Ask Magpie Girl: What is SBNR?

When people ask me what I do for a living I say:

“I help people create right-fit spiritual practices for themselves and their families. Mostly I work with recovering evangelicals and people who would describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious.”

Spiritual, but not religious. It’s a mouthful right? Wouldn’t it be ever so much easier to just contract it down to an acronym? Say, SBNR.

It’s not unusual for people to think that SBNR types are lazy. The assumption is that folks like us don’t want to practice our spirituality in community. Religious folks often thinks we relig-ish folks are resistant to authority. They imagine that we live undisciplined lives involving nothing but hemp clothing, organic tempeh and lots of navel gazing.

In her recent article at the Huffington Post pastor Lillian Daniel dismisses SBNR folks this way:

“Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?”

In Pastor Daniel’s eyes SBNR folks are dull, bland, self-centered, un-influenced by their elders or their heritage, and cowardly.

Pastor Daniel is woefully uninformed.

Friends, it takes real guts to live a SBNR life. There are no road maps for creating an eclectic faith. Curating your past to create something authentic to your present is challenging intellectual, emotional, and spiritual work. A life lived with emerging faith is not for the faint of heart.

Just like there are all flavors of religious folks out there, there are a lot of different types of SBNR people too. It’s true that many self-defined SBNR folks aren’t actively engaged in creating spiritual practices. But plenty of us are. And for those of us who are spiritual engaged but not religiously affiliated, I’d like to offer an alternative definition to Pastor Daniel’s.

  • SBNR people are not self-centered. Rather they are in the process of creating spiritual practices that reflect their core values so that they can better serve the world. (Practicing a religion that does not accurately reflect who you are and what you value drains you and keeps you from extending love, compassion, and service to others.)
  • SBNR people do not find ancient religions dull. Rather we want to understand the deep roots of religious practices. Often we will cull from a number of ancient practices to create a set of disciplines and celebrations that are authentic to our roots and values. This allows us to honor our heritage, while exploring the historic traditions that appeal to us in the present. (I myself pull from Jewish and Christian traditions, as well as Celtic rites and feminine wisdom practices.)
  • SBNR people do not operate independently, apart from “a cloud of witnesses.” Rather, we have many teachers and influencers who guide and inform us. (My short list: Jesus’s sermon on the mount, the compassionate teachings of Buddha, and emerging thought leaders like Karen Armstrong, founder the Charter for Compassion.)
  • SBNR people do not want to live in isolation. Rather we want to build relationships in which each person’s beliefs and practices are valued and honored. Many of us long for a tribe, and the loss of our former tribes–which required a unified belief in order to belong–is deeply felt amongst us.
  • SBNR people are not cowardly. Rather we are brave, facing our fears and doubts and leaning deeply into what Sabrina Ward Harris calls “the true and the questions.” Like explorers, we are forging new paths in uncharted territory. Rather than hide our true beliefs, we bravely face criticism from those we love. We endure the loss of relationships when our beliefs drift away from those of our friends, family, and tribe. And we remind ourselves that we are on the hero’s journey, which requires us to be brave in the face of fear.

What about you Magpie? What has your experience been as an SBNR type? How do you define your spiritual or religious flavor? (Define gently good friends, with soft boundaries and porous membranes. You never know when your soul might need room to grow.)  I’ll see you next week.

Much Warmth,

*your magpie girl


You Might Also Like:

SBNR: Listening to their absence. by Diana Butler Bass
Relig-ish, The Gathering
Curating Faith
Creating a Custom-Fit Faith
My Spiritual Hybrid with Kyeli Smith


Ask Magpie Girl is our Friday feature this fall. Maybe you want help raising soulful kids, creating a customize-blend of soulcare practices, or living more intentionally? Or maybe you just want to know a little more about something you read on the blog? Ask away in the comments or drop me a line. I’m happy to help. Thanks for being here! -R

Spiritual but not religious? Recovering Evangelical? Jill of all faiths? You might be relig-ish. Browse the posts to learn more, or click here to watch a video about our relig-ish community.

