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Posts Tagged "Spiritual but not religious":

1930s Advice for the 21st Century Church: Dr Wendy Dackson


[ After our late summer ‘skeleton editions’, we resume the publication today of Wendy Dackson’s thoughts on the ‘spiritual but not religious‘ – how did you get on at Back to Church Sunday on 29th September? Ed.]



The Church exists, first and foremost, to be the fellowship of those who worship God in Christ.  It is, therefore, in this earth, the representation of the life of Heaven.  Of course, it is easy for anyone who stands outside to look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven.”  Well, that is our own fault and not the fault of the call which the Church has received.

(William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today, the William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, December 17-19, 1935, boldface my own)




If people who are seeking a deeper connection to what is divine and eternal, and do not see a reflection of higher values in the Church, who is to blame?  William Temple, Archbishop of York at the time this lecture was delivered (and thus a senior figure in an established church that still had some reason to believe that it had a moral and spiritual authority over the nation), hit the nail on the had–not just for his own time, but for decades into the future.  The Christian message is still excellent, it was in 1935, and it remains so now (although I do think that people engage it differently, emphasizing different aspects than we did almost 80 years ago).  But if it is not presented well, or by the life of the assembly, most importantly in their interactions with each other and the world outside of the time set aside for communal worship, then those outside the church have every right to say this is not where they will find the spiritual nurture and community they seek.


And who is to blame?  Not God, not Jesus Christ.  Those who are in the fellowship of the church who are representing the life of Heaven in ways that people outside the fellowship reject–they may be more responsible for giving the church a repuation that the church doesn’t want.  Too often, church “insiders”, whether clergy, lay leadership, or the “average” person in the pew, create problems for the church’s image.  It isn’t just the major scandals, like sexual abuse or financial dishonesty, either; nor can it all be blamed on the historic wrongs ascribed (rightly and wrongly) to the church.  It can have more to do with a member of a church’s governing body, who regales his or her co-workers with stories of the bitter arguments that happened during the last  meeting. Or the new member of the altar guild who feels bossed and belittled by the guild president–because she–and altar guilds have historically been, and remain, over 90% female–who vents to a non-churchgoing neighbor about how impossible it is to please some people, and all the new member really wants to do is serve God and the worshipping community.  It can be the architect on his congregation’s building committee, whose expertise is over-ridden to accommodate the whim of the biggest donor.  It can be the gossip about the young, single, female pastor who is seen holding hands in the cinema with a man from outside the congregation (clergy ethics almost always forbid single ministers from dating within the congregation).  Most of all, it can be about the smugness some Christians demonstrate when they speak to non-churchgoers about the superiority of pursuing a spiritual path within the church, rather than going it alone.  So much of what happens in the holy community looks hellish to those who would never enter its doors.


If Archbishop Temple were writing today, what might he have said?  I imagine that the quote above could stand almost unchanged, but I will add a bit to it.


The Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are not your problem.  They did not cause your church to decline in its membership or giving.  They are not why your vestry, consistory, or whatever your governing body is called, is fighting.  They are not why members of your congregation do not get along with one another. They are not why your building needs paint, your choir needs new robes, your organ is out of tune, your altar flowers are wilting, or your youth group is not much more than a clique with ugly t-shirts that say “WWJD”. They are not why your pastor is burned out, and taking it out on the congregation.


And that is far from saying that they are looking for a perfect church, with completely godly people who are free from human pettiness, who are always going to be able to conduct their lives together in perfect perfect harmony and flawless grace.  People are realistic in their expectations about what human groups are like. If the SBNR, in all their glorious spiritual diversity, are looking for a faith community at all (some are, others are not), they are looking for a place to grow in godliness, amongst people who are also trying to do so, who lovingly help each other to come to some kind of appreciation of the classic philosophical goods of beauty, truth, and goodness than any one individual or group can appreciate.  And yet, they want to do it in ways, and amongst people, who appreciate and honor the individuality and gifts they will bring to the community.  They want to ask the tough questions about life in a rapidly-changing world, but they also ask the tough questions about why there need to be four churches at the corner of Main and Maple Streets, selling five different versions of Christianity, all hoping to convince people that their way is the best (or even only) way.


