How Church Lingo May Have Made It Easy To Be ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’

Unbiblical ways of speaking about our faith may have enabled unbelief in our culture.

It’s no secret that people in many pockets of the Western world today are identifying less and less with the Christian label and increasingly describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR.

What this usually means is that these folks are experimenting with a kind of do-it-yourself spirituality by drawing on several of the world’s religions without pigeonholing themselves into any one religious category. I think some of our church lingo over the last couple of decades may have made it easy for some Christians to begin identifying as SBNR.

Many of us have heard and probably regurgitated the phrase, “It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship with Jesus.” Now inarguably a cliché, this statement was crystal clear in its day, and its essential point remains true. Any surfacy rigmarole attached to Christianity, or to any religion for that matter, is less important than our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. One doesn’t have to squint, though, to see how this mantra might downplay any need to identify as a member of the Christian religion at all. We’re not religious, after all, we’re in a relationship with Christ.

A phrase that has probably been in circulation even longer goes, “All truth is God’s truth.” Here again, the basic point remains strong and clear. God has inscribed his truth all over the created order, and it remains his truth whether it surfaces in nature or in sociology, or even when portions of it seem to show up in the teachings of other religions. If God’s truth can be found in myriad places, then a religiously eclectic, do-it-yourself spirituality can make a lot of sense.

I’m not suggesting a watertight cause-and-effect relationship between these two phrases and Western Christians becoming SBNR. I don’t know of anyone who stopped calling themselves a Christian just because their youth pastor said, “It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship with Jesus.” I can’t point to anybody who began identifying as SBNR just because their college minister insisted that “all truth is God’s truth.” What I’m pointing out is an affinity between these two classic pieces of church lingo and the basic standpoint of people who are SBNR.

It’s not about religion, and God’s truth is everywhere. This two-pronged message was helpful for those of us who took it to mean, first, that our exclusive relationship with Jesus is more important than any formal trappings we may find clinging to the Christian religion, and second, that God may have allowed for other religious traditions to echo the universal truths found in His all-sufficient Word. But a true message vaguely conveyed often does more harm than good.

“It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship with Jesus.” What if someone took this to mean that identifying as a member of Christ’s bride the church didn’t matter at all? “All truth is God’s truth.” What if someone understood this to be saying that God has planted some divine truths, not within the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, but in the teachings and tropes of other religions. That someone could very likely begin describing themselves as spiritual but not religious, and here’s my point: they wouldn’t have to be crazy to end up there. The potential to affirm the SBNR lifestyle, I suspect, was in these two relics of church lingo from the very beginning.

So, if Christians becoming SBNR is a problem for the church today, then it’s a problem we’ve likely helped bring on ourselves. If we’re going to call SBNR ex-evangelicals back into the church, then we’ll have some explaining to do. To be sure, a relationship with Jesus is more important than religious rigmarole, and God has the prerogative to let his truth shine wherever he wants.

But we must invite folks into a relationship with Christ as members of his bride the church and celebrate the primacy of God’s truth as revealed in Scripture. So especially in light of this possibility that some of our church lingo over the last few years may have made it easy for some to identify as spiritual but not religious, our efforts to welcome SBNR people into covenant relationship with Jesus should be marked by humility, understanding, patience, and grace.

Kyle Brosseau

Kyle Brosseau is a missionary with the International Mission Board in Prague, Czech Republic, and previously served in South Asia. He holds a D.Min. in Missions from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD in World Religions from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jkylebrosseau.