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?