Living the SBNR Lifestyle

            A while back, pastor Lillian Daniel got in some hot water for an article she wrote called, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”  Daniel said that people who wore the SBNR mantel did so as a copout, an easy way to keep from getting messy in community with others. After all, it’s a lot easier to see God in a sunset that in the curmudgeon who sits near you on Sunday morning.

            Unfortunately, the category of SBNR is growing in America. More and more people are claiming to have a spiritual connection with God, but not identifying with the human institution of religion. Being SBNR is a great conversation-stopper. How do you argue with someone after they make this claim? Isn’t everyone’s spiritual life personal? Far be it from me to judge someone else’s definition of their relationship with God. If God speaks to them through meditation and nature hikes instead of sermons and invitations to offering, so be it. They have their race to run and I have mine.

            Except… I can’t let go of the fact that God created us to be together. In the very first part of Genesis, when God is making hippos and hyacinths and humans, God calls everything good. Except… “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). So God creates a companion, which literally means “with bread,” as in we’re not supposed to do stuff like eat or break bread alone. There’s no communion in isolation.

            There are a lot of pitfalls in the SBNR lifestyle. One of them is we are susceptible to thinking we can reverse the Creation Story by making God in our image. Without a community to balance us, our theology can stray toward the selfish, and before you know it God wants us to have all the things we want to have. What a coinky-dinky! SBNRs easily succumb to what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, in which the most important truth about God is that God wants us all to be nice, feel happy, and to be delivered from pain. Outside of being available when needed, God will not interfere much.

            But true faith means being willing to have God interrupt the tidiness of our lives with homeless people rattling cans for change and obnoxious people looking for acceptance. When we give ourselves the power to draw the parameters around God’ s presence in our lives, we very easily create boundaries that do a better job of keeping God out than in. And when something like a school shooting or Supreme Court ruling knocks down our SBNR walls, we may realize that God was never inside, but always outside.

            Another danger of claiming the SBNR label is that when the going gets rough, one truly is the loneliest number. I understand the hesitation to be involved with organized religion. I work in a church; believe me, I get it! But for every sleep-inducing committee meeting I’ve attended, I could tell ten stories about how the church lived up to its calling to be God’s hands and feet through a casserole dish or a soft shoulder. For every harsh glare at a crying baby during worship, I can recall 20 instances of people showing incredible grace and compassion to their hurting church family. In a religious community, when you fall down, someone is there to pick you up. But when your distaste for organized religion keeps you from getting your hands dirty in a community, then when you fall down, the only way back up is by yourself, or with the shaky crutch of the inadequate God you’ve constructed. I’d rather risk being uncomfortable in a community than happy and alone.

            The last reason that SBNR shouldn’t be considered as a legitimate category of faith is that folks who aren’t a part of a congregation miss out on some of God’s greatest gifts, like Easter lilies and baptisms and hymn sings and potlucks. Sure, they also miss out on parking lot conversations and long-winded sermons and pledge campaigns. Hey, God never said that not being alone would be easy. That’s what happens when we humans decide we want to be together. Things get organized (not always the way we want); decisions get made (not always the way we want); people congregate and do stuff (not always the stuff we want). And God shows up. Because as any member of a poorly attended Bible study will remind you, “Where two or three are gathered…” But the Bible doesn’t say what happens when one person decides to go it alone. Maybe because God never thought we’d be foolish enough to try it.

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9 responses to “Living the SBNR Lifestyle

  1. bfbfla@comcast.net

    WooHoo! You are rockin’ and rollin’! There is so much energy in this post that if we could plug into it, we would not have any need for electricity – think of the money that would save! We love you ! Happy Easter! Roberta and Ben