Kel October 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm

(Define gently good friends, with soft boundaries and porous membranes. You never know when your soul might need room to grow.)

i have moved further and further into an unwillingness to define anything of late
why must we define our beliefs, our lifestyles, ourselves …
all it does is create barriers, an excuse to build up more “us&them” walls

some SBNR are courageous, as are some RBNS
some SBNR are community builders, as are some RBNS
some SBNR value ancient practices, as do some RBNS

we’re all on the same journey called life
and yes, it’s more fun to do it with a tribe who value the same things as us

but drawing a Lillian line in the sand about who’s the best person to sit beside on a plane going down is just sad

Melanie October 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Quite a while back I did your Power Stories ecourse, and one of my favorite things from that course was writing my own creed. I think even religious types could learn a thing or two from doing that – provided they were willing to forget the creed of their religion and honestly think about what should go into their very own new one. As you wrote – takes guts. It’s easy to just go along with what you’ve been taught and to accept without question. Take a leap of faith and explore what it *really* means to you, religious people.

kate October 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm

this is brilliant and so true… i saw this posted by a friend (who is a pastor as well) and thought many of these same thoughts but wasn’t sure how to bring them all together. Thanks for putting together a thoughtful, smart and unifying response.

kate October 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm

that should read : “…i saw this same post.. ” and also “..and I thought many of these… ”

what i get for being distracted and accidentally hitting ‘submit’ too soon ;)

Andrea KP October 15, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Have you read Joseph Campbell? This sounds a lot like his theory of personal myth making. I highly recommend his book “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.” It’s very much about how the old religions have lost their potentcy and relevance to our lives and how individuals need to search their own pasts, dreams, and lives for images and myths to live by. Your article here resonates strongly with Campbell.

Lori October 16, 2011 at 7:45 am

Beautifully said, Rachelle, with dignity, self-control, kindness, and a noble refusal to respond in kind. What both grieves me and makes me immeasurably grateful is that Pastor Daniel sounds an awful lot like me, twenty-plus years ago, and I can tell her from personal experience that those of us who find ourselves SBNRs are often the people who were the most fervently committed to our conventional religious traditions at one time–until the boxes themselves betrayed us and we had to move on or die, spiritually.

This resonated so strongly for me: Define gently good friends, with soft boundaries and porous membranes. You never know when your soul might need room to grow. Amen to that! My gentle (and at the same time, fierce) definition comes directly from the depths of Christian tradition, in its own words: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Nothing more, nothing less. Given that, Pastor Daniel, if your box becomes too small for you, know that there is plenty of room–and welcome–out here in the SBNR wilds.

Steve Frazee October 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

Excellent article!

Drop by our Facebook page and say hello:


Simone October 16, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Um, normally I would never comment just to link to a post on my blog, but I wrote a piece that is exactly talking about this but from a slightly different angle (whereupon I also invented the world ‘schpirituality’). But I go even a bit further to say that the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ is false and artificial; I reject it. You either live an engaged life, or you don’t.

YP October 17, 2011 at 8:57 am

I wish it were as easy as Pastor Daniel seems to think. I wish I had a set of rules that tell me what to do/think/say in any given situation. But I don’t and neither does any other SBNR person: we have to forge our own way, negotiate every step and begin anew everyday.

It’s hard, it’s challenging and I wouldn’t do it any other way because I have to live with my conscience, not yours.

Prem and Om

Tanja October 18, 2011 at 3:12 am

What has your experience been as an SBNR type?

My spiritual path has always been as a seeker. I’ve tended to believe that if there is some kind of ultimate truth, our human minds are too limited to grasp it, so the best we can do is just keep searching – trying out different things – seeing what works for us – keeping what does and gently letting go of what doesn’t. This means that what’s right for me now probably won’t be right for me a few years – or sometimes even a few months – down the track. And if that’s the case, how I can I demand that it’s supposed to be right for anyone else.

How do you define your spiritual or religious flavor?

Once upon a time, when labels were a bit more important to me than they are now, I defined my spiritual flavour as “Tanjabelievesitisism”. I still like using the word (hey, I like using anything that makes me smile), but the nature of Tanjabelievesitisism has changed quite a bit from back then.

I have no problem with people who do want/need a hard and fast set of rules to guide them spiritually, the way Pastor Daniel seems to endorse. That’s a valid path to me too – and sometimes I wish it were one I could walk myself. But I have a deep-seated need to “figure things out on my own”, and even if I end up following a path that’s absolutely IDENTICAL to some specific organised religion, I think it’s still going to be more valuable for me because I had to go through the journey to get there.

Blessings, and thank you for making me think about this!

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