Presbyterian News Services issued a report about Spiritual But Not Religious (shortened to SBNR) people, based on the research of Linda Mercandante, a minister who teaches at a Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

There are three points that I would like to discuss. First, the article states:

One of the common assumptions — that many spiritual but not religious people had bad experiences in the church — is simply not true, Mercandante said. “I was surprised, but there was very minimal reporting by people that they had been hurt in or by the church.”

I’m a person who has written about the pain that church has caused, and I do hope that this point is not completely disregarded. As a pastor, I have heard story after story of mistreatment in congregations. It is there and I hope that we don’t ignore it.

Second, Mercandante points out that people react against stereotypes of the church like:

• churches claim to “exclusive truthfulness — that they have a corner on the truth market”;
• churches demand that personal beliefs be abdicated;
• churches demand conformity to a “corporate mentality”;
• joining a church means a loss of personal integrity;
• churches demand commitment “to things that have no meaning”’
• churches demand commitment to disagreeable codes of conduct; and
• churches profess arbitrary or implausible beliefs.

“I heard the same arguments over and over again,” Mercadante said of her research. “I don’t know where this script comes from — no one knows any real churches that fit this profile or stereotype.”

Let me explain where the script comes from. They are describing many Evangelical/ conservative congregations in our country. Since the WASPs left power forty years ago, our political power and media coverage has highlighted Evangelical congregations as the norm in our society. And many of them (not all, of course) live up to the stereotype perfectly.

It does not describe many mainline congregations, but that has not been the predominate religious voice in our country for a couple of decades now.

Third, Mercandante highlights Wuthnow’s important research, highlighting our assumption that people will join the church after they get married and have children. But then showing the realities of many Americans:

• delayed marriage (Americans are marrying at a later age, on average) and increased divorce rates;
• fewer children born later in their parents life;
• less job security, therefore greater financial insecurity, making commitment less likely;
• higher levels of education, which decreases “unquestioned belief”;
• “loosening relationships,” resulting in less community involvement;
• Globalization, producing less homogeneity and greater diversity; and
• the “information explosion,” which creates “broader spiritual horizons and therefore looser religious identification.”

“I think it’s clear that much of the problem organized religion faces today is not really the church’s fault,” Mercadente said.

This is the most important piece I think that we need to look at.

Of course it is our fault. We have expected people to become married, with children, secure, financially stable, and (sometimes even) white before they can be welcome in our churches. We have not reached out to the world around us, we have expected people to become something that they are not before they enter our doors.

That’s like saying it’s not GM’s fault that they are going under, even though they kept pushing SUVs when our planet was clearly in trouble. It’s like saying it’s not the McCain campaign’s fault that they lost the election, even though they were talking about the “real America” when most Americans are urban and diverse. That’s like saying it’s not the mortgage companies fault, even though they were lending huge amounts of money, with ballooning payments to people they knew could not pay it back.

When we cannot face the realities around us, it is our fault.

I have great hope for our congregations. But…let’s not let ourselves off the hook too easily. We have much to confess before we can change our ways.

What do you think? Do you agree with Mercandante’s research? Would you want her to know about people who are SBNR?

10 thoughts on “SBNR

  1. I do think there are some SBNR people who haven’t been hurt by the church–for a long time, I considered myself SBNR. I didn’t grow up in the church, my family is still unchurched, and before I joined the church I would have said I was spiritual but I didn’t have any religious community or practice because I didn’t know any better. I’d read the Bible and I’d been to church once or twice with friends or jobs, but I certainly hadn’t been burned. I think my parents are the same way. Granted, my grandparents were severely hurt by the church and so raised their kids (who raised their kids) outside of church, so I suppose it’s true at a remove.

    I do think 2 and 3 are exactly right on! The stereotype is a constant struggle, for sure.

