You’ve heard me say the top answer to being asked one’s religious affiliation in 2015 is “none of the above”. The “nones” are a whole new order in our secular day. Also, you’ve heard me say “spiritual but not religious” has become today’s trendiest self-designation for the unchurched.
A recent book by respected sociologist Nancy Ammerman calls into question whether that truly means anything. Her Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life claims that “spiritual but not religious” a unicorn. That is, SBNR is a religious species that doesn’t exist.
Ammerman found that for most organized religion and spirituality aren’t two separate realms, but one. Respondents who were “most active in organized religion were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.” Those who invoke the division between religion and spirituality turn out to be neither. Such language is what sociologists call boundary-maintaining discourse. That is, it’s how those who want nothing to do with religion say “don’t bother me” or “I have handled this in a much cooler way than you have as part of your church.”
What’s interesting is how the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is readily accepted as legitimate when it really turns out to be nothing. Why is that? Well, for one the media lack the knowledge and experience to effectively report on something so complex as religion. Lacking here, they typically pretend houses of worship don’t exist. That is odd considering that more attend church on one Sunday in America than attend football games in an entire season. Hard to ignore a group so big. With SBNR media individualizes what is communal: living out our faith.
Or perhaps, in a day when religious categories can no longer be as facile as Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, in a day when the old categories and distinctions no longer work, we seek new ones. The bogus distinction between the religious and the spiritual is a flawed attempt to do just that. But it does get at something real that has changed–namely, that religion has been deregulated.
You’ve also heard me say the community, and not the individual, is the essential unit of faith. That truth has been underscored by Ammerman’s findings. So what does all of this mean to us?
Our appeal in inviting others to join us is not consumeristic catering to and fulfilling individual need, which shifts with every wind. It is like chasing a unicorn. The heart of our appeal is for others to walk with us as God’s people, despite our flaws, in a spiritual journey; to live in the joy of God’s mercy and grace suffusing our lives as we discover our belovedness as children of God.
One such occasion of joy is before us this Sunday: our Jazz “Fat” Sunday. It is one of our most popular Sundays. It is an easy access point for those unused to what we do here. It establishes a keynote of abiding joy despite how serious we can get about the brokenness of today’s world.
That matters because the unchurched carry an image of church as glum and judgmental. Just watch the parodies of church life in movies or television. You know what? Bring a visitor this Sunday and watch how surprised they are by what transpires here. Of course, that is not only true this Sunday. It’s also true every Sunday. I love what you exude as you welcome visitors. It is at the heart of the gospel and it will outlast all manner of falsehood uttered across generations.