Spiritual But Not Religious? It Just Doesn't Work.

SBNR. The topic is a hot one in Christian circles today. "Spiritual but not religious."

A middle-aged woman who spends Sunday mornings on a hiking trail might say, "I'm spiritual ... but not religious." A young man who says he loves Jesus but hates the church might identify himself as SBNR. According to USA TODAY, 72 percent of Millennials describe themselves as "more spiritual than religious." Books talk about the end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening.

But guess what? I don't think that you can be truly spiritual without being religious. It just doesn't work. A sociologist of religion named Nancy Ammerman has finished a new study of religion in everyday life. She concludes that the SBNR is a unicorn. By this she means that it is a species that does not exist in reality.

Ammerman found that for most people, organized religion and spirituality are not two separate areas. Instead, they are one. The people who were "most active in organized religion," she discovered, "were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world." The bottom line is that religion supports spirituality. It's hard to have one without the other.

This link is nothing new. Go back to ancient Israel, and you find a woman named Hannah, deeply upset about her inability to have children. She decides to present herself before the LORD at the temple in Shiloh, a major sanctuary of the Israelites. Distressed and weeping bitterly, she prays to the LORD and promises that if she is able to have a male child then she will dedicate him to the service of God (1 Samuel 1:9-11).

This shows me that Hannah is both spiritual and religious. She trusts God deeply, demonstrating this by going to the temple and praying so intensely that Eli the priest assumes she is drunk (v. 13). She pours out her soul before the LORD, and promises to give God her son if he answers her prayer for a pregnancy. Like the people in Nancy Ammerman's research study, Hannah is active in organized religion and is also highly committed to spiritual practices. For Hannah, religion and spirituality are strongest when they stand together.

The challenge we face in the church is reaching the people around us who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Many of these SBNRs have good reason for avoiding organized religion. Author Rachel Held Evans reports that many young adults are rejecting evangelical Christianity for being:
- Obsessed with sex;
- Unconcerned with social justice;
- Too political, exclusive, and old-fashioned;
- Hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people;
- Unwilling to welcome people who are asking tough questions or wrestling with doubt.

She has a point. If this is true about the church, then being an SBNR makes perfect sense. But churches can be an excellent place to practice spirituality, if they are committed to being hospitable congregations that welcome all people with God's love and grace. Congregations are the best locations for "conversation and relationship" -- activities which researcher Nancy Ammerman says are critical to spirituality.

Hannah proves this point at the temple in Shiloh. She goes up to the house of the LORD, the setting of her spiritual life and practice (1 Samuel 1:7). She prays to the LORD in a time of deep distress, feeling a robust sense of sacred presence (v. 10). She engages the priest Eli, participating in a religious activity that allows for conversation and relationship (vv. 12-18). Even though Eli is downright rude to Hannah, she doesn't take offense. She sticks around and remains engaged. In the end, Eli says, "Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him" (v. 17).

Church needs to be a place where relationships with God and people can grow, whether the congregation is contemporary or traditional. Recent research reveals that 67 percent of young adults prefer a "classic" church over a "trendy" one, and 77 percent would choose a "sanctuary" over an "auditorium." Rachel Held Evans believes that young adults will run away from anything that feels inauthentic to them, including hip new churches that put "more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him." Authentic relationships are what Hannah was looking for, and what many SBNRs are hungry for as well.

The church I serve, Fairfax Presbyterian, recently suffered a terrible shock when a 34-year-old church member was killed in a car accident. Her death was a crushing blow to her mother, her brother, and her sisters, as well as to so many of us who knew and loved her. She always brought joy and energy to her volunteer work, especially to her work with children. But from the day of her death, the church community responded with deep love and compassion to her family. Visits were made, meals were delivered, and practical help was offered.

This kind of support is hard to find if you are spiritual but not religious. Spirituality grows best in community, in a network of authentic relationships. We deepen our faith when we follow Hannah to the Sanctuary and engage our fellow congregation members. When we do this, we are being both spiritual and religious, knowing that holding the two together is always the best way to grow closer to God and to each other.