The recently released PEW study showing diminishing numbers of members among some Christian churches and increases among others also named the growing percentage of people in Western societies that call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).
While an alarm is sounded on the part of many church leaders – and particularly at the local level where low numbers effect viability of congregations – the rise and drop in percentages may seem to others relatively small:
Evangelical Protestants down 0.9%
Roman Catholics down 3.1%
Mainline Protestants down 3.4%
Non-Christian faiths up 1.2%
Unaffiliated up 6.7%
The startling number for many is the last. These are the “spiritual but not religious” – often described as expressing a commitment to good work in their communities but not wanting to identify themselves with a formal, already-established religious institution.
Six scholars writing for Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015) offer many insights into the church’s relationships with people who do not want to belong to the institution. Fred P. Edie writes that SBNRs can be a gift to the church.
One researcher, Robert Gottlieb, suggests that SBNR exemplifies a form of truth-seeking and a way of conceiving of truth worthy of consideration. He contrasts logical/empirical truth with aesthetic or artistic truth and notes the SBNR preference for the latter. [Gottlieb, Spirituality @ http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/]
He describes the SBNR epistemological stance on religious truth as analogous to participating in the truth of great art. Such truth is experiential, often deeply affective. Its power is more to move its subjects to awe than to convince through argument. Moreover, in this account, truth is not exclusionary or singular.
. . . What makes scripture or Star Wars true . . . is the capacity to bring the reader into relationship with a truthful story. Gottlieb further suggests that this pragmatic approach to truth leads toward practical engagement for the SBNR: “The test of truth of religious claims is how well they help [the SBNR] understand and grow into the spiritual virtues.” Gottlieb finds no evidence of SBNR persons who wish only to theorize. Conceptualizing the truth is not the point; living a good life is. This stance potentially (but not inevitably) puts them at odds with certain theological accounts of truth.
My sense about this potential conflict is that both parties need to learn from one another. Individualists of all stripes need to concede that there is no such thing as free and autonomous self-creation. Only God creates ex nihilo. Social and cultural forces (or the saving grace of God contending with the principalities and powers) are always operative, even when one imagines that one is freely choosing one’s own life path. The church, especially its more dogmatic constituencies, could use some humility with respect to its perceived lock on truth. (When the church says, in so many words, “My way or the highway,” more and more young people are hitting the road). The SBNR alternative account of truth could serve the church well. Indeed, as I will suggest below, its version is actually operative in liturgical spirituality.
Finally, Gottlieb also helps us to appreciate that even as the SBNR reject the church’s exclusive claims to truth, they themselves seek to live truthful lives. To portray all the SBNR as self-serving consumers of feel-good, goose-bump experiences is to caricature them.
In turn, Edie says the church may demonstrate its most open and responsive side by inviting SBNRs into the deepest experiences of Christian mysteries: the sacraments.
Christian spirituality shaped through liturgical participation could help the SBNR and the church to become friends (again). But what is liturgical spirituality? It is first of all a form of religiosity shaped by sacramental practice. By sacramental I mean to include actual sacraments (two in my tradition, baptism and Holy Communion; more in others), but also a sacramental, more-than-meets-the-eye, intentional, expectant, and hopefully imaginative ethos for worship. These practices and this ethos, in turn, require and sustain, authorize and empower, ways of truthful living in the world.
Edie urges churches to attend to worship in ways that keep presiders and preachers mindful of humility in the face of our critics and welcoming in the presence of what may be yearning for meaning that the body of Christ can address.
. . . Liturgical spirituality . . . is anchored in ordinary material things but understands them to be infused with divine grace. It incarnates a faithful yet concrete vision of life in the world.
Fred P. Edie, “Doubling Down on Liturgy: Inviting the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ to Discover Sacramental Spirituality,,” Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015): 40-47.
Fred P. Edie is associate professor of the practice of Christian education at Duke Divinity School, and the author of Book, Bath, Table, and Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry (Pilgrim Press, 2007).