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Minister Launches 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Movement

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By Audrey Barrick, Christian Post Reporter
April 30, 2009|12:31 pm

Those who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" have a new home.

SBNR.org was launched this month in Grand Haven, Mich., for the millions of people in the United States who "desire a deep experience of life ... without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion," as stated on the website.

A social media company, SBNR.org was founded by Ian Lawton, an Australian minister who describes himself as independent spiritual teacher.

"I'm happy now to number myself amongst the millions of people around the world who describe ourselves as spiritual but not religious," Lawton tells visitors to the website.

A Newsweek poll released earlier this month found that 30 percent of American adults describe themselves as spiritual only.

Among the younger unchurched population, 43 percent identify as SBNR, according to surveys conducted by the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board and LifeWay Research. Young adults are more likely to consider themselves SBNR than "spiritual and religious."

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According to SBNR.org, "'Spiritual But Not Religious' describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed."

"The aspect of religion that many SBNR folk prefer to live without is the limitation of beliefs that are out of step with life as we experience it," the website states.

Specifically, SBNR folk take issue with what they call "blind adherence – beliefs that are unbelievable and irrelevant; empty ritual – rituals that are otherworldly or archaic; and guilt – a set of rules to follow, and the fear of punishment."

Similar views on religion were expressed by SBNRs whom the Rev. Linda Mercadante, a professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, interviewed.

But those views did not necessarily emerge out of a negative past experience with organized religion, Mercadante noted.

"There is a general cultural ethos that encourages people to reject these things," she commented to The Christian Post in an e-mail.

"The reality is that many of my younger respondents don't have any actual experience with organized religion," she explained. "And even when my older respondents have experience with organized religion, it's not routinely negative. So this thing is more of a 'cultural ethos' that is passed around by word of mouth, so many people never venture into the world of organized religion to find out for themselves."

In the case of SBNR.org founder Lawton, the Australian minister grew up in the church. He was also ordained as an Anglican Priest in Sydney. He does not express any animosity or negative feelings toward the church but when he was receiving a reformed theological education, he said he just "couldn't see the point" in it and never got excited about it.

Now, he serves as minister at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Mich., which split from the Reformed Church of America over the controversial issues of sexuality and universal grace and dubs itself "a pioneer in the Progressive Christian movement."

He also describes SBNR.org as "the culmination" of his life experience and "the pinnacle" of his life's work. He wants SBNR.org to have "a legitimate voice" in the world.

"As humanity evolves so too should the way we experience spirituality," Lawton says in a statement. "Living impassioned, ethical and spiritual lives outside of organized religion is part of this evolution. It’s not surprising that spiritual people seek to be affirmed outside of the dogmatic traditions."

The website takes on a tone of spiritual versus religious, listing the positives of spirituality while describing the supposed "limitations" of religion.

"Increasingly, people are bypassing religion in preference for a direct experience of life’s wonder. There is no longer such a strong need for a minister, church or sacred texts to put boundaries on an experience of wonder," the website states. "Spirituality doesn’t only happen on a Sunday, or in a church, or with eyes closed. Spirituality is a direct experience of every moment in life."

Prof. Mercadante believes "this 'SBNR' search needs more focused goals rather than simply a 'turning away' from something."

Assessing the above statement, she said "no one can have a direct unmediated experience of God, wonder, nature, or anything, really."

"We all bring our personal and communal histories to any experience," she commented. "And when there is less communal knowledge – the kind we accumulate, share, and gather and organize through religion – there is less awareness of the transcendent dimension, the realm outside your own self."

For Mercadante, that transcendent dimension is God.

For others who look to it as "universal energy" or "wonder," Mercadante believes their experience of that dimension "is diminished when it is not informed by a wider, deeper perspective."

A minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Mercadante has been studying SBNRs for about 15 years. She first heard the "spiritual but not religious" label at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings which she was covering to write a book on the theological principles behind AA.

She believes the SBNR population is growing and gaining strength and wants to raise awareness in churches.

When asked if she viewed the SBNR movement as possibly dangerous, she said she was less worried about it being dangerous and more concerned over "our loss of the communal memory, history, intelligence, and spiritual knowledge that we have accumulated over millennia of humans relating to, searching for, and being found by, God."

Already, she believes North Americans have "lost touch with our intellectual, cultural and spiritual heritage" and wants to "provide some theological grounding or clarity for persons who are attracted to the 'SBNR' label.”

Mercadante is currently working on a book featuring research from interviews with, as of now, about 70 self-identified SBNRs across North America.

 

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