by Robert Warren Cromey
Spiritual and formerly religious people are the church’s best bet for new members and growth.
Many people today proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. Others attend church from time to time and struggle with concepts of God, spirit, the Bible, Jesus, homosexuality, abortion, church and traditional beliefs in general. Some attended church as children and left after confirmation or when their family moved to another town, city, state or country. A remarkable number of young people today have never been to a church even for a wedding or funeral much less Sunday School or worship. Yet some say they are spiritual. I believe them.
SBNR equals I’m “Spiritual but not Religious.” When people are asked what they mean by being spiritual, the answers include:
I have a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of God as transcendent.
I want a sense of holiness and the divine in my life.
I want more love and forgiveness in my life.
We should have a better world. Food for the starving, homes for the homeless and justice for all.
I want a sense of family and community in my life.
I pray meditate, do yoga and appreciate nature.
I want peace in the world.
One of the biggest obstacles to joining a church is helping unlearn what people have learned in conservative, fundamentalist or Roman Catholic churches. They now call these teachings into question. The Bible is the big one. How could anyone believe in the Bible when it taught the world was created in seven days? Mary was a virgin and Jesus’ body was alive after he died? What does the word of God mean?
One woman said in frustration to her priest, “Just tell me what to believe.”
The priest replied, “I can’t do that, Linda. I can give you a way to look at what the churches have taught down through the centuries, then you have to decide what you believe.”
She said, “I don’t think I can do that.”
The priest said. “I see my religious belief as a work in progress. It has changed and developed over the years. It probably will refine as I get older. Belief is a journey.”
Linda joined the church, seeing it as a community of seekers.
Linda is like many people who have a sense that life is more than money, marriage, babies and accumulating. It was a vague awareness that her life’s meaning and purpose lay beyond the traditional values she had been taught in her fundamentalist church. She was taught about God, the Bible and Jesus. But it wasn’t enough. Her church gave her all the answers but did not minister to her spiritual needs. Her church also did not nurture her intellectual development and did not respond to the questions she asked about the meaning of the Bible, worship and sexuality.
At San Francisco Airport recently I got talking with a woman in her early thirties, a journalist, unmarried and pregnant. She said she was one of a growing new group Americans. She believed in some power above and beyond herself and this world. As a journalist she was most interested in the environment and thus she had a spiritual as well as political concern for the environment. Since she was pregnant she was aware of the mystical and awesome process of having a baby. She believed in love and concern for others. But she has always been skeptical of everything and did not like dogma handed down to her. Her family is Syrian Orthodox. We did not talk about that, but I assume that church has long boring liturgies in a foreign tongue. The doctrines and dogmas are set for her to believe without question.
The recovering fundamentalists and Roman Catholics and the SBNRs, those who say they are spiritual and not religious, are the seeking, searching people to whom our churches may look for new members.
The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church, retired and living in San Francisco.