by N. Graham Standish

 I’ve been a pastor for 24 years. Still, I privately classify myself as being “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right. No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more “in” religion than “of” religion. And due to the denominational conflicts I’ve experienced in my 24 years, I still find it hard to consider myself to be fully religious.

As a seminary student I clearly saw myself as being “spiritual but not religious.” That was part of my identity. I had gone to seminary not to become a pastor, but to supplement my counseling career. I was simultaneously getting a Masters in Social Work and believed that a seminary education would help me respond better to the spiritual issues that came up in counseling.

When I sensed a call to become a pastor, I acceded to it kicking and screaming, complaining to God that I didn’t want to be affiliated with achurch. For someone who sees him- or herself to be SBNR, the most deflating defeat possible is being too closely identified with a church. The only thing worse would be moving back in with my parents as an adult. Even now I sometimes wonder if I would become part of a church if I weren’t the pastor of a church.

Who Are the SBNR?

Over the past twenty years there has been a major emphasis on reaching the unchurched (who often are mostly the de-churched) among evangelicals, and to a smaller extent the mainline church. Despite this, both traditions have been poor at reaching the SBNR. Why? Generally because the people leading the efforts tend to love the church. Also, many of the SBNR are drawn to Eastern religions and New Age thought, and experience Christianity as being averse to anything Eastern. Thus, those in the church tend to be somewhat insensitive to those who are reticent about church. I suppose my interest in the SBNR is that I still feel like I am SBNR.

What makes the SBNR different and so difficult for churches to reach? There are a number of qualities that are important to recognize.

First, people who identify themselves as SBNR are very skeptical of hard and fast theological constructs about God presented by many, or even most, Christians. They don’t trust theologies, philosophies, and ideologies that can have logical holes poked in them, whether it’s Jesus’s virgin birth, the resurrection, theologies about salvation, judgment or atonement. The SBNR tend to be post-modern, and thus are extremely suspicious of any ultimate truth claims. Being “spiritual but not religious,” they gravitate toward spiritual explanations grounded in experiences, rather than toward theological explanations grounded in rational speculation. This skepticism makes them a difficult population for the mainline church to reach because we in the mainline church tend to love theological speculation, discussion, and reasoning. What we offer is our theology, yet they are skeptical of theology, seeing it as dogma.

The SBNR are spiritual in orientation, not theological or religious. Thus, any approach to them that diminishes the spiritual in favor of theological understanding or religious practice will fail. By virtue of being “spiritual,” they seek an experience of God, not thought about God or rituals that feel devoid of God. In the mainline church we struggle with the spiritual. Our seminaries rarely hire professors trained in Christian spirituality, or who are adept at teaching spiritual practices, spiritual sensitivity, awareness, and discernment. So we pastors and church leaders aren’t trained in articulating our faith in a spiritual language that’s compatible with the “spiritual but not religious.”

Also, the evangelical outreach that is so often tied to the Christian theological practice of apologetics, an approach that tries to rationally convince people that Christianity is right (so appealingly exemplified in the writings of C.S. Lewis) actually has the opposite effect. Because apologetics tend to be rationalistic in nature, it turns off the SBNR. The SBNR don’t believe they are logically challenged or confused. They believe they “get” Christian theology. They just don’t buy it because they haven’t experienced it to be true, at least not in the way that they experience Eastern beliefs to be true. Rational arguing doesn’t work. They want experience, not logic. So a logical emphasis comes across as being overly “heady.” The challenge for us is offering theology grounded in a spiritual experience. The question is how we articulate our faith in a way that taps into spiritual experience. The answer reminds me of how St. Patrick introduced the idea of the Trinity to the Celtic people, saying that God had already showed them the Trinity through their beloved shamrock—three leaves that make one plant.

Second, the SBNR are willing to listen to all sides, and therefore could be considered to be the “spiritual but also a bit agnostic and atheistic at times.” The SBNR tend to be perspectival—they want to consider religious and theological beliefs from a variety of perspectives. They will consider Christian beliefs, but not when they are told they are the only valid beliefs. When faced with Christian ultimatums, they’ll generally choose to deny Christian beliefs. They will accept a Christian point of view as long as they feel as though they are being respected and not coerced. The question is how we share Christian faith in a way that respects other perspectives, while inviting them into our perspective.

Third, they want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true. Their approach to learning about God and the purpose of life tends to be spiritual, and thus experiential. In many ways it could be considered somewhat kinesthetic. They want to learn truth by touching it, smelling it, and tasting it. For example, they will accept Christ as a reality, but only if we find a way to help them understand their experience of God as an experience of Christ. So, articulating an understanding of Christ from John’s Gospel, where it speaks of Christ as being the incarnation of God in us (John 15), may make more sense to them than treating God as transcendent and apart. Many of them have been influenced by New Age thought, which tends to be a mish-mash of theologies culled from Eastern, Christian, sociological, and psychological sources. It’s an approach to spirituality that tends to be highly personal and self-developmental. So talking of Christ and the Spirit as being within us in a personal, self-actualizing way makes a lot of sense to them. Of course, what makes it hard for Christians to respond in these ways is that often we denigrate the spiritual, personal, and self-actualizing, calling them “navel-gazing.” If that’s how we think, then we’ve written off this population from ever becoming part of our church, or the Christian faith. And we’ve also written off the part of Christian faith that is spiritual, personal, and self-actualizing.

Fourth, SBNR folks tend to be sensitive to any form of hypocrisy, especially moralizing hypocrisy. When they see priest or pastor scandals in the face of the church’s obsession with homosexuality, they get turned off. When they see Christians divorce at high rates, while at the same time criticizing the unmarried who are living together, they get turned off. Everything we do that fails to live up to the high standards they see us proclaiming turns them off to Christian faith. The SBNR are also very sensitive to our internal hypocrisies, especially when we violate Scripture by upholding Scripture.

