Call, Church Life, Emerging

Spiritual, not…

Starbucks We met in a coffee shop on a rainy Saturday morning, the
wind blowing the bare trees across the way. They wanted to get married, but
although both grew up Catholic, they had decided against being married by a
priest. I asked why, then, they were talking to a pastor? Why not simply ask a
Justice of the Peace, or find a notary to do the paperwork? And they answered
with the statement we hear so often these days, “We’re spiritual, but not
religious.” They believe in God, and they want their ceremony to reflect that
belief, but they don’t want it to come with the trappings and strictures of the
church that nurtured them.

“We’re spiritual, but not religious.” It’s not only young
people who say this to us, and when those of us who are religious hear it, we
almost invariably react a little defensively. What’s wrong with being
religious? In church, I hope we can be both, connected by the history and
tradition passed down to us but also in touch with the leading of the Holy
Spirit that moves among us, guiding us to new ways of being faithful to God and
to Jesus Christ.

There is no question in this second decade of the 21st
century that being church means something different than it did when I was a
little girl growing up in Virginia or in the Maine of 50 or 100 years ago. We
live in a world, for better or worse, where businesses open on Sunday, where
people carry coffee everywhere and sleep with their iPhones nestled on their
pillows, a world where weekly attendance at worship and Sunday School no longer
goes without saying. When you meet a young couple and ask if they go to church,
you’ll likely hear the same thing I heard, “We’re spiritual, but not…”

But aren’t we spiritual? I want to think I am, in the sense
that the word means to me. Like the people who define themselves that way, I’ve
experienced the transcendent in nature, walking in the woods or watching the
waves break or looking west to Mount Washington while the sun sets. But I have
also experienced the transcendent, literally something beyond my rational
understanding, in the gasp of a gorgeous toddler surprised by the handful of
water I’ve just laid on his red curls as the water runs down his forehead. Our
rituals, our sacraments, retain their power as signs of God’s presence among
us. The breaking of bread, repeated so many times, does not become dull or
repetitive, but rather becomes amplified by experience. And whether we pass the
little cups in their special trays or dip the bread into a chalice, we are both
spiritual *and* religious when we experience the presence of Christ among us, a
presence we cannot explain but can feel in our hearts and souls.

I think what we’ve lacked in many mainline churches is an
inclination to talk about what our faith means to us, unless we’re in a very
safe space or a moment of crisis. We’ve allowed the world to think we are
simply religious, engaging in practices that are simply old-fashioned,
something your grandmother does, not necessary for today’s world. When we close
in on ourselves and insist on doing everything the way we’ve always done it
before, when we hold to habits and traditions for their own sake, we write our
own epitaph. When we’re reserved about the deeper reality of our faith lives—our
spiritual lives—we miss the chance to connect with others.

And that’s what people are hungry for, what they are seeking
on the Internet and in coffee shops, something they don’t believe we even care
about in the average church of Congregational heritage. Really, they don’t even
know what that heritage means. But we do. We know it means the freedom to
figure out for ourselves who God is and how we understand the life of Jesus. It
means agreeing to disagree when the person sitting down the pew from us sees
Christ a little differently. It means leaving each other enough breathing room
that the Spirit has some space to move among us.

In this second decade of this 21st century, I
believe we’re being called to let our friends and neighbors know that church is
not quaint or forgettable but real and meaningful, that the connections we make
with one another and the world through worship and service make our lives
richer and deeper. I believe we’re being called to speak up and tell our
stories, to share the ways God has touched our lives: in art and music, in
nature and in relationships, and even in church. When we are ready to share it,
the world will see we are spiritual *and* religious. 

22 thoughts on “Spiritual, not…”

  1. What a great precis of the Congregational/UCC way! And — is that the Starbucks across from the used book store? I’ve been there many times, waiting for my brother to finish looking at all the art books and poetry.

  2. I completely agree. In fact, I’ve been musing over this ever since the RevGals Friday Five asking what things we might out in each category. I think that my spirituality — which I consider to be questioning, critical, mystical, embodied, intellectual, sophisticated, and playful — is entirely a product of my religious life as connected to church and denominational communities, practices, and doctrines. And I think you are absolutely right that we are called to share that our religious lives are our spiritual lives, and that church is not an outdated shell but a vital experience of encounter with God.