The SBNR are also not the solution to your problems.  An influx of unchurched people is not going to help you be a better church quickly.  Even a wealthy new member is not going to drop a huge pledge on you the second time they attend and solve all your financial woes.  If people come to church for the first time, or come back after a long absence, they will be looking to feel their way into the community’s life, and find the places where they can participate most authentically, for their own benefit and that of the church.  Rejoice at finding them, yes–but everyone (God included) will be better served if you treat them more like lost sheep than lost coins.


However, I would also want to say the following:  The Spiritual But Not Religious are not your problem, but they are your concern.  Listen carefully to their objections to the church, and for those things that can be changed without compromising the integrity of Christianity, work on them.  We are told to “preach the gospel to every living creature.”  But we preach an anti-gospel if our churches are places of in-fighting, power struggles, and blame-games where we claim that our problems have causes that don’t make any sense.  If we look bad to those outside the church, that is our fault, not theirs.


Not all Spiritual but Not Religious people are looking for a church, and some are not even looking at the church.  But if the church wants to reach them, and is not doing so, perhaps it is time to look inward and put some energy into making the life of the Christian community into the representation of heaven which it is meant to be.


Responding to Lilliane Daniel (Part Two): Wendy Dackson



Before I begin responding to particular excerpts from When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough, I should make a few disclosures.  First, for me, the book had the feeling of something written by an extremely frustrated, burnt-out minister.  And, more than most lay people, I get burnt-out ministers.  I earned a Master’s in a denominational seminary where I was the only intentionally lay vocation student; and then I earned a doctorate in a large Catholic university with an ecumenical theology department in which most of the students were ordained in various Christian traditions.  I spent two years in England doing research on clergy roles and identities.  During that time, I listened to probably a hundred ordained ministers, from those whose congregations were flourishing to those whose churches were at risk of losing buildings or not having soon-retiring clergy replaced.  I listened to people in farming communities where drought followed flood followed foot-and-mouth disease; I interviewed women who were the first female clergy in their settings and the challenges they faced from congregation and from less-than-welcoming ordained men.  I spent another two years trainig local ministers.  My airplane conversations, when people have learned what I did for a living, were a lot like the ones clergy experience.  Short of being married to an ordained person, I possibly understand them as well as any lay person can expect to do.


Secondly, I do not currently attend church or consider myself to be a member of any congregation.  My experience of working for church institutions burned me out, drained all I had emotionally and spiritually (as well as contributing to a major episode of depressive illness).  I worked on staff of an historically significant Church of England diocese, and was bullied so badly by my (ordained) line manager and colleagues that I describe my current condition as “sacramental bulimia”.  Yes, I literally vomit a bit in my own mouth if I receive communion; that’s how much I do not trust most ordained people. The clerical collar is not a badge of honor in my mind–you do have to prove your trustworthiness to me.


However, I am not SBNR.  I am non-parochial laity.  I still consider myself an American Episcopalian, and a member of the wider Anglican Communion.  If and when I return to institutional religion, this will almost certainly be where I will land. I did not grow up in this tradition, but I consciously chose it, and allowed it to form and shape my spiritual journey.  I pray the Daily Office.  I read theology widely and deeply. I try to live a life of generosity and respect for others, and to serve in what ways I can those whose needs I can meet.  I don’t always manage it, and I don’t expect anyone else—lay or ordained, religious or not—to manage it either.  There are days that I feel I’ve taken another step on the road to holiness if I can manage not to drop the F-bomb, and not to refer to people who annoy me by identifying them with below-the-waist body parts.


I think institutional religion is important.  When two or three gather in Jesus’ name, trouble happens if there aren’t standards and structures of accountability to make sure that the aims of God’s peaceful reign are furthered, and the least amount of damage is done, by or to us beautiful, fragile, fallible human beings.


All that being said, I would like to have a bit of an imaginary conversation with Lillian Daniel concerning some of what she has said in When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.  I will put quotes from the book in boldface, and my responses will follow in regular type. There is no way to do this as an outline of the argument of the book (as there is none), so I am just taking things as they arise on the Kindle.


Have you ever noticed that these spiritual but not religious adults, so averse to hearing about God in church, where adults have actually spent some time thinking about these things, never tire hearing about it from their own children?