For example, whenever they see us as being judgmental they get turned off because they know that Scripture tells us “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). A relatively recent study by two Barna Group (an evangelical social research organization) researchers, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, titled UnChristian, demonstrated how we Christians are seen. They polled 16-29 year-old non-Christians, and below is what they found.1Their perspectives match those of many SBNR.


91% say we are antihomosexual

87% say we are judgmental

85% say we are hypocritical

78% say we are old-fashioned

75% say we are too involved in politics

72% say we are out of touch with reality

70% say we are insensitive to others


Finally, they are cautious about being identified too much with a religion. They see the practice of religion as inhibiting the pursuit of the spiritual, and of a direct relationship with God, the Divine, the Higher Power, or whatever they may call God. Their criticisms are accurate. The reason the statement “spiritual but not religious” gains so much traction with them is that many of our churches are “religious but not spiritual.” We seem to care more about our rituals, traditions, budgets, and buildings than about a relationship with God. Many mainline churches really don’t emphasize prayer practices, discernment, or the spiritual journey. Our church has attempted to be “spiritual AND religious,” but that’s a tough sell to those who are skeptical of church.

Reaching the SBNR

So how do we create a church that reaches the SBNR? I can only claim to be a partial expert—or perhaps just an interested thinker—on this. I estimate that about 25% of our church once or do consider themselves to be SBNR. Their participation in our church was captured by the comment of one of our SBNR members as we both left a small group: “I still can’t believe I go to church and that I even say that I’m Christian every once in a while.” Let me share some approaches we’ve adopted that seem to make a difference.

First, our preaching takes an approach articulated by another SBNR member: “Most churches tell you what to think. Calvin Church encourages you to think.” Many churches, both conservative and liberal, push a particular point of view, while simultaneously implying that those who disagree with them are misguided at best and have imperiled souls at worst. An alternative is preaching that emphasizes a respect for different points of view, while also presenting a Christian point of view in a way that invites them to consider it and try it on for themselves. We try very hard not to preach in a way that indoctrinates. Instead, we teach spiritual practices designed to help people open up to God. We explore how shifts in attitudes and perspectives can open them up to God. We use stories emphasizing people’s experience of God and how it has transformed them. We don’t push a political point of view or an agenda other than opening people to an experience of God. Remember that these are people whose main focus is being spiritual, but not religious, so preaching needs to emphasize the spiritual. For a further exploration of this, please see my book In God’s Presence.2

Second, our emphasis is on relationships rather than on truth. We believe that healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing. Many churches emphasize the acceptance of a certain set of theological “truths,” articulated either through creeds or through a particular “biblical” viewpoint. For example, just in becoming a member of a church, most denominations require new members to assent to a particular set of theological truths in order to join, such as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say “yes,” even if I don’t know quite what the means, or do I wait till I know what it means? And what if I never know what that means?

Many churches want people to accept a set of truths first, then become part of the community. Our experience is that the SBNR will eventually assent to some of those truths only after becoming part of the community and experiencing these truths to possibly be true. When we expect people to have their Christian beliefs set before joining, we end up creating obstacles. Our experience is that most of the SBNR are incredibly reluctant to join anything that could restrict their spiritual exploration. So they will only join after they experience an openness and acceptance of who they are and what they believe. This means we have to adapt our new member practices. We have to balance between what we hold to be true and their need to experience truth. Perhaps this is why it typically takes from two to five years for these folks to eventually join.

Third, we need to realize that while Christian language and articulations help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that common language also creates a barrier for the SBNR. Many of them are much more comfortable with New Age spiritual and Eastern religious language. This requires a willingness to recognize different languages in expressing faith and learning to respond in a way that expresses tolerance and openness to them. In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language. For example, when the SBNR talk about meditative practices, do we recognize that these are more or less the same as what we call contemplation? Can we introduce them to our understanding of discernment through their talk of dreams, visions, and signs? If they are talking about their experiences of God, but they keep calling it their “Higher Power,” do we correct them, or demand that they use the name “Christ”?

Fourth, their emphasis is on an experience of God rather than an ideology of God, so do we emphasize the experience of God in our worship, teachings, practices, and organization? They want experiences, not platitudes, speculation, or abstractions. They will come along if we offer rituals, practices, and preaching that leads to experience. If not, they will not stay for long. Many do seek out churches because they are seeking a more profound, communal experience. Unfortunately, they visit for a bit and walk away disappointed when they experience empty-feeling religious practices and theological speculation rather than a spiritually vibrant encounter with God. What a healthy Christian church offers is all three—religious practice, theological teachings, and spiritual experience. But if we are lacking the spiritual part, they will walk away from the rest. They seek spirituality. What do we offer that’s spiritual in the way they seek?

Finally, we need to be patient and accepting when they disappear and reappear after a long absence, which will happen. Most SBNR don’t trust the church. They don’t trust institutions. They don’t trust that we are authentic. They worry that we will disappoint them like every other religious person (in their mind) has. So we have to learn to be people who treat them like lost sheep—who are willing to bend over backwards to treat them tenderly. I make it a point to be excited when they return, and to be non-judgmental when they disappear. I don’t have to go overboard, but I will be like the father welcoming the prodigal son’s return.


This just scratches the surface of reaching the SBNR. What I see lacking is ongoing conversation about this. We treat the unchurched as though they are monolithic and all the same, but they aren’t. Some are deeply open to an experience of God. The question is whether we are willing to adapt so that we can help offer that experience. Are we in the mainline church willing to try to reach them?


1. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), Kindle Edition, Location 248. 

2. N. Graham Standish, In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship (Alban Books: Herndon, VA 2010), 71-74 and 100-105.

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