I’ve been reading with interest about the “nones” and the increasing number of people who identify themselves as SBNR — spiritual but not religious. Though I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.
Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.
As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.
As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them. Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.
I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.
In the New York Times best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown identifies a phenomenon she calls “the disengagement divide,” or values gap. It is the space between our “aspirational values,” those we claim to live by and our “practiced values,” the way we actually live. It’s the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The gap is inevitable, on both a personal and ecclesial level. But while the first one is manageable, the second is unwieldy to say the least.
On a personal level, we can take responsibility for the gap. We know that perfection isn’t possible, that we fall short each and every day. But if we are healthy and self-aware, we seek forgiveness and make amends. We get up and try again. Though it is a Sisyphean task, a majority of us strive to make the breach as small as possible.
Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.
I think it is the “disengagement divide” that the “nones” are fleeing more than anything. A few “nones” might have left the church because of bad music, or a lack of parking spots. A few more might have left because it wasn’t convenient, either to their psyche or their schedule. But I imagine that most “nones,” especially those who identify as spiritual, but not religious are leaving because “the disengagement divide” has become a chasm.
We call ourselves Christians. Right there in our name, we claim whom we follow, Jesus the Christ. That gives us a certain set of “aspirational values” to live up to. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but it does mean we mean have a lot to strive for. Above all, we have to love God and we have to love our neighbor as we have been loved by Christ himself.
Institutionally, we have not done that very well and we have not apologized very often, or taken the necessary steps to correct it either.
Instead, churches have created another sub-group: the “RBNS”s, who are “religious, but not spiritual.” Despite its best efforts, or perhaps because of them, religion has a way of becoming legalistic, of creating in and out groups, and when you are on the inside, it’s awfully tempting to let go of the struggle that true spirituality requires. Belonging to a religion can make it too easy to follow a list of rules and regulations and claim the perks that come with membership.
Spirituality on the other hand is a relationship, an encounter with the Divine that calls us to transcend this material world and the hold it has on us. It asks us to go deeper. It is through spirituality that we struggle with despair and hope, love and fear, doubt, and certainty. Journeying with the Holy Spirit in this way allows us to transform ourselves, our relationships, and hopefully the world around us, in a way that mere religion cannot.
Ideally, churches are there to hold us while we engage in this lifelong process, but when filled with members (or leaders) who are “RBNS,” our struggle is looked upon as a failure on our part. We are told we just need to “get saved,” or “confess our sins,” or simply trust that they’ve got it all worked out for us from a place of authority. If we would just fall in line, everything would be okay and if we can’t, because we are gay, or divorced, or want to talk about women’s ordination, or whatever is taboo in our religion, that’s when we head for the door.
I haven’t done so, not yet, and it saddens me that so many of my peers and the younger generation have done so. I understand it. I am not surprised by it, but I think we will all be sorrier for it. Our churches get more rigid without the leavening yeast of youthful creativity, passion, and resources. The “nones,” and the SBNRs relinquish the hard-won wisdom of their religious ancestors, forcing themselves to reinvent the spiritual immunizations that will keep their children mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy in this difficult world.
I think it comes down to community, another word that gets tossed around a lot in these conversations. Churches are crying out, “You need us! You don’t think you do, but you really do!” The “nones” are shouting back, “I’ve got my own community, thank you very much, and it’s way less hypocritical than yours!” There is truth in both of those statements.
We were made for connection and belonging. We need community to hold us together, to remind us of whom we are and what we are about, to lift us up when we falter, and praise us when we succeed. Church communities can do that better than any other when the gap between their “practiced values” and “aspirational values” is small. When Agape is the operative word in theory and in practice, we see Church and Community at their finest. But when the gap is large, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world to be in free-fall, knowing that the people who were supposed to love you in God’s name are nowhere to be found and are perhaps even the ones who gave you a shove off the ledge.
I know there are churches out there that do it differently. I have read hundreds of comments from men and women who want the “nones” to know that their church isn’t like that, that they love with their whole hearts and work earnestly to welcome and include everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, sure and not-so-sure. I’ve listened to sermons from their pastors, been witness to their diversity and cheered for the life-giving work they’ve done. I like to think my church falls into that category as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we have the word “Baptist” or “Catholic” or even the word “Christian” in our name, we are going to have an uphill row to hoe. Despite our protestations, we are associated with leaders who have not walked the talk and institutions that have allowed the “disengagement divide” to flourish for too long.
Though I’ve been on the ledge and even felt a nudge or two in the back, I’m not letting my “church” get rid of me that easily. I’ve benefitted too much from my religious background, education, and traditions to let it go. My community is the church, and the church is the people of God. I have far more faith, hope, and trust in them as individuals and as a group than I do in an institution, whose leadership is charged with protecting tradition and the status quo.
Through his work as a community organizer, President Barack Obama observed in Dreams from My Father that “communities are not a given in this country … Communities need to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expand or contract with the dreams of men” (and women I have to add).
I have big dreams for my community, the people of God, but I am pretty sure God’s dreams for us are even bigger. We have a garden before us, a plot of land to tend. I don’t want to fight against SBNRs, people who aspire to something beyond themselves. I want to fight with them to uphold the values that transcend our differences in religion, culture and language, values like love, grace, beauty, compassion, mercy, justice, and equality. I know that wherever those things are found, God is.
Alison Kirkpatrick is a blogger, speaker, and college writing instructor. She lives and worships with her family in San Diego, Calif. You can read more of her work on her blog, #Signs of Love.
Photo: Young woman at the sea, Nuiiko / Shutterstock.com