  2. Kory, I consider myself to be SNBR. Yes, I think I have a spiritual connection with God, but I don’t allow the “institutions of religion” to dictate to me what that must look like. With Christianity being divided into Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and over 38,000 different Protestant denominations, which one is the right one? Each and every one of them claims to be “true” Christians, do they not? But they don’t worship, study, fellowship, or work together, do they? They each seem to be an island unto themselves. So while Christians may disdain the “individualism” found in the SBNR movement, but the Christian Church does the same exact thing on a congregational or denominational level.
    I agree with you, we should not judge someone else’s definition of their relationship with God. But the Church (and all the churches) does this continually with their constant focus on heaven and hell. And the focus of this message, no matter how you cut it, is that God’s main goal is not for us to be together, but to separate us into categories of “the saved” and “the damned,” with the usual criteria being whether or not one is a Christian, something Jesus himself never even mentioned.
    The truth of the matter is that every church has made God in its own image also. Why do you think they don’t worship together? Why do you think they have different beliefs? Why do you think that most churches believe that they are the only ones going to heaven while all others will most likely go to hell? And the Christian notion that if you accept Jesus, you will get your own private seat in heaven forevermore, what kind of theology could be more selfish than that? The “gospel message” of most churches has nothing to do with God’s kingdom on earth today. It has to do with one’s personal destiny, one’s own welfare to all eternity. That, to me, is the epitome of selfishness.
    While there have certainly been good and loving Christians in my life from time to time, I suspect that this was more the by-product of the Spirit in their heart and life than the indoctrination or training of religious institutions. On the flip side, I’ve had a “Bible-believer” pastor tell me that my two miscarried children are burning in hell due to the Church doctrine of Original Sin (the babies were conceived in sin and would have been born sinner) and because they never accepted Jesus, the only way for a person to be saved, according to evangelical Christians. So, for me, I would rather be happy and alone than uncomfortable in a community that holds to these kinds of beliefs in the name of God.
    Not being part of a particular religion or congregation (I was a Christian for 35 years), yes, I do sometimes miss the community. But there are plenty of other “gifts” found in the church that I do not miss. Gifts like backbiting. Gifts like gossip. Gifts like having one person supposedly speak for God during a sermon with no chance to ask questions or get clarification or to offer feedback. Gifts like the Church controlling what people do and believe with threats of hell if they don’t comply. The God I find in a sunset never tells me that I am unworthy, or that the only way he could love me was to kill his son first, or that I need to find the exact right understanding of Jesus and Church doctrine to be saved from hell.
    If God truly showed up at churches, and if God is love, I would think love would be more prevalent. I would think Jesus’ followers would be known by their love. But I’ve seen little of it. In my opinion, “Where two or three are gathered…” there is a church split because no two people can see to agree about God and how God wants us to live and treat each other. I go it alone because no church that I know of would have me with my doubts about their teachings and actions. Churches foster conformity and orthodoxy. And they pedal a constant message of guilt and condemnation. I feel spiritual because I believe the Spirit loves me and leads me to love others. But I have little use for the religions who try to keep both God and people boxed for the sake of control. Thanks for listening.

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my blog. I hear what you’re saying, and agree with you to a certain extent. I do, however, think you are painting with too broad a brush. There are many, many churches and denominations that believe they are the “real” Christians who have it “right” while all the other folks are going to Hell. But not all of them believe that. My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), certainly doesn’t. In fact, one of our statements is, “Christians Only, but Not the Only Christians.” I would say this is generally true for most mainline Protestant denominations (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). We’re not about right/wrong or who’s in/out; we’re more about figuring out what it means to live as faithful Christians in this world and make God’s kingdom real here on earth.

      The churches you describe and the “Bible-believing” pastor who said those horrible things are the exact reason people hate Christians. That is not an accurate representation of what all Christians believe. Many churches talk about a vengeful, wrathful God who condemns people to Hell for their sins. You know what? I don’t believe in that God. That’s not the loving, gracious God I have come to know through Jesus.

      I guess what I’m saying, Bill, is please don’t assume all churches fit into the descriptions you’ve set forth. Not all of us are seeking to divide into “us” and “them.” Many still are, and that’s truly unfortunate. But let that stop you from finding a true community that is committing to living out the gospel here in this world in solidarity with others. That’s what I hope my church is doing and I know there are churches around you trying to do the same. Thanks for the conversation!

      Kory

  3. Hi Kory. I actually attended a DOC a few times and it seemed like a nice church. I liked that it was non-creedal (at least this one was). Unfortunately, the drive was prohibitive (one hour each way) and I couldn’t see doing that every Sunday. Nonetheless, Christian churches are set up as mediators between a person and God. The pastor is “the man of God” who stands before the whole church and speaks for God while the laity are just supposed to accept it and never question. I’ve never been in a church (and I’ve been in a lot of them) that allows for a Q&A after the sermon, or for push-back. It is one-way communication (as if that is the way God works). The whole system (in my broad-brush point-of-view) is one of authority and anti-egalitarianism. I don’t need a mediator between God and I. I enjoy listening to other people’s experiences and how God is working in their lives, but I don’t need (or want) a church or a religion telling me what my relationship with God has to be like. What most churches mean by “community” is, “Let us make you all the same.” I find that antithetical to creation itself.

    I don’t hate Christians, Kory. I was a Christian for 35 years. But I don’t think Christians follow Jesus. They follow Christianity, which is more about the worship of Jesus as God than it is about living out Jesus’ teaches. Jesus’ teachings were, by far, more about how to bring about God’s kingdom (communities of compassion) on earth than they were about “how to go to heaven when you die.” If your church is doing that, I applaud you. Keep on keeping on. But most churches around me are either of the “turn or burn” flavor or about putting on the biggest entertainment show in town on Sunday morning, neither of which is for me. So I am a member of Spong’s, “Church Alumni Association.” The Christian Church (not your denomination, but over all) has had 2000 years to make a difference for God in this world, and it’s done little except to splinter itself again and again and again because Christians simply can’t get along. So, from my point-of-view, I don’t think it is fair to paint all SBNR people with a brush that says that we are what we are simply because “they don’t want to get involved” or “they’re too lazy.” I help out in my community as I can and give to charities. I just don’t do it through the church where the “priesthood” cut has to come off the top. Some of us have been badly burned by the church in the name of God and simply have no desire to play with fire.

