Spiritual But Not Religious? (Part 3)

Written by Carl Greene

November 24, 2021

Churches often send the wrong message. Churches have a window of opportunity to invite people to belong, but we generally miss the sweet spot of the overlap between spiritual and religious. That is an opportunity that the church should be an expert in—but often sends the wrong message.

What Should We Do?

  1. Stop talking about only a privatized faith experience. When we focus our gospel message as solely “Jesus and me” we send the clear message that Christian community is extra credit. Should it come as a surprise that people subsequently end up satisfied with the truncated experience of “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBRN)? As much as we want to complain about people who do not regularly participate in church, we need to look at how we have invited them. Often, we have invited them into a privatized experience with God, and the only reason to join with other people is if they have a problem or difficult situation that needs to be worked through.
  2. Watch out for glow words. When someone says that they “believe in Jesus” that might not mean what we think. The focus on spirituality gives license to people to make their own religious framework without reference to what words and phrases have historically meant. Rather than just being irritated that someone is not attending a Bible Study or worship service, we should listen to what they say. When we start to understand what they actually mean by spirituality and like terms, we can better understand how to invite them. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to SBNR.
  3. Invite into authentic ritual. Some readers might be frustrated that this has not been a head on theological or ecclesiological attack on SBNR. There is plenty of fodder to make this possible. However, it does not seem likely that this is going to be winsome to someone who has a negative impression of church. There is a need for experiential understanding rather than a battle of concepts. After all, the specifics of spiritual and religious are so messy, the likelihood of a fruitful debate of these terms is unlikely. We need to invite people into the experience of authentic ritual.

Invite Them to Experience Religion: Authentic Ritual

Counter-intuitive approach? Yes, inviting people into religion when it is increasingly cast in a negative light seems dubious at first. But, it is a straight-on approach to addressing SBNR and the negative impact on churches.

Experience opens the door to grasping the beauty of religion once again–providing a taste of what the good surrounding the term actually is. The key is to avoid inviting someone to the wrong thing. Clearly, none of us want to invite someone to a staid experience which is so cold and ritualistic that someone’s negative preconceptions of religious are reinforced.

At the same time, if we invite someone to a church function which is essentially a privatized spiritual experience, we have done the same. If we invite someone to an experience where they are within a group of people, but simply consume everything in their own bubble, there is no reason that they cannot have the same experience completely on their own.

We often turn the conversation at this point to fellowship and the importance of Christian community. That is good and right, but it often throws a therapeutic Christianity vibe. If you join the group, you will feel better, overcome something, grow deeper friendships. This is all true, but again casts the image of community as extra credit—if you want it.

Along with inviting into Christian fellowship, there is a need to invite into ritual. Zoinks, for some of us that ritual word is scary, giving a picture of rote practices that are lifeless and lacking vibrancy. There are indications that “religious dones” who have left the church are especially responsive to invitations to opportunities where they can discover the significance of rituals that they associate with Christianity, such as the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer or the context surrounding the Lord’s Supper. They do not want a chaplaincy experience of being made comfortable, they want to be challenged with a new understanding or application, especially if it transforms their childhood religious socialization. Some success stories involve “low tradition” churches utilizing creeds and catechisms in the worship service. The success lays in explaining those traditional rituals and connecting them with Scripture and life application.

The church has plenty of opportunity to invite. The question is if our invitation will feed into the Spiritual But Not Religious phenomenon, or if we will move towards a much needed correction.

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