Friday, August 7, 2015

Preaching to the “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Experienced and passionate preacher, Shawnthea Monroe, gives practical advice to preachers in communities where people who are estranged from the church may find their way into worshipping assemblies because of spiritual seeking. What is a preacher to do? This blog will let her speak of her own experience as an SBNR herself being confronted with vigorous and Christ-centered preaching. In two weeks, this blog will cover some of her tangible advice from her essay in Liturgy.
People who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) provoke mixed reactions from those of us who love the church. Having dedicated time, talent, and treasure to building up institutional Christianity, it is difficult to connect with those who seem blithely to dismiss organized religion as unnecessary or irrelevant. We can be defensive and even derisive, especially when someone professing to be SBNR returns to the church in a time of need. As an irascible Presbyterian once quipped, “I don’t care if you spend your Sunday mornings doing yoga, I just hope your Hatha instructor will do the graveside service for your mother.” Perhaps we feel like the elder brother in Luke’s Gospel: faced with the return of the prodigal, we are unwilling to join the party.
 In twenty years of ordained ministry, I have had my share of elder brother moments—like the Christmas Eve service where I began my meditation by looking out at the once-a-year capacity crowd and asking, “So where have you all been hiding?”
 . . . The task of preaching to those who are SBNR is one I take seriously because it was a sermon—one, single sermon—that brought me to faith. Raised outside the church by an atheist mother, I was taught to believe in the triune deity of 1960s counter-culture: reason, justice, and compassion. My experience with organized religion was limited to summer visits to my grandmother’s Methodist church and what I saw on television. (Remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?) Yet even though I did not have any formal religious education, I was a spiritual person from an early age. I believed in some sort of God, I tried to be a good person, and I even prayed on occasion.
 In the fall of 1987, my fiancé talked me into going to church. He was raised in the Lutheran church and felt that we needed to find some common ground on faith if we were going to marry. . . . The sermon text was the story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35–41) and in the course of his sermon, Dr. Jones touched on the geography of Galilee, the history of sailing ships, the theology of John Calvin, and the emerging AIDS epidemic. The moment the sermon was over, I turned to my fiancé and said, “We’re coming back here.” In the course of one sermon, I went from being spiritual but not religious to a hungry follower of Christ.
 Although my story may be unusual, the latest data on religious affiliation reveals that many people who characterize themselves as SBNR are open to something more. ( Furthermore, those who report “no religious affiliation” account for 20 percent of the American population, and research suggests this percentage will continue to increase. (See Linda A. Mercadente, Belief without Borders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 23.) 
Monroe insists that because we are called to “go and make disciples,” this must entail preaching so that people who are disengaged from what seems to them to be a confining and negative  religiosity can be welcomed to the richness of life in Christ Jesus. The primary vehicle Monroe offers is hospitality and she describes specific attributes of hospitable preaching that you may well want to know.

Stay tuned for more!

Shawnthea Monroe is the senior minister of Plymouth Church, United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She is most recently the coauthor of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress Press, 2009).

Shawnthea Monroe, “Preaching to the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,’” Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015), 23-31.

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