Rev. Greg Powell meant well when he invited religiously unaffiliated young families to Castlegar United in British Columbia last winter for an “Un-Church” event. The family-friendly gathering included a free mid-week dinner of soup and chili (with gluten-free and vegan options) and carefully selected hymns that don’t overtly mention God.
One of the games involved an imaginative Q&A-style treasure hunt. Sample question: “Is God present in toys?” Families were then directed to the church nursery, where they found a jar with a slip of paper inside that read, “Where there is joy and delight, God is present.” Powell intended to talk about what the word “God” means for people, “but there were a lot of rambunctious two-year-olds, and we never got there.”
Turned out there was already too much God for some. In the feedback forms, several people said the event was more religious than they’d expected. Powell was advised to use a different name for God, such as Spirit. “They were expecting a space free of the word ‘God,’ so it was uncomfortable for a lot of people,” he says. Powell ended up writing several letters of apology.
“Un-Church” is the latest initiative (along with Messy Church, jazz vespers and pub nights) that tries to grab hold of the slippery spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) demographic. But this is one group determined to wriggle free from the church’s net. “I’ve spoken to a wide range of congregations, from the Unitarians to the Presbyterians, and they all want a piece of the SBNR pie. I have to tell them with regret that this pie does not want to be eaten,” says Linda Mercadante, an Ohio theology professor and author of Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious. The invitation may be as light and sweet as meringue, but these folks are suspicious about having God thrown in their face. “There’s a strong anti-institutional bent in the SBNR, and that will always be a roadblock for any group that tries to attract them,” says Mercadante.
Even non-dogmatic religions that seemingly would be an ideal theological match for the SBNR — the Unitarians, the Centre for Spiritual Living and the Oasis Network (whose new Toronto chapter counts United Church atheist minister Rev. Gretta Vosper as one of its leaders) — have a hard time getting this crowd to bite.
Vyda Ng, executive director of the Canadian Unitarian Council, which represents 4,500 Unitarians in 46 congregations, reports that numbers are in decline despite a decidedly liberal approach. Partly it’s because members are reluctant to proselytize. But the other factor is that it’s still an organized religious community, even if it does allow lots of room for individual belief. “If it looks like a church and smells like a church, it’s a church,” she says.
When a 2016 survey asked 2,000 unchurched Americans what would get them into a church building, 62 percent said they’d go to a meeting about neighbourhood safety, and about half said they’d attend a community service event, concert or exercise program. Communion? Forget it. Pilates? Maybe.
But Mercadante holds out some hope for churches keen to attract the SBNR. Her research shows that millennials with no faith background may eventually find their way to church since they don’t carry much religious baggage. And she says social justice and political causes can also woo this group.
Rev. Keith Howard, a retired B.C. Conference staffperson and former executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign, agrees: “The church has meeting space, means to get the word out, and trained and capable leaders. All those things are useful when you are trying to formulate a revolution.”
This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Observer as part of the “Spiritual but secular” series.