Rural churches have a window of opportunity to invite people to belong—the sweet spot of the overlap between spiritual and religious. Yes, I am including religious in the invitation, something that the rural church should be an expert in—but she often sends the wrong message. We freak out about how the “sky is falling” with the “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) phenomenon. Our reaction to SBNR is that rural residents are leaving the “religious” church behind in droves. In reality, we need to slow down enough to assess what is actually possible. For those of us familiar with the “Chicken Little” fable, you realize I just called us a bunch of chickens.
Richard stared into his empty coffee mug for a good 30 seconds before he spoke. “I’d have to say that I’m spiritual but not really religious.” He paused as he looked up to make eye contact with me. “I believe, I really, truly believe . . . it just might not look like what you expect.”
Richard’s sincere description of his faith is a growing phenomenon in America, yet I am not convinced that we know what Richard’s words truly mean. I am not all too sure that Richard really understands what the phrase “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) means.
Does SBNR mean that he believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but is skeptical of belonging to a church because of old wounds? Does it mean that he believes in a higher power or some sort of spiritual force out there but not Christianity? Does it mean that he is all about Jesus Christ and participating in his local church but wants to convey that faith is “a relationship but not religion,” a born-again experience that is more than doing good works?
With the increasing identification of SBNR in rural America, the rural church needs to better understand what SBNR means, and how the church is an accomplice in the phenomenon.
The percentage of Americans who self-ascribe as SBNR, spiritual but not religious, is continuing to grow. Over one quarter of Americans (27%) describe themselves in this way, which is an eight-percentage point rise since 2012. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religious and spiritual is declining, now representing less than half of Americans (48%), a nine-percentage point drop since 2012. We see SBNR clearly manifest itself in our rural communities where many will self-identify as a Christian, or at least a God-fearer, but a shrinking number are likely to connect deeply with a church.
What might be even more surprising is that this change is happening among older Americans as well. We anticipate that people will become more engaged with faith as they age—it is a long standing trend, but it is increasingly reflecting the focus on spirituality over religion. At age 65, 21% of respondents stated that religion was extremely important in their life, rising to 32% of respondents by age 72. That is an impressive rise, unless compared against spirituality. At age 65, 21% of respondents stated that spirituality was extremely important in their lives, rising to 37% by age 72.
What Does it Mean?
Richard said that he was spiritual but not religious. He did not readily offer up the specifics of what that means. That is the problem with that label.
Social science research has increasingly framed “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) as a growing phenomenon. The implicit and explicit message captured in this research is that SBNR is a movement toward privatized faith. That cultural trend does not bode well for inviting people to church in our rural communities, if the trend is being defined correctly.
The root of SBNR points back to the intersection of believing and belonging—as people lean toward spirituality rather than religion, they maintain or increase in their self-ascribed belief, but no longer belong to a church. Grace Davie famously brought the modern phenomenon of SBNR to the forefront with the catch phrase of “believing without belonging.” One can believe in God but largely reject the church. Two questions emerge in response to the growing emphasis on SBNR: 1) are people consistent in what they mean when self-identifying as spiritual or religious, and 2) is the distinction between spiritual and religious truly binary?
People are about as consistent in their use of the words “spiritual” and “religious” as they are in saying that the weather is “cool” or “warm.” Think about how we use cool and warm—a hardy Midwesterner might think that 60 degrees is warm spring weather, while someone from the southern tip of Florida will think it is less than cool. There is also within individual variability with these terms. That same Midwesterner will consider 40 degrees to be warm weather in February, unless it is the temperature of their living room.
Clearly, there is variability of “warm” and “cool” which limits their usefulness as labels. The same is true for spiritual and religious. While someone might use the “Spiritual but not Religious” (SBNR) statement to say that they do not go to church, conservative Protestants might use that same SBNR phrase to emphasize that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is necessary over cultural Christianity. The “religion” that these conservatives are separating themselves from is very different than the “religion” that the “nones” and “dones” are referring to.
Even the word “believe” has radically different connotations. A Christian might use it as a means of talking about devout spirituality while a skeptic might use it as a way of describing superstition, which would still get lumped in as spirituality. Likewise, the word “belong” can represent a positive identity with a group, or in the opposite direction it can serve as a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian structure where the individual loses their own voice.
Spiritual and Religious
So SBNR is not a phrase with consistent meaning—but what can we as rural churches learn from the increasing use of this phrase? “Spiritual” consistently refers to a privatized experience. The word is to indicate what someone does on their own. At the same time, spiritual is not necessarily distinct from the religious group that the individual identifies with. An individual’s privatized experience necessarily overlaps with the religious activity of a group.
“Religion” focuses on organized tradition. For Christians, this is generally some sort of reference to a local church. Yet, participation in the local church does not mean that the individual avoids privately oriented expressions. Religion lacks authenticity without an accompanying “spiritual domain.”
