A significant theme of the gathering this year was thinking differently about the church in light of what sociology is telling us about church. People are participating less or not at all at higher rates than ever before. This is not news. The news is that many people are thinking and activing differently as a result.
The difficult part of this conversation is that there is some criticism offered for the church we know so well. It is easy to feel defensive or let down by the conversation. I don’t think we need to feel this way though because as challenging as the conversation is, listening offers some compelling possibilities to recognize new life and new ways of being the church if we are so willing.
So what is SBNR? It is Spiritual But Not Religious. Linda Mercadante, a professor of theology, can explain. She spoke to the culture of “spiritual but not religious” concept that has become a popular way of thinking about engaging one’s faith. “Religion” as something dogmatic, self-interested, institutional, and is set aside as unessential. In its place is th “Spiritual” what is understood as open, reasonable, and more relatable to life. While her talk was not entirely surprising, she offered a lot of data to back up what many know from lived experience in the church. Using this data, Mercadante pointed to the reality that SBNR people have not just left the church, many have stayed. Many have also become pastors.
Mercadante found that SBNR people were diverse in age (not just young), race, and background (education, income, etc). There were few complaints about the church as community. They were not narcissitic, non-committal, theologically shallow, or against belief. So why this phenomenon? Changes in social landscape, intellectual landscape, and a cultural shift on the “locus of authority” (no longer institutions).
Another speaker, Soong Chan Rah spoke about the changing face of Christianity. In many ways, he and Linda Mercadante’s ideas reinforced one another. He made one big, bad, bold point: diversity in the United States is not changing due to immigration, it is changing because of birth rates. We are a diverse nation with a higher rate of birth among non-white peoples (which began in 2011). So we must learn to be a diverse church. Such a large cultural shift, means people are listening to different voices that before. The church’s voice, to resonate, won’t simply be able to use one narrative in relationship to scripture, theology, and leadership. The challenge the church faces, is to mediate a wider set of narratives and metaphors that embrace a wider group of people. The church needs to be a diverse voice with diverse teachers and diverse mentors for leaders.
In terms of the church relating to these cultural shifts, Menticante said there is little value in blaming the church. Much of the change in religious climate is out the the control of the church. Her critique of the church suggested that took many faith communities have values that don’t speak to people who they would welcome and an attiude of self-interest too often creates dissonance with the same people. If church does not express its faith and values in a ways that does not seek to connect with people, the church will not connect. What does not speak honestly about faith without dogma, moralism, or exclusivism, will struggle to invite people to a deeper experience of faith. This seems obvious, but it is also where the church has fallen short. As a result, the cultural understanding of the spiritual task has become an individual, solo journey, which often prevents people from connecting to the resources that could offer a more developed and nuanced theology that roots a life of faith. The question she raised here was “What kind of God do [SBNR people] hear about?” Too often is one that the churches we know and trust don’t believe in either.
So what comes next? Read the next post for what I heard as the church’s responsibility.