Magpie Moments: Why Churches aren't Relig-ish. (Even the hip ones.)

My beloved colleague Steve Knight recently wrote an intriguing post about whether or not the emerging church was in the process of creating gathering places that would be available to folks who self-identify and “None” — you know, as in “None of the Above” on what-religion-are-you survey. As you know, I am super in love with the Nones, or as I like to call ’em SBNRs (spiritual but not religious folks.) I love ’em just as as much as I do the Recovering Evangelicals. Ya’ll are my people. Why? Because I am one.

I’ve been working with SBNR folks for a goodly number of years now, and you know what? I don’t know a one of them who truly feels comfortable in a church. Not an old school ritual-based church. Not a new-fangled pop-music-and-candles church. Lots of people do feel comfy in both of those settings. (Huzzah! More power to you!) And lots of SBNR folks do go to those kind of churches. They just don’t feel especially right-fit behind the double doors. It’s kind of like when you really want sushi, but you are in the middle of a corn field in a landlocked state, so you end up eating chicken-fried steak and eggs. It’s not bad. It fills you up. Other people like it a lot. But it’s not sushi.

If churches are so very interested in making space for the None’s/SBNRs, then why aren’t more of those folks feeling at home there? Because I know a lot of emergent pastors, and I know they are trying to makes space for “the other.” They really really are. So why isn’t it working? I’d like to offer 6 reasons, all of which I’ve observed over several years of working with just such a relig-ish population.

  • First Problem, The Other. I know we need language to define things. It’s helps make unwieldy things easier to talk about. But this idea of welcoming in “the outsider” or “the other” is a modernist vocabulary. In the postmodern milieu the idea of the other is fading fast. Eastern philosophy and the concept that we are all part of a universal whole is starting to blur the lines of us and them, of me and you. Churches are still largely functioning in the terms of “us” and “the other.” Churches who are interested in welcoming the Nones need to start getting uber curious about the life of these “other’s.” What do they believe? How do they live? What helps them feel rooted? What causes do they support? (Now switch and have the other person answer the questions!) Finding the common ground and dancing in the overlap needs to become a more central concern than pulling someone across an invisible boundary that doesn’t really exists anyway.
  • Conversion. No matter how welcoming a church is, there’s still that underlying vibe of “we want to convert you.” Even if that’s not your gig, newcomer’s are going to feel that way because of how churches have behaved in the past, and how they still behave on the Fox nightly news. No one feels comfortable with that. I mean, who wants to hang out someplace where the whole goal of the gig is to get you to abandon your core beliefs? For churches who have a heavy emphasis on conversion, or who are dedicated to the idea of one undeniable universal Truth, making space for the None’s is going to be a tough call. And that’s okay. Those branches of faith should go ahead and pursue the conversion thing. But if that’s not your main gig, then you need to really work hard on changing your language and your programming to demonstrate that you are interested in learning from newcomers and making space for new ideas and practices.
  • Wiggle Room. The theology and doctrine of most churches is not flexible enough for the level of questioning that SBNR/None folks are are engaged in. Churches aren’t set up to be interfaith. And maybe they should not be. Maybe that is the role of another yet-to-be-born kind of relig-ish community. But if a given church wants to make space for the Nones/SBNR they are going to have to kick their beliefs open a lot wider.
  • Let’s talk about Sex. Except for of the most liberal of mainline churches, the sexual mores of most churches are too restrictive, and discussions about sex are too narrow. And if you aren’t both open and affirming, well, most of the None’s aren’t going to darken your door.
  • Dead White Guys. Religious debate that stems from the teachings of dead white guys is just too big of a concern among most church leaders.  And the ratio of theological debate vs. living-out the gospel of love through service/charitable giving is still too heavy on the debate side. The SBNR folks I work with aren’t interested in parsing creeds or analyzing Augustine. They are intelligent and interested in theory as much as the next guy. But the felt need is more about how to live out the Gospel of Love in our current cultural context. To put it in terms that my theologian readers will understand: your concern over orthodoxy is trumping your parishoner’s need for assistance with orthopraxis.
  • No Space for Relig-ish Hybrids: Just as emergent pastors are captured by the idea of hybrid denominations, the SBNRs are captured by the idea of hybrid faith. They aren’t asking “Am I cathlobaptist or mennoanglican?” Rather they are self identifying as Christian-Buddhist, or Jesus+Reiki, or as one of my Christian-ish readers once said, “I love Jesus, and I’ve always been a little bit witchy.” In my opinion, hybrid religion is the next evolution of faith in an increasingly global culture.