    Regards,
    bill

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for calling me out on this. I did over-generalize about SBNRs in this post and I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all SBNRs are lazy. You have provided me a different perspective, which I appreciate. I hope you believe me when I say that your description of a pastor’s role is completely opposite of my understanding and (hopefully) my practice. I never claim to speak for God, and I encourage my congregation to ask questions. I believe it is through questioning that our faith grows. Doubt is an important part of faith. After all, when you look at this world we live in, how could NOT doubt God’s goodness or love? Churches that tell people not to question are doing them a grave disservice. Each Wednesday I hold a “Sermon Talkback” session where people can come and ask their questions or make comments. It’s always a spirited discussion! I agree that the agenda of making everyone the same in a church is antithetical to God’s creation. Very well-put! A church’s goal should be to help a person be the best God created them to be, regardless of who others are. And I believe that is best done in the midst of a loving, caring church community.

      You make a great point about Christians following Christianity rather than Jesus. I think many, many of us are guilty of that. Many pastors I know are moving away from the word “Christian” and using “Christ-follower” instead as a way of reminding their congregations of who we’re called to be. I see that you live in Texas, so I bet you have a LOT of “turn or burn” churches around you. That would turn we off from church, as well. Bill, I’m sorry that the church has done this to you. It’s not fair to you and to the many others like you. The image of God some churches portray is very far-removed from the God we encounter in scripture. I hear your pain and wish there was some way I could show you that not all churches are as you have described. I know that University Christian Church in the Ft. Worth area is an outstanding Disciples of Christ church. I’m sure there are others. If you ever feel like giving church another try, I would recommend it. If you don’t, I completely understand. But I would ask that you simply consider that not all churches and pastors are what you think, and I will do the same about SBNRs. Thanks for that gift you’ve given me.

      Blessings,

      Kory

  4. Kory, I didn’t mean to “call you out,” just to say that while some SBNRs may be that way because they haven’t given much thought to a spiritual life (for whatever reasons), many others of us have. And I can be guilty of lumping all Christians together and painting them with a broad brush, something I should not do. I apologize for that also because, taken as individuals, most Christians seem to be kind, caring, and compassionate people and I know that they do many things to make our world better. I agree with you that it is through questioning that our faith grows, and that doubt is an important part of faith. To me, the opposite of faith is not doubt – for we all see through a glass darkly, don’t we? – but fear, fear that God will abandon us if we sin or if we don’t get all of our doctrines right. I have had an experience of God that has convinced me, personally, that God will never leave me or forsake me, even though I often doubt my particular beliefs.
    I wish I could attend your church and even your “Sermon Talkback” sessions. I was a Sunday School teacher for many years and I often learned so much more from my brothers and sisters in the class than I ever taught them! This is where, in my opinion, community can be good in having iron sharpen iron. As you have correctly said, we weren’t designed to make it on our own. We are made for community. But most of the churches in my area insist that I believe “six impossible things before breakfast” before I can be a member there and participate, and that just isn’t me. To me, faith isn’t so much the beliefs I hold to, but trusting in God’s love for me and us that transcends our particular (and sometimes peculiar) beliefs.
    “A church’s goal should be to help a person be the best God created them to be, regardless of who others are. And I believe that is best done in the midst of a loving, caring church community.” I agree with this, except that most gospel messages that I’ve heard focus on what Jesus has done, but say little about our responsibility to be good stewards of each other and our world. Though I don’t wear the label “Christian” because I think there is too much baggage to it, I try to live by Jesus’ teachings of loving God, loving others, using the Golden Rule as a guide, and doing the best for myself, my family, and my community that I can. I am, of course, far from perfect. But I’ve found, in my experience, that God can work with and through most anything, not just Christians or churches.
    Thank you for your graciousness and for listening. I appreciate that. You seem like a good pastor and your church sounds like a good one. I simply wanted to share another side of the SBNR label and I’m thankful for your time and your constructive feedback. Many blessings to you, also.
    Your brother,
    bill

    • Hey Bill,

      No worries, I meant the “calling out” comment as a good thing. No harm done. I really appreciate the perspective you provided. It’s understandable that if you’ve had a bad experience with organized religion that you would have some bad feelings toward churches. I’m sorry those things happened to you. It sounds to me like those churches ran off a very valuable member. Frederick Buechner said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps it awake and moving.” Unfortunately, not every church would agree with that. I would encourage you (if it’s too late) to find a church that fits with your understanding of what a church should be. It may take a visits to several churches, but I promise you, they are out there…even in Texas! You sound like you have a lot of gifts to offer. Blessings to you, brother!

      Kory

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