I don’t particularly care to hear about God from small children, either.  In fact, I am not big on kids (don’t get me wrong, I would never harm a child; it would involve contact with one).  But I find the assumption that only people who are currently attending a church have “actually spent some time thinking about these things”, to be condescending and offensive. I am no expert on SBNR–after all, I haven’t written a book that has (un)critical acclaim–but I do know quite a large number of people who self-describe as such.  And I tend to have my most interesting theological conversations with them  It isn’t all puppies and rainbows and chain emails.


If they went to Sunday school (these children) could ask about bats and scorpions in heaven.  They could ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick.  They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go deeper.


There is a wonderful BBC sitcom called Outnumbered.  In the first series, there was an episode entitled ‘The Wedding’, and I highly recommend it for clergy training.  The lightly-if-at-all churched children are at the mimageseal after the ceremony, asking the young, hip, Afro-Carribean Church of England priest some of the very same questions as raised above. And the priest cannot give satisfactory answers to primary school children (see illustration above). What would they be gaining by going to Sunday school?


At some point, if you think about it at all, that person with the self-made religion will use his God-given brain and the wisdom of hard experiences and start to ask angry and provocative questions about this spirituality of the status quo.


One would hope so. But it does not logically follow that they will become conventionally religious. It is just as logical that a person who becomes angry when God as s/he understands that designation does not measure up to those standards, will abandon the entire notion of God.


The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I personally do not want to be associated with a lot of it.


Fair enough, neither do I, and neither do the SBNR.  The difference, however, is you have chosen to follow a calling to ordained ministry, and like it or not, as soon as you let it be known that you make your living as a representative of the church, you become its symbol.  For some people, that will not be a good thing. It may be inconvenient and uncomfortable for you occasionally, you may be bored by your seatmate on an airplane.  It is nothing compared to the police officers of the 1960s and 70s who were routinely called “pigs” and were the targets of physical violence, because they chose a vocation to public service.  It is even less than what Vietnam war draftees, who did not choose military service, endured when they returned from their tours of duty.


And here, I think we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual but not religious people have with the church.  If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might really be able to do this thing and meet their high standards.


Yes, some SBNR may actually find that there is arrogance and hypocrisy in the churches, and they may not want to be associated with that (who does, except the arrogant and hypocritical?).  But have you ever thought that people might want something the church doesn’t offer, and it has to do with what they believe?  Do you really want people who do not believe in God, but are nonetheless looking for a wider spiritual connection, in your church?  Is there only one kind of SBNR?  It would seem so from what you have written.


We make friends with nonbelievers who claim that we are crazy.  And then in these moments of utter crisis, we find ourselves called into the eye of the tornado.  And suddenly we realize that we have become, for them, the church.


It is lovely to be privileged to be the church for people in crisis, to be the face of a loving God at the moment of birth or death or marriage.  But as a public minister, you are the face of the church for people who are angry with it or have been deeply hurt by it.  You don’t get to pick and choose the circumstances when you are the face of the church.  You are always it, for good or for ill, when it suits you and when it doesn’t.


Rather than hammering the unchurched with the gospel from our mouths and heads, rather than arguing with them or badgering them, rather than capturing the moment like a pious pirate, the stand-in church is not called to be brilliant, not to be persuasive, not even to tell the entire story right then and there, but rather, the stand-in church is called to simply be.


It’s a nice sentiment with a lot of truth in it, I can’t disagree if it were a stand-alone remark.  But it is in the context of a book where an entire class of spiritualities are lumped together and ridiculed without a great deal of apparent understanding. I suppose you only mean you are happy to simply be the stand-in church when it feels good and isn’t boring to you.


Rachmaninoff-playing Anglicans, Bible-based Methodist magicians—it all just makes you feel inadequate.  And when that happens, it’s easy to get mocking and accusatory.


That explains a lot of the tone of the book–you are not adequate to the task of bringing the SBNR into the church, and therefore it becomes easy to lump them together, ignore any individual nuances or exceptions, and ridicule them.


“They.”  The telltale “they”.

