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Many connect with God's presence in places other than church.  Photo illustration by Debbie Fielding Wray.

Photo illustration by Debbie Fielding Wray

Many connect with God's presence in places other than church.

John Wesley preaching outside a church. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

"John Wesley preaching outside a church." Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Wesley often preached outside of churches so that he could be with people wherever they were.

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Lessons for church from the ‘spiritual but not religious’

A Feature by Joe Iovino*

Editor's Note: A new report on this survey was released on November 3, 2015.

Buckling into an airplane seat or sipping soup at a wedding reception, many unsuspecting people have found themselves sitting next to a United Methodist pastor. When the question, “What do you do?” is asked, pastors in the US report that conversations about spiritual journeys are likely to follow.

Stories of home congregations, moms who prayed, and favorite Sunday School teachers are often shared. Other times people will say, “I'm spiritual but not religious,” acknowledging belief in someone or something beyond human experience, coupled with general dissatisfaction with organized religion. 

Statistics support what pastors encounter. A survey released May 12, 2015 by Pew Research Center, reported that a growing number of people in the US identify as religiously unaffiliated. 

While the study revealed that 70.6% of US adults are Christians, the group of religiously unaffiliated adults (22.8%) is now larger than Catholics (20.8%) and mainline Protestants (14.7%). The United Methodist Church is a mainline Protestant denomination. 

“A profound spiritual change is going on in America.” What can we learn from it? #PewResearchTWEET THISTWEET THIS

Most of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God (69%), and many would say they are "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR). 

The Reverend Linda Mercadante, Professor of Theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, warns that the separation of religion and spirituality is a false dichotomy. She used John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, to illustrate.

Wesley’s heart strangely warmed is his spiritual experience,” she said, “but it was his religion that prepared him for that moment.” 

A professor’s journey

“Estimates are that 20-25% of the [US] population identifies as SBNR,” Mercadante said, though she suspects the numbers may be higher. Some “are coming to church and might identify as United Methodist [for example] on a form, but are probably more SBNR.”

The Rev. Linda Mercadante

The Rev. Linda Mercadante is Professor of Theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and author of several books. Photo courtesy of The Rev. Linda Mercadante.

Mercadante understands SBNRs because she has been there. Raised in a nominally religious home, she began seeking a spiritual identity as a child. Her story, shared in her book Bloomfield Avenue: A Jewish-Catholic Jersey Girl's Spiritual Journey, led her to ordination in the Presbyterian Church and teaching at a United Methodist seminary.

“But as I began reading articles on these unaffiliated seekers,” she writes in Belief without Borders, “something just did not fit what I knew from experience as a seeker and with other seekers.” 

Mercadante conducted a series of in-depth interviews with people who self-identified as spiritual but not religious. Her interviewees were from across the US and of nearly every age group, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Her findings are published in Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.

“This whole journey,” she writes, “has made me even more convinced that a profound spiritual change is going on in America. No matter how organized religions try to ignore, challenge, adapt, or protest it, our society is being deeply changed by this pervasive ethos.”

Mercadante offered some lessons the church can learn.

1. Give up unproductive guilt

“We need to give up the mea culpa attitude,” Mercadante said. Many Christians assume SBNRs have been hurt by organized religion, but Mercadante rarely encountered victims of religious abuse among those she interviewed. “Most had little experience of church,” and were not present enough to have felt either encouraged or hurt by it. Rather than making assumptions, the church needs to listen.  

2. Listen

“Everybody knows at least one SBNR person,” Mercadante said. We could learn much by compassionately inquiring about their spiritual lives. Mercadante found those she interviewed were “pleased to have someone listen to them… They were grateful, delighted to share their spiritual journeys.”

3. Live your fatih

Mercadante said many SBNRs want to see a connection between one’s inner life and outward behavior. Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to perform both acts of piety like worship and prayer, and acts of service like visiting the sick and serving those in need.  

4. Value diversity

SBNRs are interested in diversity, Mercadante learned, when it fosters compassion and peace rather than division and conflict.

United Methodists value our diverse and connected community of faith, as demonstrated by our open communion table. All are welcome—member or not—to receive the sacrament as a witness to our emphasis on the prevenient grace of God present with everyone before we are aware of it.

5. Focus on mentoring relationships

Mercadante shared that a significant number of SBNRs “had their first encounter with spirituality through a recovery group.” In groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, participants receive strength and support from one another. 

Engraving of John Wesley open-air preaching

John Wesley preached many sermons outdoors, anywhere everyday people gathered. Photo is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Similar relationships were a major thrust of the early Methodist movement. Wesley’s model of discipleship included gathering people into small groups called classes where Christians were strengthened. United Methodists today can enter into similar accountability relationships to encourage one another toward holiness of heart and life.

6. Rethink church membership

“We live in a highly individualistic society,” Mercadante shared. Being part of a church, or any organization, is viewed suspiciously. 

“We need to teach commitment gently,” Mercadante advised. People may participate in our congregations only for a season. We need to make the most of that time, offering a robust theology that will serve them well into the future.

7. Life Transformation

The goal of the spiritual journey for many SBNRs is not solely the afterlife. SBNRs “have a very this-worldly perspective and place highest value on self-fulfillment, rather than salvation of the soul,” Mercadante said. They want to be “on a path to finding and being your best self.”

While Christians know the hope of resurrection, we also know our faith enriches our lives daily.

8. Study theology

Many SBNRs stay away from organized religion over theological issues. “The questions SBNRs have are legitimate,” Mercadante reports. Unfortunately, the answers they assume the church has are often viewed as non-responsive or simplistic.

The church can improve by thinking theologically together. “We need more classes for [church] members where we sharpen up their theological tools,” Mercadante stated. “Inevitably [an SBNR friend] will ask a question you cannot answer. That is your homework.”

SBNRS prefer honest answers to difficult questions. “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope," the Bible reads, "be ready to defend it.” (1 Peter 3:15). “We need to be able to do that gently and authentically,” Mercadante said.  

Going forward

For many, SBNR is a new acronym, but people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious have been around for years. Jesus spent a significant amount of his time with those who hungered to connect with God while feeling distanced from their organized religion.

He regularly met people where they were—up a tree, surrounded by accusers with stones, or too ashamed to come to a well when others were present. We should too. We just might meet him there.


*Joe Iovino works for at United Methodist Communications. Contact him at or 615-312-3733.

This story was first published on May 15, 2015.