A letter to the SBNR

Instead of spending so much energy trying to repackage religion for the religious “nones,” maybe churches should focus on being faithful to God.

By Amy Butler

Dear Spiritual But Not Religious Friends,

Are your ears burning? You’re causing quite a stir in my circles these days. Many of my colleagues claim you are the biggest challenge of the church today.

You probably didn’t know this was going on. You are Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) and most of us talking about you all the time are Spiritual And Also Religious.

No offense, but the endless strategizing about you is getting a bit wearisome to me, so I wondered if we could have a frank conversation.

As I am sure you’ve noticed, the institutional church in America is in decline. All the studies show this is true. I myself like to think of it as “change” or “transformation,” but whatever you call it, our numbers are down and church as we’ve known it looks different these days. This makes all of us church professionals kind of nervous.

Because of your growing presence and influence, our instinctive response to these trends is to do everything we can to try to make you happy -- because if we can figure out how to do that, well, then we can get church back to the way it always was, right?

You may have noticed all the effort currently being expended to bring you into the fold. Some of us are apologizing profusely for the failings of the institutional church and its people. Others are packaging church in innovative and exciting ways (yet again), hoping to catch your attention.

I understand that being SBNR is the latest and coolest way to talk about spirituality these days. And a spiritual designation must be important, since you have to choose one on your Match.com profile. But when we talk about yours, I don’t even know what it means.

Maybe it means seeing God in sunsets and going to yoga class. What I really think is that identifying as SBNR is just a trendy way of saying you believe what you want and practice it whenever you feel like it with whomever you choose, or not. And that’s how you prefer it.

Many of you have told me you’re done with the church. What you see as an ineffectual and often destructive presence in the world has led you to wash your hands of the formal institution. You’re just not going to put up with it anymore. No societal norm says you have to.

You’ve seen the church do too much harm. Pastors are running around embezzling money and sleeping with the church secretary. Churches hate gays. Women cannot lead in the church. You must believe a certain way and not ask questions. People are so mean to each other at church. Have you seen those people from Westboro Baptist Church?

All of these things are true in some churches, and also in some of any other human institution or group. But all of the apologizing we’ve been doing on behalf of the church is exhausting to me.

You’re smart. You know as well as we do that there are many healthy, justice-minded, welcoming and mission-focused communities of faith. They may not be the norm, but they’re around. And you know how to use the Internet, so I don’t think finding a church that isn’t corrupt and exclusive is really the issue, is it?

The thing is, SBNR folks, you may know more about what we’re supposed to be doing than we do. I mean, church -- if it’s done right -- involves inconveniences like missing brunch with friends on Sunday morning, money that could be spent elsewhere given away, old people calling you by the wrong name and occasionally boring sermons.

Being transformed and transforming the world together takes commitment and hard work. It’s a messy engagement that sometimes hurts. It’s caring and sticking around, changing systems and continuously inviting a world in desperate need to witness communities of transformation and prophetic witness.

It’s a fair question to ask why you would add that kind of inconvenience to your life if you didn’t have to.

But I want to tell you that despite our collective panic attacks here on the Spiritual And Also Religious side of things, I am increasingly finding myself less and less interested in trying to find just the right song and dance to make you wake up one day and want to be part of a faith community.

It’s not you. It’s me. I just think that finding a way to be popular again may not be the most pressing work of the church these days.

I suggest to my angst-ridden colleagues that your blatant rejection of the church, rather than a challenge to us to scramble for new ideas and back peddle when churches screw up, is actually a glimpse of what the church of the future will be: less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange.

I hear you when you say the church is irrelevant. I get that you don’t care what we’re doing to catch your attention. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to what you’re saying to us and believe that you mean what you say. And then we’ll stop trying to package the institution to make it palatable and just get busy leading the church to faithfully do its work in the world.

I just wanted you to know that I’m not ignoring you. I’m just tired of talking about you constantly in every professional forum I encounter, and I’m exhausted by all the effort expended to manufacture some version of church that will entice you. So I think I’m going to stop.

I’m going to take you at your SBNR word and believe you when you say the church is irrelevant to you. And I’ll just keep on trusting that the message of Jesus will keep calling to us all, inviting whomever is up for the challenge to join right in. You are welcome anytime, occasionally boring sermons and all.

And even though I’m not talking about you incessantly anymore, I hope you’ll still invite me to brunch once in awhile. On Saturday.

Love,

Amy

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