Often the language of “they” is mixed with the diagnostic language that has become popular in ministry circles.  Sometimes the congregation is described as a patient or a dysfunctional organization.  The use of the pronoun “they” implies that the doctor, consultant, expert, or fixer is none other than the pastor.  “They” need fixing, and “i” am the one to come in, from the outside and do it.


“They” is a term that denies individually to the members of the group under discussion.  It may be objectionable for a pastor to do this to a congregation.  It is just as objectionable to do it to the SBNR, especially if you really wish they were a part of your church.


I am also tired of people who say that they are privately spiritual but not religious.  I am tired of people who have one bad experience with a church and paint the whole of Christianity with that brush. . .And I am tired of people who criticize churches like mine and go somewhere else.


This may be an entirely valid thing to feel, but is it helpful, in the context of a discussion of SBNR, to say you are tired of them?  Perhaps listening to their criticisms, seriously and sympathetically, might actually bring some of them in.  I would probably go somewhere else, too!


I feel like I live in a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith.


I have encountered at least as much of the former inside the church, and the latter outside, than the reverse. And for those of us hungering for complexity, I am not convinced that you, personally, Lillian Daniel, are offering it.  Not from this book, anyway.



Perhaps I am really just tired of myself.  In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith.  Perhaps the people who irritate me the most are exposing my own false doctrines.  And this is why I can’t do this religion thing all by myself.  This is why I need a community.


Well, thank you.  This is the first spiritually honest and relatable thing I found in the book.  It is too bad it takes you a third of the text to get to it, and then it is buried by the rest of the book.


Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.


There is much here that requires challenge and rebuttal.  First, and I hope most obviously, telling people that they do not interest you is hardly the way to entice them into relationship–and if you are tired of them not being part of your church, you probably do need to develop a relationship with them. If you are not interested in a topic, it is probably not a great idea to write about it, because (as this book bears witness) you will not do it well.  Additionally, there are times and seasons in life, even the lives of very devout people, when community becomes overwhelming and even at some level idolatrous.  Some people, whose lives and jobs outside the church are full of demands and challenges that you may not be able to imagine, are not up for a “provocative” spiritual experience, but need strength and comfort for the tasks God has given them.


So while I can’t stop these people from talking to me on the airplane, can I at least inform them that they are boring?


Wait a moment.  A supposedly smart woman like you can’t politely deflect unwanted conversations?  Or would you rather be rude to total strangers who, upon hearing you are a minister, choose (perhaps unwisely) to trust you with something about which they feel a bit vulnerable?


I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes.  I don’t have to be logical, and most of all, I don’t have to prove it.  Not to you, not to anyone.


Yes, indeed, you can believe in whatever you like.  Unicorns, for all I care, and no, you don’t have to prove it to me or anyone else.  But why any intelligent adult would trust you would then be beyond me.  I expect better from educated people.


If there’s a target audience for a sermon it’s probably the guy who died on the cross for preaching his own.


Really.  You don’t hope that the people in your congregation (who are, by the way, paying your salary) actually derive some benefit from your preaching?  And what, by the way, do you expect Jesus to get from your words?


And now, back to just good old Wendy:


I am a snarky person.  I believe in a little shock and awe from the pulpit–after all, I am the woman who preached what quickly became the Great British Farts and Poo sermon on All Saints’ Sunday at All Saints’ church in Staplehurst, Kent, in 2009.  I believe in, and have benefited from, a bit of a challenge and wake-up call in church.  But I do not believe that it is possible to ridicule and dismiss people, and thereby win them over to your point of view.  And that is the main point on which I found When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough to have failed.


‘When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough’ by Lillian Daniel: Wendy Dackson reviews


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church


A review of this book is really not a possibility, as it does not lend itself well to the standard of reviewing I have adhered to for the last 15 years.  But it deserves some engagement, as the topic of “Spiritual but Not Religious” (often abbreviated SBNR) is being discussed more frequently as more people either leave the churches, or embark on spiritual paths without ever having participated in institutional religious life.  So, I propose to respond to Lillian Daniel‘s book in stages.  First, I will attempt to review it in a standard way–descriptions of the main thesis, lines of argumentation, sources for claims made, principles of inclusion/exclusion, and a target readership who might find it valuable.  Next, I will try to engage some of the points she makes in the book by way of a quasi-conversation I would have with her if she were across a table from me.  Finally, I will offer some of my own reflection on my spiritual “desert time” of being a Christian who is loath to enter a church, not as SBNR, but as my own designation of “non-parochial laity“.




