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What Luther Says

SBNR: 'I'm Spiritual, But Not Religious...'

While surfing the Internet the other night, I somehow ended up at the "Pastor's Page" for Hope Lutheran Church in Aurora, CO where Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller from Table Talk Radio serves.

One section that caught my eye was the "Pastor On The Street" videos from 2006 (already 8 years ago now!). Here's the description...

We took a video camera and a microphone to downtown Denver and surveyed nine people about their religious thoughts. We asked if people were religious, what they thought about Jesus and the church, what the Gospel is, and how you get to heaven. The answers provide a small glimpse into some of the broad currents of popular religious thought. These audio files include only the answers to these questions. Much thanks to Pastor Joe Burnham for doing all the hard work on this project.

Given my affinity for Apologetics, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight each 2-minute video and then offer up a little Bible study.

Are You Religious?

Spirituality seems more in vogue than religion, though we did find quite a number of Christians. Notice that the problem with religion is that it's "organized" (like crime) and "tells people what to do" too. Being "spiritual" is more appealing -- there is no need to trouble with the Law, or creeds, or anything beyond what appeals to me.

Interesting, huh?

That got me thinking though and then I found an old article from The Lutheran Witness that tackled this topic by expounding upon what Pastor Wolfmueller pointed out in the descriptions of his observations of each response.

Is There A Difference Between Being Spiritual And Being Religious?
By Travis J. Sholl

You know this one-liner by now, don't you? You're talking with somebody in the grocery store, and somehow your church comes up. Then you get the look: the tilt of the head, the naive smile, the dewy eyes, the feigned empathy, the suburban condescension. Then you get the line: "Well, you know, I'm spiritual but not religious." Otherwise known as SBNR.

Pastors get it all the time. And all the time, we have to come up with an answer that simultaneously won't offend and yet brings the point home that there really isn't any difference between the two.

It wasn't always this way. It used to be that spiritual and religious were synonymous. But since language is always and everywhere defined by its use, people have recently begun to understand spirituality as something other than religion. Spirituality is private, individual, touchy-feely. Religion is institutional, sectarian, rigid. Spirituality is how you get in touch with the divine. Religion is how you get brainwashed by humans.

Of course, I point to extremes, and in most cases, it's a distinction without a difference. Sometimes I think people use the line simply because they'd rather stay in their pajamas and have a second pot of coffee on Sunday morning than get themselves up and out of the house. This is the line they use to keep their guilt at bay.

Moreover, even though the SBNR line of thinking is relatively new, it is all too American. Walt Whitman, 150 years ago, captured it in two lines:

From this hour I ordain myself
loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,

Going where I list, my own
master total and absolute . . . .

Of course, the SBNR among us will take these two lines as a mantra without bothering to read the rest of the poem ("Song of the Open Road"). That's part of the problem. And to understand the problem, we should take into account that SBNR thinking is the culmination of at least two of the strongest impulses in American society.


Ever since the Declaration of Independence, America has been centered in the concept and consciousness of the individual and his or her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In some cases, it has served us well, especially in our radical aversion from any form of totalitarianism or tyranny. But in others, it has created a rugged individualism that shuns any kind of community or any sense of communal well-being, including any concern for our neighbor, especially when it is combined with a second impulse.


Perhaps free-market capitalism is one of America's gifts to the rest of the world. But with it has come conspicuous consumption on a scale the world has never seen.

Its latest incarnation is in the ways marketing drives virtually everything we do. And virtually is the right word, because so much marketing now is driven by our Google searches and Facebook status updates.

When you combine these two -- individualism and consumerism -- within the religious marketplace, you get two things: entrepreneurship and cafeteria-style spirituality.

Historically, religious entrepreneurship has driven much of the vitality of American religion, including however many Great Awakenings we've had. But it also contributes to cafeteria-style spirituality, the sense that I can pick and choose what I like from however many different religions I find on Wikipedia. More often than not, such simplistic pieties undercut the cohesion and consistency that make meaningful religious identity and community possible.

