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Spiritual But Secular

They may not have a church community, but the ‘spiritual but not religious’ still need to connect

By Anne Bokma

Where do the one in four Canadians with no religious affiliation go when they want to experience a sense of meaning and community? Siobhan Chandler, who holds a PhD in religious studies, heads to yoga four or five times a week when she needs a spiritual fix. Chandler, a leading scholar on the “spiritual but not religious” movement (it was the topic of her 2011 dissertation), says the SBNR may not have “brick-and-mortar meeting places,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t “collaborative, connected and powerful.”

SBNRs are creating a “seismic shift in the religious landscape” as more of them trade in the hard plank of a church pew for the abdominal-toning plank position of yoga, notes Chandler, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. And they are adept at finding others who share their spiritual outlook, whether it be at a yoga studio, meet-up group, reiki practice, hiking club, knitting circle or self-improvement retreat, or on websites such as Avaaz, an online global activist organization, or the Spiritual Singles dating site.

According to Chandler’s research, 80 percent of SBNRs say spiritual community matters to them, and 30 percent meet regularly in some type of spiritual group. “They live in a time that can be alienating and lonely, and SBNRs are like anyone else — they want to create community,” she says. “Not everyone who goes to a yoga class goes for a spiritual awakening, but that possibility certainly exists for them.”

British Columbia is the province with the highest rate of Canadians who claim to have no religious affiliation, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey. One has to wonder if it’s merely coincidental that B.C. is also the province where yoga is most popular, according to a yoga trends study by VitalityLink. Rev. Dale Perkins, a retired United Church minister in Victoria, is hoping to reach out to SBNRs in Canada’s most western province with a new interfaith group exploring the spiritual life.

Perkins is the spokesperson for the Spiritual Community Network, designed to bring SBNRs together through a series of intimate eight-week-long conversation circles and workshops led by specially trained “animators” who will encourage participants to consider the spiritual dimensions of topics ranging from gardening and hiking to birding and painting. The group is seeking $180,000 in funding (the United Church has provided $8,000) and hopes to launch this year.

Why not just encourage these folks to go to church? “No matter how many bobble-headed Jesuses the church comes up with, it just isn’t going to reach the SBNR because they don’t want anything to do with institutionalized religion,” says Perkins, referring to the United Church’s 2006 Emerging Spirit ad campaign, which featured a playful image of Jesus in an attempt to draw a younger audience to the church.

It remains to be seen whether Perkins’s experiment will work. In the meantime, Chandler says if the United Church hopes to attract SBNRs, it will have to create ways to “shift to a more personal experience of spirituality” that allows people to “have an authentic experience of the Divine — something that happens to them that allows them to know they are in touch with God.” This could include weekly meditation classes, mandala-making workshops, exercises in contacting “spirit guides,” intimate conversation circles or on-site church garden clubs. “It’s a challenge for the church — how far is it willing to dilute its traditions and become more contemporary and attractive to this group?” she asks.

Perkins doesn’t deny that he is hopeful some who sign up for his new spiritual movement might be inspired to go to church. “I don’t say it too loudly, especially among SBNRs, but I do hope there might be a migration back to institutional religion,” he says. “If the church has any relevance in terms of the world in which we live, we need these people.”

It’s clear the church would have to radically change if it hopes to attract SBNRs. It would need to transform from a holy house of worship into a holistic spiritual centre, one dedicated to personal growth and healing. SBNRs don’t want to be preached at — they want to be engaged in deep discussion. And they don’t want to sit passively in a pew — they’d rather do improvisational dance in the aisles.

Or maybe even a little downward dog.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.



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