In the early 2000s, Adam was the star quarterback at his local high school. That notoriety—combined with using his older brother’s ID to purchase alcohol—led him to a life of addiction. Three years ago, his life fell completely apart. As a result, he connected with Alcoholics Anonymous and tried some local churches. But he felt a disconnect between the two.
“Why do I leave AA meetings filled with hope and inspiration but leave church feeling beat up and judged?” he thought. “Why does the spirituality in the room at AA seem much more real and authentic than the church?”
Last January Adam shared his story with me, John, over coffee. I was blown away at the supernatural change in Adam as he reiterated again and again how much Jesus had changed his life. But Adam also didn’t want to be religious or “one of those guys.” He loved Jesus but wanted to keep his distance from church, religiosity and the hypocrisy he’s seen in others.
Adam is not unique. As the Pew Research Center and others have shown in the last few years, an increasing number of young people identify as religious “Dones” or “Nones.” These are people who have left churches and are done with religion or had no religious affiliation to begin with.
But studies, and our experience, show that while many of these don’t want much to do with organized church or religion, they haven’t left God or spirituality. In fact, in 2017 the Pew Research Center reported that nearly one-fourth of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNRs). And while they cross denominations, political ideology and age groups, SBNRs are prominent and rising among the younger Millennial generation.
God loves young SNBRs, not in a “general” sense but in a deeply personal, heartbroken sense. He knows each name, each heart, each thought, each person through and through and longs for relationship with them. God listens to the cries of their hearts—both spoken and unspoken. Can we hear their hearts as well?
Many churches have taken notice and want to help this group of people fall in love with Jesus. And the understandable response of many churches has been to ask, what can we do to reach young SBNRs and bring them back to Christian faith and church?
But maybe that is the wrong question. Theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin says, “I do not suggest that the church go into the world as the body with nothing to receive and everything to give.” What if the key to reaching SBNRs is not “What can we do?” but rather “What can we learn?”
If SBNRs were to speak to our faith and churches—as they do when invited—what might they say? Could listening to them help us connect with the disconnected? Here’s some of what we hear young SBNRs saying.
In our teaching and pastoring we see again and again how most people, particularly young SBNRs, appreciate personal stories that show how Jesus shaped and continues to shape and correct us.
Honesty and authenticity are crucial. Young SBNRs have an innate sense of whether the person speaking really believes what he or she is saying. If you’re not being honest, or if you’re not really buying what you’re selling, neither are they. In our teaching and pastoring we see again and again how most people, particularly young SBNRs, appreciate personal stories that show how Jesus shaped and continues to shape and correct us.
Perhaps this is why the AA meetings were so spiritually fulfilling for Adam; he was surrounded and led by people who were broken and regularly shared honest stories of heartache and breakthrough. Young SBNRs want to hear our raw, honest, God-infused stories, not polished lectures or elegant prose.
Spirituality is dynamic. In some of my (Darren’s) classes I ask, “What comes to mind when I say the word ‘religion’”? Invariably students say things like “guidelines,” “morals,” “traditions” and related words. “Spirituality,” on the other hand, feels for them personal, interesting and relevant. Many of these students go to church but supplement what they learn with spiritual ideas from friends, music and the Internet.
One student, Rachel, attends her family’s evangelical church but explores Buddhism, other religions and artists to satisfy her spiritual interests. Rachel’s approach reminds me (Darren) of the experiences of some African missionary churches. When these church leaders told their people not to worry about curses and spirits, the people responded by going to church to worship God and then going to the village shaman to protect them from curses.
These churches had to learn to take seriously the spiritual questions and concerns of the people and address them biblically. If they didn’t, the people would go elsewhere to deal with their concerns. What if Rachel’s church took seriously her interest in Buddhism and spirituality, listened to her sympathetically and explored how the Bible addresses those same concerns with a focus on Christ?
Salvation is a journey, not a moment. Young SBNRs are comfortable not having all the right spiritual answers and are skeptical of those who claim to have them. For them the spiritual life is better seen as a journey with God and others, not a set of beliefs that lead to a once-in-a-lifetime conversion or baptism. These can be important, but equally important are all the spiritual experiences and practices that make up the spiritual journey.
This doesn’t mean that churches should minimize conversion or baptism. These are profoundly biblical and important. But the Bible is filled with narrative, not theological equations, and it’s the stories that inspire young SBNRs (and us!) Sharing and showing how we are the continuation of God’s redemptive work in the world are key in reaching the SBNRs.
We belong before we believe. Churches have often emphasized that a person believe the right things before being allowed to join and belong. But young SBNRs are concerned less with spiritual and theological “fit” and are more interested in finding a group that accepts them—really accepts them. The question, “Do you really love me or do you ‘love’ me to get me to think like you?” is always in the peripheral vision of SBNRs.
Though the gospel should always challenge and change us, we also agree with SBNRs that Jesus most often calls and accepts people well before reshaping them. We see that acceptance can lead to transformation. Unfortunately, our churches often withhold acceptance because we want to make our disagreements with outsiders clear. But we do not see the two as mutually exclusive. We can disagree while at the same time accepting people in love.
They are less concerned about a church’s belief statements on abstract doctrines and more concerned about how the church treats them and friends they care about, including those from marginalized ethnic, racial or LGBTQ communities.
Spirituality is personal but not personalistic. Young SBNRs value spirituality that is relevant to their lives, but it does not remain there. When they hear “God so loved the world,” they certainly hear that God loves individuals. But they also hear that God is interested in the whole world, including relationships between people and between people and the environment. As such they want to be a part of social justice and improving relationships between people. They are less concerned about a church’s belief statements on abstract doctrines and more concerned about how the church treats them and friends they care about, including those from marginalized ethnic, racial or LGBTQ communities.
We aren’t saying that every SBNR will say these things but many are; this is not a uniform group. And though we don’t agree with every posture or theological leaning of SBNRs, we do wonder: Does God’s Spirit want to speak to us through them? If so, how should we respond? Do we, like a stubborn child, put our fingers in our ears and say, “I’m not listening!” Or, like God’s challenge in Revelation 2-3, can we hear what the Spirit may be saying to the churches? If we only learn from other Christians, we may miss out on much more than just new converts.
Adam, from the opening story, began attending our church last January. He was baptized last summer, he and his fiancé volunteer at our church and they just became parents to a beautiful baby girl. Adam loves Jesus and is growing closer to him every day, and Jesus is helping him become a better man, a better husband and a better father. He’s learned a ton at our church over this past year. But we have learned from him as well. We can all learn from the SBNRs around us. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the key in pointing them to Jesus.
Darren Duerksen is associate professor of Intercultural and Religious Studies at Fresno Pacific University.
John Richardson is lead pastor at Prodigal Church, a USMB church plant in Fresno, Calif.