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Over the last three Sundays we have considered the Spiritual But Not Religious Movement or SBNR. This past Sunday we considered what should be, if any, our response to SBNR.

Perhaps SBNR is a new religious movement or a new paradigm shift which the Church must respond to. We have seen this happen before in our Church history: the introduction of the Gospel to the Gentiles; the institutionalization of the Church; the rise of the Catholic Church; the Reformation; or the Great Awakenings. The Church has responded to these movements by redefining itself. Thus in a post-Christendom world things may look different for the Church in the future.

SBNRs are in many ways are at the forefront of the changes that are happening in society whether it be the changing patterns of social networking or the rise of individualism over community. Yet there is also an awareness of important issues like caring for our environment and our world; a respect for religious and cultural diversity; and challenging traditional paradigms of institutions of the state and religion.

I think that in many ways people are seeking to have some spirituality in their lives not because Church has failed them but the world is getting a lot smaller and it causes us a lot of anxiety. As most millennials do not have the benefit of a religious narrative they have to piece it together like someone collecting scraps of material and making a quilt.

I agree that separating out spirituality from religion is not the answer. Without the external and objective reference point of some orthodoxy one is left with a self-directed philosophy of life built around personal happiness and well-being. That is fine but it is center around the self as oppose to religions which direct the individual away from the self towards God.

Mercadante refers to this as the ‘cut-flower’ culture. A bouquet of flower is only beautiful for a limited time but will wither with time because the flowers have been cut off from their roots. Faith traditions, whether or not you agree with their doctrines, have long roots that dwell in the ground like a perennial plant that comes back to life each year.

It is our task not to criticize unfairly, point to the limitations, or minimize those who are SBNRs. Rather it is our task to help those SBNR’s that may find their way into a church to develop those roots and perhaps graft them on to our planted tradition.

SBNRs (and secularism) are wrong in their assumption in their analysis of religions:

  • They are not the cause of all wars and bloodshed;
  • Religions are not dogmatic and rigid and that we blindly assent to doctrines and liturgy
  • Religions say more about spirituality than the therapeutic models that many SBNRs ascribe to
  • Religions have and will attest to their prophetic calling and counter cultural challenges
  • Religions and denominations are not the same but diverse in their traditions

Religions are not about simply moralism, happiness and well-being in contrast to much of the SBNR practices. In contrast they seek to explain the parts of our lives that we experience in suffering, evil, forgiveness, reconciliation, or poverty. We do this not by focusing on ourselves but how we stand in relationship to God.

I think a problem is that main line churches have blended in with much of the western world. Churches respond by picking up on trends which minimize spirituality or we become like a bouquet of cut flowers:

  • Focus on health and welfare or being a social services entity
  • Minimize orthodoxies, creeds, and doctrines to the point that they don’t seem like their a church but a service club
  • Attempt to be practical, psychological, or individualistic such that they are not doing any theological or spiritual practices

What is lost in this formula to be contemporary is we are not true to our identity. I think we also lose out on the mystery and awe that many people are searching for in their lives. The danger is that we can slide into gimmicks that will not work. Simply offering up fun events is not sufficient as you can find that in every community. Offering devotional exercises is good but we must remember that SBNRs find these in many places.

Anglicanism is a denomination within a religion that that subscribes to Scripture, creeds, beliefs, but also a respect for reason and tradition. Tradition and reason are important in holding together people in their faith but it also gives them a sense of community (structure and discipline). This community is not static but dynamic and changing. I want to hold these views in tension with the ability to learn and understand more about SBNRs.

There is much that we can learn from SBNRs and we need to challenge ourselves in asking some questions:

  • Does the humanizing of God helps us to better understand a Trinitarian God? Does it make us rethink that the incarnation of Jesus not as some formula but God’s humble presence amongst us and to help in the healing of the world?
  • Does the focus on the environment and the wellness of the earth remind us that we need to be better stewards and why we were created in God’s image?
  • Do we take sin too seriously and not celebrate God’s grace enough?
  • Does their rejection of original sin make us think about what role we have to play in working together with God in righting this world?
  • Does the focus on the world and nature make us rethink how we should revere the Earth and God’s creation?
  • Does their respect for other religions and cultures make us think that there is a place at our tables for other religions? Can we talk about a blending of religious practices?

I think that within Anglicanism and what we are doing here at the Ascension that we are well place to learn and respond SBNRs. We can speak to them compassionately and sympathetically. We tend to be more ecumenical, multi-faith in orientation, and pluralistic. We have not swayed too far to an extreme then we give up the baby with the bathwater.

We need to hang onto the core message of our faith and tradition (corporately) but still living out are shared spiritual enthusiasm.

The vision of the Ascension must be:

  • That we focus on the disenfranchised, the lonely, and those in need.
  • We are intentional what we do in the community and don’t feel we need to be on some bandwagon (with other churches in our community) where we seem relevant.
  • We need to be confident and secure in our beliefs.
  • We need to be prophetic, spirit-filled, and devoted in our faith.

We need to remember that the SBNRs are a diverse group of people. Many may come into our church and many will leave our church. If we try to be all things to all people we will not reach them and we will not be true to ourselves (and more importantly we will fail as a church). Take comfort even if a few move from being a seeker to an immigrant to this church. Perhaps we may need to be more elastic in our thinking about membership:

  • Think of membership as being diverse and that we make space for anyone on a spiritual journey.
  • That there are those who gather with us from time to time and those who are fully committed.
  • Perhaps we need to sponsor cell churches, small groups, or home churches that tangentially need us from time to time.

Just remember it is not about making people members but helping them to transform their lives and produce mature, faithful Christians. We are not a consumer church that will do anything to appeal to surface needs and aim for customer satisfaction. We are in it for the long haul!

I like to end by considering some of the practical steps that we can take at the Ascension to come along side with the Spiritual But Not Religious:

  • Greater education or teaching to help with existential questions about life.
  • The ability to raise questions and express doubts.
  • Catechism of doctrines and creeds that make sense for our youth and adults.
  • Biblical authority must be understood not literally but in the context of reason, tradition, and experience.
  • A focus only on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit or one’s relationship with Christ fosters reliance on personal experience and not communal.
  • There must be a balance on mission and spiritual formation.
  • We need to do a better job of developing spiritual mentors, identifying spiritual gifts, training lay leadership, and welcoming the stranger.
  • We must be open to multi-faith dialogue and spiritual practices of other religions