Now, allow me a subtle distinction here. Cafeteria-style spirituality is not the same thing as the kind of engaged curiosity that is a healthy part of the Christian life. One produces an untethered balloon of saccharin platitudes and faux New-Age mysticism; the other is honestly curious about ideas, honors complexity, examines other expressions of religion with a deeper awareness of one's own and stands on firm ground because it has engaged its own faith tradition with depth and an eagerness to learn. In fact, these two attitudes, which may on the surface look similar, are exact opposites.

Cafeteria-style spirituality isn't really curious at all. Otherwise, it would realize that picking what you want out of a religion and leaving the rest doesn't do justice to that religion or one's own. It is just its own form of navel-gazing. God becomes whatever you see in the mirror.

Old-time religion calls that idolatry, which means it is no different from the First Commandment idolatries that plague all of us who have what Luther called incurvatus in se, the condition that we are all "curved in upon ourselves."

In one way, I guess that means we have something in common with the SBNR crowd. It's just that we have different idolatries to confront. And maybe that is our first point of contact with those who give us the "I'm spiritual but not religious" look.

Because, ultimately, in the long view, this is just one more fad in the marketplace of religion. And I venture a bet that in its place the pendulum will swing back again, and in its wake will be a return to more communal forms of religious experience. In our heart of hearts, we are relational beings. We are created to be in community.

The crux is whether we -- pastors, congregations, and church-goers -- will be ready to meet them where they are and to show them a different kind of community, one of authenticity and accountability, built on a foundation of grace and truth.

This assumes, of course, that that's the kind of community that we -- pastors, congregations, and church-goers -- are already building. Perhaps we still have work to do.

--- > "5% of American adults say they do not believe in God . . . but only about a quarter (24%) of these nonbelievers actually call themselves atheists" (Pew Research Center).

About the Author: The Rev. Travis J. Scholl is managing editor of theological publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. June/July 2012

Personally, whenever I hear someone say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious" I take it as their polite way of telling me, "Don't you dare approach me with your Bible-thumping and your Jesus! I'm perfectly content going about my existence thinking I'm in control and that I'm good enough to get into Heaven when I die...if there even is a Heaven in the first place." Be honest. Isn't that, or some variation of it, usually what you think of too whenever you hear someone say that though?

Reminds me of another The Lutheran Witness piece on this very same subject.

Spiritual But Not Religious?

According to a recent survey, 30 percent of people admitted to a hospital identify themselves as “non-religious, spiritual.” The idea of “believing” but not “practicing” one’s faith is not new; we now have popular language to express it. A 2008 Pew Research Survey showed that among the millennial generation (those aged 18–29), 26 percent cite no religious identity, yet 40 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives.


Some clarity is needed. Particular wording varies, but definitions basically agree: Religion has to do with the outward expression of what we believe to be true. In other words, it’s the doctrine, the dogma, the ritual practices. It’s the part that the majority of millennials sees as irrelevant or unimportant.

Spirituality, then, has to do with the inner experience of the faith. It is a personal, often spontaneous, experience of God outside the traditional structure of the church. Can one be “spiritual” without being “religious” or vice-versa?

We Lutherans hold they are one in the same. Take our creedal confession of belief “in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.” You can’t get much more spiritual depth than that.

This can also make being Lutheran difficult. Most families are a mix of religions, denominations and no beliefs at all! So, how do we talk to our family members about this sensitive topic without turning them away from Christ or becoming cynical ourselves?

I gotta admit, I've struggled with this quite a bit in the past.

Then again, I was a rather pious and self-righteous individual myself so it was to be expected that I would, more likely than not, actually look down upon anyone who said this to me.

Worse, I'd respond by giving them a heavy dose of "Law-Gospel-Law" telling them they needed to do X, Y, and Z -- immediately -- or else! When what they really needed to hear more than anything was a proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

Yet, even now, from time-to-time, I still wonder how to talk to a family member, friend, and/or co-worker who is in this SBNR mindset.

How do I confess the faith and proclaim Christ crucified in a way that won't push them away? Should I even be concerned with that being a possibility?