    In other news–I like your picture on the Outlook Cover! You have great hair. 🙂

  2. Your commentary on Mercandante’s findings is in sync with what I have found after about a year of working on the same question in the DC area. I am especially interested in and supportive of your final point. If the Church is not willing to take a bit of responsibility for what we have done (or, in many cases, what we have not done), our current habits will likely never change, and I think that both you and she would agree that will not be a very faithful response to our current situation in the long run.

    Thank you for pointing out such articles and for providing a forum to both share and discuss them!

  3. Interesting. One wonders where Mercandante did her research. Although all I have is anecdotal evidence (hardly sufficient to refute her), my experience is so different than her findings that I wonder if she cherry-picked her subjects.

  4. It strikes me that there is insight on both sides. I mean… we know our churches. We can speak from our own experience of seeing people deeply wounded from their brushes (or long stays) with religion, and our own necessary efforts at providing a safe place where they can heal. That is true.

    What is also true is that we do not know the experience of the people we *don’t* come into contact with, through our ministry, through our lives, or through our acquaintences. (Perhaps this sounds obvious, but I think it bears stating.)

    It makes me think of a conversation I over heard at coffee hour, some elderly people talking, and commenting on how there werent’ many young people in the parish at that point in time. The other commented on how they didn’t actually exist in this city – both agreed, and both seemed to mean it with every fiber of their being. As it happened, the day before I had been to one of the major outdoor festivals the city hosts, in which for several blocks on a four lane road (plus median) there was an absolute crush of humanity, most of which looked to be under 40.

    I mention this story because it seems to illustrate that we can only see what is within our current vision, but what is within our current vision isn’t ever the sum total of what actually exists. And perhaps we’ve got a pretty good grasp of the situation, and what we don’t see accounts for a very small amount. I think, however, when we look to our experience in our congregations for insight on how all people (or even most people) view religion in a day and age when a very significant portion of our population attends religious services twice a year, or less, I think that in this particular situation our current vision has a very sizable blind spot.

    The question for me is this – are we willing to recognize *that* it might exist, and *what* it might contain?

    Thanks for letting me speak.

  5. Regarding the first point: I grew up in California and have lived in the Bible belt the past 13 years. In both regions, the SBNR people I have encountered (myself included till 3 years ago) have been put off of Christianity not by experience *within* a “church” setting, but by the way they have been treated by people who claim to represent the Church.

    Which is directly related to point 2: if she has not encountered any congregations that express those attitudes, she lives in a bubble.

    Last night I met a charming gentleman, now a pastor, social worker and tireless servant to his inner city community, who grew up in KY. He said his pastor refused to baptise him as a child because he asked too many questions.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog for awhile now – this is my first time commenting.

  6. Thanks for challenging some of the assumptions in that article. To assume that the perceptions of the church are not rooted in reality is to be not rooted in reality ourselves. Granted, some people are just operating off the perceptions and have never been inside a church to judge for themselves. But most have been in a church and don’t like what they experience. We created the perceptions. Worse, the behaviors in the popular perceptions still predominate the life of the church—mainline and others. We need to change them through the practices of our ministry.

  7. I have some similar experiences with Mercandante’s findings. Unfortunately the Church is not willing to acknowledge what we have done and at times what we have not done.

    Thanks for giving me some good food for thought to share with my session

  8. I had a crazy weekend, so I’m just now responding. Thanks, Teri, about the cover… and the hair! And, you have a great point about people who have not been to church. Roughly 18 percent of college students have never been to church, so I’m sure there is a lot to what you describe.

    I don’t mean to dump all the blame on our congregations, but I don’t think that we can have hope in a situation until we are able to point out our faults and plan on how we can change.

    Are we in congregations where SBNR people can feel comfortable in their questions? Do we make people conform to a certain set of beliefs before they can come to worship (think, for one, about our practicing of leading everyone to stand up and say the Apostles’ Creed)?

    I will say one thing… we used to put all the blame on the SBNR people. At least we’re not doing that any more.

    Thanks, all, for your insight.

  9. Pingback: I’m Spiritual But Not Religious… | Briargate Presbyterian Church

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