to be. 


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