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.