Q&A: Tough love for ‘spiritual but not religious’

So you’re spiritual, but not religious? “Please, stop boring me,” retorts the Rev. Lillian Daniel. Her Huffington Post blog on the topic went viral in 2011, and now she’s published a new book: When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho Books, 2013). Ms. Daniel is senior minister of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of Glen Ellyn, Ill.

She spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.

Lillian Daniel

You mentioned in the book that people who are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) like to buttonhole you and tell you their story when they learn that you’re a pastor. What’s that about?

I think in general people want to talk about themselves, and that’s kind of my critique. Often I find that (SBNRs) perceive themselves as being in this brave and bold minority. They seem unaware that they’re in the mainstream of American culture. They want to tell you this shocking news, that they’ve left the church and don’t need it anymore, and how they’ve put together this interesting spiritual life of their own. The point I make in the book is, it’s actually not very interesting. These people have a sense of terminal uniqueness.

Sometimes people want to tell their story, of how they’ve been wounded or injured, and here I’m very compassionate. But usually it’s a story about a church that has no relation to the one I serve. There seems to be this tolerance in the American public square for people to stereotype Christianity in ways that, if they were to [do so] for another religion, we would call them bigoted. They’ll say things like, “They’re just after your money, they’re all homophobic, they oppress women.” And you want to say, “Wait a second, my church doesn’t do that.” It’s almost like it’s an acceptable prejudice. I would not debate that there are forms of Christianity that do all the things they are complaining about. But prejudice is when you paint all of Christianity with that brush. So increasingly, I’m saying, “Sorry, but I’m just not going to apologize for a religion I’m not a part of.”

I interviewed a seminary professor, Linda Mercadante, who’d done research on people who call themselves “SBNR.” Most weren’t wounded by the church, as she had expected. Does that mirror your observations?

When I speak on this topic people often accuse me of not being compassionate, and often it’s my fellow mainline clergy in the Protestant world, particularly in the liberal traditions, and I myself am in the liberal Protestant tradition. Their attitude seems to be, “These are wounded people, and if we are just kind and nice and listen to them, they will show up in our pews.” I think that’s been the mainline evangelism project for the last 50 years: “If we’re nice, they will come.” And how’s it working for us?

Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to say, it’s not enough just to listen and affirm these people. At some point we have to make a cogent argument for why religious community matters.

What do people mean when they say they’re “spiritual but not religious”?

This is what I mean: Somebody who feels connected to the divine in some way but does not practice or worship with any community. There are some people who might actually worship in our pews who might say, “Well, I think I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’m not talking about them. In that case, I think what they mean is, “Do not associate me with the type of Christian who is judgmental and narrow-minded. Do not associate me with the nutty pastor who is burning the Quran.” But in general, when other people say they’re SBNRs, I think what they mean is, “I don’t worship anywhere, and I’m kind of proud of that because it implies that I’m a freethinker. I’m not spoon-fed dogma and I don’t look down upon other people who are different from me. Except, of course, people of faith.”

You’re a little snarky. Did you wrestle at all with the tone of your book?

I get called snarky fairly often. I would just put this out there: You don’t hear many male writers who make an argument called snarky. I think there is this assumption that if you are a mainline pastor, you affirm and love everybody. And it is a Christian calling. I mean, I do love everybody. But I reject the notion that you cannot advance an argument, or have a healthy debate. For many who sit in our pews—that’s one thing they love about our churches, that you don’t have to leave your brain on the sidewalk, you can engage it with faith. I also would add that what I’m doing is using humor.

So why is SBNR not enough?

First, I don’t think it’s not enough because you’re going to burn in hell. That’s not my concern. I think God’s in charge of eternity and God probably has it worked out. It’s not a fear-based thing. But I would argue that throughout time and history people grow closer to God by going deeply into a religious tradition. I really don’t mind if your religious tradition is in a mosque. I argue from a Christian perspective because that’s what I know. I do believe there is value in landing somewhere and going deeply, and allowing yourself to be shaped by a tradition that is bigger than you are. I think the danger of creating your own spirituality is that you simply create a God in our own image. That works when your life is going well, but when things fall apart that is not really much of a foundation.