As a spiritual minister, the question I’m asking myself is: Where will these relig-sih hybrids find a home? What does it mean to create a relig-ish sanctuary? How do we gather the SBNR/None folks who are hungry for a place of spiritual nurture and exploration? How do we accommodate the natural shifts in beliefs throughout the human maturation process? What does it mean to pursue common truths across religious borders?

These are the questions that really light my fire. Creating such a place is my passion. We spiritual misfits, we soulful wanderers, we need a landing place. We need a place to call home.


What about you Magpie? What is your relig-ish hybrid (if you have one)? And where have you found a place to call home? Still looking? What would you need to feel welcome in a regli-ish nest?


Magpie Moments is our Monday morning series this Fall, featuring a single shot of soulcare from me, your Magpie Girl. Join us each week and toss back some nurturing goodness. Need a double shot of soulcare? Click here for previous Magpie Moments. Thank you for being here today.

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.

Steve K. December 12, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Love love LOVE this, Rachelle. These same questions light my fire, as well.

Mike Croghan December 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Me too! Love this. Great post, great questions.

Anna December 12, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Love this! I definitely feel like an SBNR. I grew up Southern Baptist and am now probably best described as a YogiBuddhist who still has a soft spot for JC, or at the least the hippie version I relate to. :)

Mary Giannone December 12, 2011 at 8:43 pm

It sounds like the ideal “church” (or often just referred to as a “society” for those who aren’t even comfortable with the idea of a church) is the Unitarian Universalist church.

At the heart of every. single. Christian. church. you will find one thing: Jesus is the only way. They may be liberal, hip, open and affirming, accepting of the “Others,” but when you really boil it down they believe that Jesus is the savior. The UU church does not. Or rather, does not believe that Jesus is the ONLY way, the ONLY savior. They leave room for Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Agnosticism, even Atheism. Just check it out, explore their website.

benjamin ady December 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

Rachelle–perfect and delicous. Awesome. Thank you.

Meg December 13, 2011 at 1:03 am

OOOOOOH, i loooooooooooooooooooove this! i am a none, looking for a landing place. tried to find one today, but it ended up badly – i can email you the correspondence if you like, Rachelle!!!
PS I am curious as to why your blog is named after a raucous Australian bird …perhaps Magpies are romantic on your side of the Pacific, but on ours, they’re kinda obnoxious!!!!
PPS We met, years ago, at yours in Seattle, celebrating St Brighid’s day and creating wintry rituals – thanks!! xxxx

Cynthia December 13, 2011 at 5:01 am

I am friends with Steve Knight also (and his lovely wife Becky) but I didn’t even read that article until you posted it. I thought … words, words, words … I am TIRED of words.

I did go read it and loved your comment. I commented also.

I’ve found a space that fits my hybrid faith very well.
The Unitarian Universalist church is accepting of all. There is no “other”.

I love online community but I really need those that I can be with, face to face. I wan to help others, be there with a meal, know that I have someone to help when I need it.