The category of “spiritual but not religious” has become mainstream in American culture, and possibly throughout the Western world.  In England, for example, although most people still claim the established Church as their religious affiliation on official forms (such as census, hospital admissions, and the like), most people do not attend services with any regularity.  They may consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”.  When I was growing up, it was fairly uncommon even to be the product of a religiously mixed marriage (I had a lapsed Roman Catholic father and a cultural but non-practicing Jewish mother), and SBNR was something almost nobody claimed.   Fifty years ago, it would have been shocking and countercultural.  Now, it is hardly worth mentioning.


It is, however, a rising challenge to the churches, especially to mainstream Christian denominations.  And so, Lillian Daneil’s book should be a welcome volume in dealing with the growing number of people on a spiritual path but outside the churches, with whom the churches should want to engage and forge positive relationships.  The title raises the expectation that there will be some effort to convince people who have taken individual spiritual paths that their aims would be better served by participating in congregational life, or some practical wisdom that clergy and members of churches could use to develop a dialogue with those who are perhaps not of their ranks, but seek harmonious ends with people in traditional communities of faith.  Unfortunately, the book lacks either.


There is no introduction to outline why she has written the book, what gives her the qualifications to make pronouncements on this topic (it appears to be some conversations with people on airplanes, and not much else), or what she intends to accomplish by circulating her words more widely than she can from her pulpit or blog. This is probably good for sales, as I continued reading the book hoping to find out these things, and was disappointed.  I can hardly imagine that I am alone in this (and I am befuddled by the praise that this book has generated).


When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough has no central unifying thesis, except that the author is bored by those who consider themselves to be SBNR.  It also lacks a clear organizing principle, although there are groupings of essays under the headings”Searching and Praying”; “Confessing”, “Communing”, “Wandering”, “Wondering”, and finally “Remembering and Returning”.  Except for The first essay (rant, really) entitled ‘Spiritual but Not Religious?”, and two others (Chapter 11: ‘Things I am Tired Of’, and Chapter 19 ‘Please Stop Boring Me’), the book has nothing to do with the Spiritual but Not Religious people or why the path they have chosen is unsatisfactory, let alone convincing them (or helping other church leaders to do so) that they would be welcome in the church and find a fuller and more complex path to God.


Only three chapters–the first, eleventh, and nineteenth–of this 32-chapter volume actually have any mention of the SBNR issue.  There is one point of clarity–the author has lumped all SBNRs into a composite that bores her.  She admits of no individual nuances, no possibility that for either a season or a lifetime, institutional religious participation may be unhelpful for some people.  She wants the recognition of being a public and ordained Christian minister, but does not want to be the face of the church for those who have a negative view of it (and does nothing to counter that negative view except to whine).  The remaining 29 chapters have the feeling of recycled sermon material, journal entries, and blog posts–none of which has been reworked to fit the topic stated in the title.  Interestingly, although she frequently makes the claim that participation in a religious community takes the focus off the individual, all of these are Rev. Daniel’s personal showcase.  God is there, to be sure—but in a supporting role only.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough would have benefited greatly by a much firmer editorial hand than it got, and by some real theological guidance.  The lack of insight does not go far to correct her lament that she feels like she lives in “a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith”, but rather contributes to the problem.  The claim that “I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes.  I don’t have to be logical, and most of all, I don’t have to prove it.  Not to you, not to anyone”, indicates that the book really is Lillian Daniel’s private hissy-fit, and does not have a lot of use to anyone who might really want to engage those who are not inside their churches.


The book is lacking in any kind of scholarship or research, and does not add to the serious literature in the subject of reaching those who are at the fringe of institutional religion.  Without either introduction or conclusion, it is hard to know what she intended by making these musings public, or what she believes (other than venting) will be accomplished by reaching a wider audience.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, by Lillian Daniel (New York:  Jericho Books, 2013).  Amazon Kindle Edition, $8.99 USD.


Courtesy Lillian Daniel’s website


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