“Can I still call myself an atheist, and believe in God?” I looked up from the salad bar at the 20-something young woman posing the question, my fork hovering over the red and green peppers. “Tell me more,” I said, momentarily confused.
“Well, I now believe in a kind of power, but not what you believe in.” She knew I was an ordained minister. “Say more,” I urged her. I wanted to hear what kind of a God she thought I believed in. “Well, I think God is in everything.” Me too, I thought. “That sounds like maybe you’re talking about panentheism,” I offered. “Pantheism?,” she said. “No, panentheism,” I gently corrected. “There’s a name for it?” she asked, surprised. “Yup,” I said, relieved I had something to offer this young woman. Never mind that I also believe God is in everything; what I was most intrigued by was her desire to identify as God-believing atheist.
My daily life takes me deep into the heart of SBNR (spiritual but not religious) terrain—from the gym, to encounters with 12-step folks, to seatmates on airplanes, to United Methodist churches. Atheists who believe in God are not the only unusual faith configurations I encounter. In my ongoing adventures with the spiritual but not religious, I’ve gleaned a few things I’d like to share with you, including three insights and action steps for the church.
The spiritual but not religious defy easy understanding. While the evidence I offer here is anecdotal, and names have been changed, these stories represent people I have met along the way.
SBNR are not shut off to God nor is God shut off to them.
“I was meditating when I was transported back in time and saw Jesus, palms cupped, with a flame rising out of them,” Josh explained. “I feel like I witnessed one of the miracles of Jesus. I know he exists. It’s not a question with me. But, church? No, I don’t really go.” “Tell me more,” I said. “We didn’t grow up with much of a faith,” this intelligent 40-ish man observed. “My Dad was Catholic and my Mom Jewish, but we really didn’t practice anything.”
INSIGHT: Jesus steps outside church walls. Just because they are not in Sunday services, doesn’t mean that God is not in touch with the SBNR, and vice versa. In fact, Josh’s story reminded me of my own, told in The Jew Named Jesus. The only difference is I was in the Orthodox Jewish community at the time Jesus appeared to me in a vision. I could have easily opted to stay in the Orthodox world, or to surrender all religious affiliation, but a churched friend gave me a third option. She invited me into her world. Not to Sunday School class, mind you, but to the seminary she was attending. The meaty challenge of seminary was perfect for me. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but It gave me a chance to learn more about Jesus without having to commit yet to a faith community.
ACTION: Connect and Invite. As people share their stories with you, invite them to learn more about Jesus, with you. They may not want to come to worship. Instead, they may want to attend a Bible Study, or a spiritual retreat, or, who knows, even seminary. Maybe they simply want to sit and talk with you about their experiences. Treat this as a sacred encounter. Don’t judge them or their experiences; instead look for commonalities. Be prepared to say, “Tell me more,” and then to listen. Feel free to share your own experiences with them. Above all, be prepared to learn from them more about what God is doing.
The SBNR are church members and leaders…if they haven’t left yet.
“I decided not to be a General Conference delegate this year,” Suri confided, matter of factly. “I’ve gone every other year. But I’m not sure I still believe in this stuff. I’m not mad. It’s not anything like that. It’s just that I’m more of a universalist. God is love; that’s it. I don’t believe in the duality of heaven and hell. If I don’t come back to Annual Conference next year, you’ll know why. I’ve just moved on.”
INSIGHT: Church on the move. As Phyllis Tickle famously observed, every 500 years the church feels compelled to have a huge rummage sale. We “move on” in our practice, our beliefs, and/or our organization. I think the church is actually moving on from the duality of heaven and hell into a kind of “God is love” unity. Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins” is a sign of that.
I wonder how many of our church members and leaders lean toward universalism? Personally, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place. Remember, I’m a panentheist (not a pantheist): I believe that God is in everything, including in each person. Hell, as near as I can figure, is a life lived apart from love, but I don’t see it as a place that God sends us to, condemns us to, or abandons us to.
ACTION: Get clear and get honest. Conduct an audit of your actual beliefs—whether at the level of congregation, small group, friends, or even just yourself. Take an honest look at what you do and don’t believe, and whether your church’s worship, ministries, and classes, are reflective of these beliefs. Invite your SBNR friends. It could make for very stimulating dialogue and build bridges of understanding.
The SBNR are looking for alternatives, and finding them.
“I’m the acquisitions editor for an evangelical Christian publishing company,” Shanda, an accomplished woman in her 50s, told me, “but I almost never go to church anymore.” She hesitated. “My theology has opened up quite a bit.” Another pause. She lowered her voice, “It’s boring. Especially compared to the personal development groups I am part of.”
INSIGHT: Don’t bore folks. SBNR folks are not anti-group, anti-growth or anti-God. They are anti-boredom. There are too many other options out there to waste time on experiences that don’t deliver. If church isn’t conducted in a way that connects, engages, inspires, provokes, challenges, or causes spiritual growth—then folks will look elsewhere. Don’t give them any excuses! Notice, I didn’t say church needs to entertain, babysit or amuse. It doesn’t. Yes, people want high quality experiences that engage them. Challenge and engage people with a love that risks everything and promises a real difference in the world! That’s never boring.
ACTION: Stand for something. Many churches are in survival mode. They have given up on standing for something. Instead, they’re trying to not lose people. Paradoxically, that loses people. Find a kingdom-oriented passion and stand for it. Preach it, pray it, and live it. Risk the church for it. After all, that’s what Jesus did.
Here’s the bottom line, church: SBNR folks have something vital to teach the church. If we listen, we might just gain clues to our own re-birth.
This article first appeared on June 21, 2016.