Kirsten Alicia December 13, 2011 at 11:33 am

Hello Rachelle, I wish I had some extremely intelligent comment to leave in response to your very interesting post. I suppose I am a None/SBNR, having been raised Catholic. All of the organised religions make me feel very uncomfortable. I find the whole question of faith very difficult to understand. I struggle with the idea of being spiritual – how do I do that? Does being spiritual require a belief in something? Am I ‘supposed’ to believe in something/God/whatever? Why do so many people appear to need to believe in someone/something? Apologies, I am rambling, these are all the questions that I’ve been asking for years.

shay December 13, 2011 at 11:44 am

love this post rachelle. i read it with a smile as i think it’s spot on, and also because i was glad to see that the new community i’m a part of forming has taken some of this stuff into consideration already.

i read this today: and wonder what you think? It’s somewhat related to this post.

susanna December 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I’d like permission to quote you in my “mini thesis” Master’s paper entitled: “Karma Chameleon” or the “cross-pollination between Buddhism and Christianity … how and why”

Leah December 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Thanks for this post Rachelle. I am label-phobic, but suppose I would be a None/SBNR if someone were to label me. The other day as I was reading a Mary Oliver poem, I realized that the act of reading it was my ‘church’ (for lack of a better word). Maybe a better way to put it is it was my ‘sacred’ (space/connection/feeling/moment), what I used to feel in church. My church is also…. walking in the forest, drinking a mug of well steeped green tea with a good book, going to an indie music show with loved ones, watching a dance performance in the theatre, preparing/sharing a nutritious meal with friends…..

My question is, why do I have to call this church/or sacred? Why can’t I just call it life, and live it. (without feeling that I have to explain it)

Sarah December 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm

This discussion is SO up my alley!! Love it! I was raised Catholic although we were a fairly moderate family. I became more and more liberal into my teen and young adult years. I got a certificate in pastoral ministry from a Catholic college and then got a job with The United Church of Canada as a youth coordinator. I loved that job and worked there for 3 years but at a certain point, I just didn’t feel that I belonged anymore. It was so hard to leave the kids and teens at the church but I didn’t know what I believed anymore and they weren’t paying me to just hang out with them. I felt it would’ve been disingenuous to stay. Now, I occasionally go to Catholic church with my family but mostly just to hang out with my nephews and help my sister corral them during mass. ;) I get little meaning from the mass, anymore. It’s so patriarchal and old fashioned, it just doesn’t resonate with me anymore.

Rachelle, I think you’re right that us Nones/SBNRs will have to invent a new way of gathering in faith and belief that is not modeled on any current church. Keep up this amazing blog, girl!

Raven December 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm

As an escapee from the evangelical machine (and now a full-time healer), I heartily agree with your post, and add that there needs to be space and respect for the Divine Feminine.

Steve Frazee December 13, 2011 at 9:38 pm

We are trying to provide a home for the SBNR people at and on our facebook page,

It is a labor of love that is just starting. We hope to provide a platform that runs both online and in local face to face self organizing communities.

We could use some help. :)

Rebecca D December 15, 2011 at 10:31 am

You know what? As a SBNR person, I find the CULTURE of the Unitarian Church to be too church-y for me. What I would really like is a place to 1) get together with other spiritual people 2)have meaningful rituals together 3) chat 4) ideally singing, social justice and eating together figure in there somewhere. I’m still looking, but I know what I don’t want is a lot of church politics and sermons about things I already know (after 18 years as a practicing Christian and another eight as a practicing Something-or-other, if I don’t get “love one another” without the 30 minute soundbyte I may as well just go home.)

Eileen December 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I disagree that all churches are trying to fit people into boxes, and that we think we have the ONLY way and the ONLY truth. Certainly not at mine.
Many churches hold Religious Pluralism Sundays in May, where we acknowledge that the other religions DO have a lot to offer.
Lots of us are also SBNR’s. Part of this is reflected in the following stages of faith article:
When we grow in our faith we don’t need to feel threatened by other faiths and can allow all faiths to enrich our own.

Elissa December 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I’ve never seen such a great summary of what’s going on in churches today. At least in the ones I’ve attended. Thanks, Rachelle!

Jen January 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I was reminded of your site last week when I stumbled across your podcasts while seeking some spiritual inspiration. How can I sign up to have each new blog post emailed to me?

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