Well, it starts with reminding myself that it's not up to me to convert lost souls (John 6:44; Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, I need to remind myself that while I most certainly need to speak the truth at all times, I need to speak "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4;15).

At the same time, I need to listen and try to find some morsel of truth in the experiences they've had that have led them to that perspective, but not to the point where I ever give the impression that faith is ultimately experiential, relative, and subjective.

These are points of contact, opportunities to start discussions and cracks through which the Holy Spirit just might choose to blow and bless.

Approach with humility. Everything is a conversation. That’s the case even -- and especially -- when it comes to our faith. In Baptism, God recreated us through the death and resurrection of our Lord. Jesus has lifted from us the burden of our need to be right at the expense of others. He reserved His most severe criticism for those who measured their neighbor according to their own fine religious calibration. So instead of turning inward and thinking only of ourselves, we would do well to remember that our families deserve our humble honesty, our legitimate concern.

In the end, it is God alone who does the sorting of each family, He alone who sees into hearts where faith is formed. It is ours to remain faithful and be renewed through body, blood, and Word, ready for the Spirit to consecrate and do His work.


This is why I now rejoice whenever I hear a family member, friend, or co-worker say "I'm spiritual, but not religious" because I see it as a starting point to further discussion.

In that sense, it's like an open door, an invitation to dialogue, and perhaps -- and I stress the word "perhaps" -- evidence of the Holy Spirit preparing that person's heart and mind to be receptive to His truth.

Sure, I try to base my life on Christ's teachings, to emulate His grace, to demonstrate the love He has shown me to others. Guess what? I fail miserably in that regard! I know that I have not forgiven as I have been forgiven. I know that I have not loved as I have been loved.

This is part of the daily struggle. Interactions with the SBNR crowd always have a way of highlighting these truths for me and for that I'm very grateful.

I've looked at myself in the mirror and admitted my shortcomings, my sins. Now, if you identify yourself as one of the SBNR, then it's time for you to do the same.

Stop hiding behind this statement and using it as a defense whenever confronted with your own sinful condition and ever present need for a Savior. Repent and believe that Jesus Christ died for you upon the cross, bearing the full weight of God's punishment for your sins, so that you can be forgiven and saved, because He loves you that much.

Still not convinced that being a part of the SBNR community is a cleverly devised deception by Satan himself? Then please prayerfully consider the following...

At the heart of this do-it-yourself spirituality is a cherished American "-ism": individualism. We are a society that admires the rugged individual, the "self-made" man or woman, the courageous, self-reliant soul who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. "I did it my way," Frank Sinatra once boasted in song. We chafe at being told what to do and what to believe. Religion is personal, private and individual, and our individual paths to enlightenment are cobbled together from bits and pieces we picked up in Sunday School, sophomore religion class and our latest Google search. The notion that there are normative creeds and confessions, standards of faith and life, challenges our inner individual like speed bumps on a stretch of open highway.

The isolated individual is the judge of his or her own truth. If it feels right, smells right, tastes good, seems like the right thing to do, then it must be good and true.

Unfortunately, many have learned this subtle art in church and Bible classes, where they have pondered the question, "What does this Bible passage mean to me?" rather than "What does this objectively mean?" Any notion that beliefs can be right or wrong offends our subjective sensitivities.

*- Rev. William Cwirla

I hope that now you'll be somewhat better prepared for the next time you hear someone say "I'm spiritual, but not religious" and you'll understand what they really mean by that. Better yet, you'll be in a position to know how to tell them what you believe, confess, and teach.

What I like about these videos is that they underscore the encouragement provided by Nathan Redman where he says we should set out to "confess Jesus Christ where you wouldn’t normally do so" and then adds "I try to do this at work by asking people general questions about church and religion ... listening to them talk about their beliefs so you can talk to them about Jesus."

Amen! It's the Doctrine of Vocation at work (pun intended!) and on full display. In a Lutheran Layman's terms, let's remember that Jesus explains that every person -- even those who consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious" -- needs to repent of their sins and place their faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

[NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with Lutheran doctrine -- in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word -- so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray. Thank you in advance for your time and help. Grace and peace to you and yours!]


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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