by Richard Bass

Thanks to all our readers for their continued interest in that most fascinating of human organizations, the congregation. At Alban, we don’t make particular faith claims—we can’t, our constituency is too broad. And we don’t tell you how you should organize yourself or which faith claims you should embrace—we have learned over time that the important thing is that they help you pursue mission and find meaning in a world that sometimes seems determined to undermine both.

We have also learned that times change, that difficulties emerge, and that active engagement is much better than passive acceptance of whatever may come. We hope that the articles in this issue will help you pursue that engagement and make a difference in your congregation, your community, and the world.

Graham Standish’s article—”Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious”—takes on a topic that we’ve all been hearing about for quite a while. The rise of the “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, has been the cause of quite a bit of hand-wringing, not to mention haranguing, among religious professionals. Graham’s article is a plea for this to stop, and for engagement to begin.

The article was difficult to illustrate. The designer’s first attempt—a woman on a beach admiring a frankly glorious sunrise—was rejected because it was a cliché, and the basis for more than one dismissal of the spiritual but not religious. The second, which I suggested, was of a woman meditating, but I ultimately rejected that as well since it made what is a common identity into one of more exotic practice. Finally, I realized that I was marginalizing what is actually a very common identity. The SBNR are not the other; they are us. Or at least they look like us. And like Graham, I am confident that they are in our congregations—and that we should attempt to welcome more.

As we have tried to maintain the distinction between “spiritual” and “religious,” we have built walls between what should be complementary identities. Religion, its supporters say, is about community, while the SBNR are overly individualistic. Meanwhile, the SBNR say, religion is about rules and exclusion while spirituality allows them to connect on a deep level with the divine and all humanity. We all know that these are distortions, and we perhaps purposefully or perhaps unconsciously assign the worst aspects of each to the other, and the best to our own.

This is unhelpful and, I’d suggest, poor missional practice. The religious and spiritual landscape is not a battle between bores and bigots, it is a rich and ever-changing setting in which people are trying to find meaning and help each other flourish. Congregations themselves have flourished when they have been able to participate—lead, even—in this great pursuit of meaning and purpose.

So, the next time you hear someone describe him- or herself as spiritual but not religious, try not to roll your eyes or curl your lip or get defensive about your community (I’ve done all of these things at one time or another, if not usually openly). Instead, demonstrate to them that the spiritual and the religious should be friends, and maybe you should be too.

Richard Bass
Director of Publishing

Congregations, 2013-03-22
2013 Issue 1, Number 1