Thus, there is not a binary distinction between spiritual and religion—they actually overlap, even with the different nuances that people give to these words. The key to note is that people experience different overlaps of religiosity and spirituality. Some will attend worship services yet practice few spiritual disciplines in their home. Some will rarely attend a worship serve, yet fervently prayer and consistently read their Bible.
The window of opportunity for the church is to invite people into an overlap of spiritual and religious. That is an opportunity that the church should be an expert in—but often sends the wrong message.
What Should We Do?
- Stop talking about only a privatized faith experience. When we focus our gospel message as solely “Jesus and me” we send the clear message that Christian community is extra credit. Should it come as a surprise that people subsequently end up satisfied with the truncated experience of “Spiritual But Not Religious”? As much as we want to complain about people who do not regularly participate in church, we need to look at how we have invited them. Often, we have invited them into a privatized experience with God, and the only reason to join with other people is if they have a problem or difficult situation that needs to be worked through. This might be especially significant for rural churches plowing the hard ground of remnant Christendom where there is a need to push through the culture of American civil religion—but we must not leave the blessing of organized religion behind as we call for personal renewal.
- Watch out for glow words. When someone says that they “believe in Jesus” that might not mean what we think. The focus on spirituality gives license to people to make their own religious framework without reference to what words and phrases have historically meant. Rather than just being irritated that someone is not attending a Bible Study or worship service, we should listen to what they say. When we start to understand what they actually mean by spirituality and like terms, we can better understand how to invite them. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to SBNR.
- Invite into authentic ritual. Some readers might be frustrated that this has not been a head on theological or ecclesiological attack on SBNR. There is plenty of fodder to make this possible. However, it does not seem likely that debate is going to be winsome to someone who has a negative impression of church. There is a need for experiential understanding rather than a battle of concepts. Afterall, the specifics of spiritual and religious are so messy, the likelihood of a fruitful debate of these terms is unlikely. We need to invite people into the experience of authentic ritual.
Invite Them to Experience Religion: Authentic Ritual
Counter-intuitive approach? Yes, inviting people into religion when it is increasingly cast in a negative light seems dubious at first. But, it is a straight-on approach to addressing SBNR and the negative impact on churches.
Experience opens the door to grasping the beauty of religion once again–providing a taste of what the good surrounding the term actually is. The key is to avoid inviting someone to the wrong thing. Clearly, none of us want to invite someone to a staid experience which is so cold and ritualistic that someone’s negative preconceptions of religion are reinforced.
At the same time, if we invite someone to a church function which is essentially a privatized spiritual experience, we have done the same. If we invite someone to an experience where they are within a group of people, but simply consume everything in their own bubble, there is no reason that they cannot have the same experience completely on their own.
We often turn the conversation at this point to fellowship and the importance of Christian community. That is good and right, but it often throws a therapeutic Christianity vibe. If you join the group, you will feel better, overcome something, grow deeper friendships. This is all true, but again casts the image of community as extra credit—if you want it.
Along with inviting into Christian fellowship, there is a need to invite into ritual. Zoinks, for some of us that ritual word is scary, giving a picture of rote practices that are lifeless and lacking vibrancy. There are indications that “religious dones” who have left the church are especially responsive to invitations to opportunities where they can discover the significance of rituals that they associate with Christianity, such as the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer or the context surrounding the Lord’s Supper. They do not want a chaplaincy experience of being made comfortable, they want to be challenged with a new understanding or application, especially if it transforms their childhood religious socialization. Some success stories involve “low tradition” churches utilizing creeds and catechisms in the worship service. The success lays in explaining those traditional rituals and connecting them with Scripture and life application.
The rural church has plenty of opportunity to invite. The question is if our invitation will feed into the Spiritual But Not Religious phenomenon, or if we will move towards a much needed correction.
 Lipka, Michael and Claire Gecewicz. 2017. “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.” April 6. Pew Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/. Accessed November 9, 2021.
 The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) has followed one cohort since 1957, making it one of the longest continuous studies of its kind in the United States (Herd et al., 2014, 36). The WLS has followed 1957 Wisconsin high school graduates through mail surveys, phone interviews, and in-person surveys over successive waves based on a random sample of 1/3 of the total graduates. Participants were born between 1938 and 1940 and 2/3 have continued to live in Wisconsin throughout the waves of study (Herd, Pamela, Carr, Deborah, and Carol Roan. 2014. “Cohort Profile: Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS).” International Journal of Epidemiology. 43: 34-41. 34, 35). Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). 2020. “Graduates, Siblings, and Spouses: 1957-2020.”
Version 13.08. Machine-readable data file. Hauser, Robert M., William H. Sewell, and Pamela Herd as Principal Investigator(s). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, WLS. http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/documentation/
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 Greene, Carl P. 2021. “U.S. Baby Boomers Experiencing Increased Christian Religiosity: The Influence of Age, Period, Cohort, and Rural Context.” PhD Diss. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. For more information, contact Carl Greene at: firstname.lastname@example.org