Why Are SBNRs Leaving the Church?

A big question on the minds of many clergy today is “Why are SBNRs leaving the church?” What it would take to bring them back?

This is difficult to answer. Many SBNRs I interviewed were disillusioned with organized religion. They decided to leave it for good.

Take Morgan for example. Her story suggests why SBNRs are leaving the church. A fifty-year-old gay woman, Morgan who grew up in a tight-knit, Catholic family. Spirituality is still very important to her, but when I asked her why she chose to pursue her spirituality outside the church she told me that

the Catholic Church doesn’t do it for me anymore. Part of this is because I am homosexual, but it is also because they won’t ordain women as priests. It is so fear-based. I tried going back to the church when I was dealing with the death of my mother, to seek solace and comfort, you know? But I realized then that I wasn’t going to find it in an organized religion. That’s not where I am going to find it, whatever ‘it’ is…I can’t go back.

Trudy, a professional woman also in her fifties, was likewise very involved with the church growing up. She went to Sunday school a lot and liked it. Her grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister but died a few months before she was born. She said she always felt an affinity for him because, like her, he was a “questioner.” Trudy said,

From a very young age I always wanted to know about the soul. I had questions about the soul; and, I’ve always wanted to know about truth. I grew up in the church and I remember changing the words in the hymns or prayers to something I could accommodate to, something I could accept.

When she was older she joined a youth group at her church that proved to be a pivotal turning point:

It was very much a time of questioning for us, and in truth the church rejected us. We did not reject the church. They pushed us out because it could not accept the things we were saying about openness in the liturgy, and accepting different types of people into the church. It was a lot about conformity. We were trying to break that open and the church wasn’t about to let that happen, so I drifted away from it.

Tanis offers another example of why SBNRs are leaving the church. Tanis grew up in the United Church, but left for a time. One year at Christmastime when she was a university student, she heard the Jesus story on the radio and broke down crying. She decided she would return to the church. It didn’t last long, however, and soon she left it for good. “Christianity is not gender neutral,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

A prison chaplain I know just wrote a blog post for the Anglican Church here in Victoria, BC. We have met several times to discuss the emergence of SBNR as an identifiable faith position among prison inmates and consider how chaplains could respond to their needs. He writes,

I once spent a week asking SBNR staff  [at the jail] a simple question: “What would it take for you to come back to church again?” One person captured the whole week’s responses in one reply: “You’d have to build a time machine, transport me back to church as a kid, and erase all the bad memories of being forced to think this or to do that against my will.” That’s a tall order.

In my opinion, the church would be wasting its time trying to get the likes of Morgan, Trudy, Tanis and the Time Machine Traveler back in the pews. There may be some people who still want what church has to offer, but not folks who have been wounded and alienated. So to answer the question “What would it take to bring people back to church?” I would say that maybe the better question is “How can we hold on to the members we have so they will encourage their friends and family to come?”