Lent 5 B – Spiritual But Not Religious

Dear Partner in Preaching,

If there was ever a text for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, this may be it.

Before jumping into John, however, perhaps a word or two on SBNR is in order. In general, we use this term rather broadly to indicate variously those who no longer affiliate with religion, the “nones” who seem open to spirituality defined broadly, and those who actually checked the SBNR box on a survey. Which means that SNBR can mean almost anything, and at times seems to encompass a little bit of everything. So here’s how I think of it:

SBNR denotes those folks who are indeed open to a sense of mystery, curious about the divine, wonder about God and the spiritual life…but have not found those inclinations and needs met by traditional religious institutions. In this sense, they remind me of the Greeks in today’s passage. They don’t come to Philip asking for information about Jesus. They don’t inquire about a new member’s class or ask to join a committee. They don’t request a statement of beliefs before joining. They simply want to see Jesus. To really see him, person to person, face to face.

Interestingly, they make this request on the way to a religious celebration: Passover. But even though they have probably grown up religious, right now they want to see Jesus. I have no idea if they were dissatisfied with the faith of their parents or if they were looking forward to another joyous Passover celebration but also intensely curious about all they’d heard about Jesus. And to be honest, I don’t think it really matters. What they want just now is an encounter with, and experience of, Jesus.

Which brings me to my question: If those Greeks were to show up in our congregations today, would they be granted their heart’s desire? I don’t say this to put you (or me) on the defensive. Of course we are preaching Jesus each week and we craft and lead worship that we hope will mediate an experience of God for those who gather. No, I ask for another reason. Let me explain:

Thirty or so years ago, pollsters interested in the practice of religion in America began to ask folks to self identify in one of four categories: religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, neither. The big swing thirty years later, as you might guess, is between the first two options. Whereas a large number of folks used to indicate they were “religious but not spiritual” and a much smaller one check of SNBR, that ratio has flipped. Which means, among other things, that most of our congregational practices and patterns (including how we preach) were shaped for, with, and by a generation of people who were pretty clear that while they really liked religious practices, they weren’t necessarily all that interested in a spiritual experience of God.

Which is why I wonder at times whether our carefully crafted (and largely scripted) liturgies, our manuscript driven sermons, and our performance-oriented worship reach those who simply – and perhaps desperately – want to see Jesus.

Again, please don’t get me wrong: Can manuscript preaching and classic liturgy mediate a living encounter with the Lord? Of course they can…and regularly do, for us and for many of our people. At the same time, I think we can argue that they aren’t reaching a whole lot of people, people that we love and care about and wish were with us. So I wonder how much of “the way we’ve always done” we’d be willing to change or adapt to make room for the SBNR who are our children, grandchildren, and friends. And I wonder if we’d be willing to enter into genuine conversation with folks who used to attend but don’t, or who we’d love to see come but haven’t, in order to ask what might make a Sunday morning experience more meaningful to them. Would be we be willing even to entrust our worship planning to our youth, for instance – not just once a year so we can pat them on the head – but regularly, hoping and trusting that we might all be drawn more deeply into the faith by figuring out together how we can help people see Jesus in and through our Sunday morning gathering.

Well, if you’re at all interested in asking these questions and starting such a conversation, this Sunday’s passage might be a good time to get the ball rolling. If you do so, however, I’d suggest paying attention to one more thing. Interestingly, it’s hard to know whether these Greeks actually get their wish. While their question sets the transition to Jesus’ passion in motion, John is unclear about what happens to them.

What John is very clear about, however, is the kind of Jesus they – and we – will see if we really look. Because upon hearing this request, Jesus immediately looks ahead to the cross. The hour he speaks about, the glory he prays for, the fulfillment of his mission and destiny he anticipates – all of this revolves around his cross, his obedient embrace of sacrificial love to the point of death.

Which might tell us SBNR and RBNS alike quite a bit about this Jesus: the point of faith in Jesus isn’t just faith, or comfort, or satisfying spiritual desires. No, the point of following Jesus is that we might be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God through our love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of those around us. Jesus comes to demonstrate God’s strength through vulnerability, God’s power through what appears weak in the eyes of the world, and God’s justice through love, mercy and forgiveness. And he calls those who would follow him to the very same kind of life and love.

Is this the Jesus the Greeks want to see? Is it the Jesus we want to see? I have no idea. But I do know that the Jesus who reveals the heart of our loving God by going to the cross is the Jesus we get, and the Jesus who is raised again on the third day to demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate and life more powerful than death is the Jesus we are called to preaching. This is the one, in the end, who has promised to draw all of us – SBNR, RBNS, both, and neither – to him.

Please know, Dear Partner, just how grateful I am that you have given your life to sharing this very message. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,