Do you have a comeback to offer United Methodist readers for when someone says, “Oh, I don’t need to go to church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”

One would be, “So I gather that you don’t value community?” They’ll say, “I value community.” Well, community is what separates religion from spirituality. It’s the other people in the room. . . . I hope your United Methodist readers would feel encouraged, when somebody starts criticizing the church—describing a church that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the church of “Open doors, open hearts, open minds,” to sort of push back. What we’ve tended to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry for the church doing that.” We get sort of sheepish about our faith. What I think would be great is to say, “The way you’re talking about Christianity is stereotypical and bigoted and I’m going to challenge you on that.”

Given that a lot of people now call themselves SBNRs, some would argue that instead of scolding them, the church needs to speak to them where they are. We need to affirm the S in SBNR. Your response?

Obviously if somebody is sitting in my pastor’s study telling me they’re SBNR, I’m not scolding them. I’m listening and I’m being kind. I’m also impressed they made their way to a church. I try to positively affirm what’s going to be different for them by virtue of being part of a community of faith. And it’s not the services we’re going to provide. We tend to talk about ourselves like we’re the gym: “We offer this great youth program,” or “We have yoga classes.” No. It’s going to be really hard. You’re going to be made uncomfortable. Your narcissism will get challenged and you won’t get everything you want. I think that’s respectful of people on the journey, rather than, “Hey, you’ll love it, the youth group is really fun and we won’t ask anything of you, don’t worry.” No, it’s more like, by the way, we ask you to share your money and not to get services. There’s a way in which we can talk to the SBNRs as though they are mature people ready to engage in an intelligent conversation, as opposed to just listening and overwhelming them with our niceness.

I think people who see the church as a service provider that should be grateful for their attention, just don’t get it. It won’t surprise you to know that I don’t perform non-member weddings for exactly this reason. I think Christian community means something and has expectations. When we devalue ourselves it’s not necessarily attractive to people.

I think in the mainline we need to talk about what we do with some seriousness of purpose. Our churches are full of people who make really big sacrifices to keep the institution going. They’re giving hours and hours of time to teach Sunday school, they give 10 percent of their money. That’s a story worth telling.



Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Mona VillarrubiaLaurabethannkarkoenig@yahoo.commagicrainbow Recent comment authors
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Mona Villarrubia

Seeing mainline Christian churches as service providers is definitely a big part of the problem but it is rooted in another: the traditional theistic view of God as a Father, caretaker, judge. In the RC church of which I am from, disillusionment with priests and lack of access to services has led to disillusionment with the God offered by formal religion. Why work at something that gives me nothing in return any more – less access to sacraments, closing schools and churches. It was never about what ” I can do for my church but what my church could do… Read more »


I think a fundament part of the SBNR designation is the sense that Christian churches hold to a belief in a deity who is the one true God. While liberal churches invite questions and engagement, there is the sense that if one does not believe in the central story of the church, you are an outsider. Or that your questions are being tolerated by those who already believe the story. Like you will come around to " the truth" of Jesus or God as divine beings. How can you really feel you are part of a community if you dont… Read more »


Thanks Mary for posting this interview. It certainly got me thinking and inspired me to write about it in my blog. Here is a quote from it. "Instead of asking what is wrong with those “nones” and SBNR people we should be asking what is wrong with the church. Why has it lost its relevancy in our post-modern culture? Maybe we should be more concerned about listening to people’s deep yearnings and questions about ultimate meaning than about getting them to go to church with us. Instead of pointing fingers can we find points of connection?" You can see the… Read more »


My ?. As a seasoned public school teacher I wonder what "Home Schooled" children miss by not experiencing the school community?
Is SBNR similar to being Homeschooled?


I have recently become one of the SBNR that bores Rev. Daniel. I have been part of the United Methodist Church for most of my adult life, although I was brought up in another denomination. Wounded, yes. My whole family has dedicated years of respectable volunteerism to the church. We have supported the church and the many and varied pastors that have made their way through the doors. And after making a very energetic start to a new program to serve young people and families, we were told that we had done more positive things than anyone had in years-so… Read more »


Thank you, Mary, for your thoughtful comments. I love what the church has meant to me. Your positive comments help me see my way through the disappointments I've felt. May we find the way toward justice, openness, acceptance, compassion, and a willingess to let go of those institutional commitments that interfere with being true followers of Jesus.

Roger Tanquist, life-long member

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