  3. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’ve found myself reflecting a lot lately on this idea, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” because I hear this a lot, lot, lot as Sara and I build relationships with young adults in this progressive city. I often find myself wondering what exactly it is that people mean when they claim not to be religious. It seems to me we need to dig beneath that a little bit, and when we do, I think these are ideas we, who find meaningful ways to express our spirituality through the church, need to take very seriously.
    I wish I had more confidence that most people in mainline Protestant churches today are spiritual *and* religious, but sadly, I’ve encountered far too many who seem to be religious without much interest in spirituality beneath that. Am I being judgmental to say that? Yes, probably. But seriously… I think religiosity without much spiritual depth is prevalent, and I suspect this is what many people – especially those who see the world through a postmodern lens – recoil from. And while this sounds critical (it is, really), I mean to say all this with a deep love for the church and a deep hope that we might be able to reclaim a sense that faith communities have something deep and rich and profound to offer those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
    You might be interested in this blog post from someone who recently found New Light: It gives me hope.

  4. I think that’s what my struggle is right now with my church. It’s full of religion, but empty of spirituality — at least for worship services.

  5. I think it probably means, “we don’t want to go to a church where we’re told what to believe, but we do believe.” So many people have had past experiences of feeling as if they have to subscribe to certain beliefs to be a part of a faith community and are just leery of “church.”

  6. Jayne, that’s what I wish people in my tradition would testify to, because on the whole we *don’t* have anyone telling us what to believe.
    Allen, I hear what you’re saying, but not all of us have the freedom and the opportunity to do ministry the way you are doing it now. I hope you don’t think there’s no point trying to elicit a response from those who are currently in churches. If so, I might as well get a job at Starbucks instead.
    Deb, can you say more about what’s missing for you spiritually in worship? or what feels exclusively religious by contrast?

  7. Beautifully written, Songbird. There’s another aspect in our culture: That loud shouting voice of the conservative media weighted heavily by the Christian right. Their diatribe leads one to believe that religion, especially Christian religions, are a matter of black and white: saved or not saved, against abortion, against same sex marriage, against acceptance of others as they are.
    Given that strong voice in our culture, many who are spiritually wise might well choose to remain gray.

  8. I am with Deb on this. All too often church has a lot of religious trappings but lacks spirituality – and authenticity.
    By that I mean it quickly gets stuck in its ways (even ‘radical churches on the edge’ get boring and predictable!) in part because it is not longer being spirit led … and too much emphasis is being put on getting things right(particularly the order of service) and cultural norms such as what is worn etc … I’m not sure there’s an easy answer inside institutional church though.
    Just my 2c worth. Thanks for making me think Songbird

  9. My church is heavy on the religious, liturgical, trapping end of the spectrum. And yet I look around at the faces of those who worship with me, and there is no doubt (in my clearly limited view) that they are having authentic spiritual experiences. Some of this I “guess” from demeanor, etc.; but much of it I know from being in ministry and community.
    How are we doing at conveying or sharing this with visitors? There are those for whom it immediately resounds. And clearly those for whom it doesn’t.
    A puzzle.

  10. spiritual but not religious.. i like that statement. I also believe that you don’t have to be religious. I also believe in God and I have faith in him.. but sometimes the church practices are just way off for me. I also don’t like priests since I know many many of them who are not living the way they should live. Many of them are hypocrites.

  11. Anyone can be spiritual. Being religious means that you’re taking your spirituality seriously enough to carve out a specific time for it every week. Religion, for many, is the spiritual side getting out of bed, getting showered, getting dressed, and interacting with the spirituality of others and the world.
    Thomas Moore’s writings on the importance of ritual in “Care of the Soul” made me realize that no matter how far my personal beliefs are or aren’t reflected in Catholic dogma, I will always hold the sacraments themselves in high esteem.
    Where the disconnect happens with my generation I think is the assumption that Sunday morning is the one period of the week that should be reserved for this (potentially) most fulfilling part of our lives. Many peers of mine don’t understand why they need it, and if Sunday morning is the ONLY time that they could get it, is it really worth it?

  12. What’s missing for me in worship right now is a connectedness to Spirit. Prayers are perfunctory, hymns, sermons, and readings don’t connect, and there is no time to sit in prayer/silence/meditation. Worship feels disjointed, and shallow, rather than focused on going deeper. the emphasis seems to be on getting through the service without a mistake or hitch, and on “giving the people what they want.” Part of it is we’re all trying to get to know each other – the usual give and take that comes with a new pastor and exhausted congregation. Because so many of our aging folks are exhausted, they are eager to get back to “doing church” the way it’s always been done, despite the fact that it doesn’t work anymore. I am finding myself “fighting” with myself every Sunday to go to church. I go, hoping that this Sunday, I will be filled and nurtured, and I end up sitting in the pew gritting my teeth until I can leave. That’s not good.

  13. to renaissance costume: I know many priests who are that way, too. I have been through stages of bitterness and removedness from church and religion because of it. At this point I am back. Just wanted to say that my understanding of that seems to be a process and not a fixed thing. Blessings on your journey.
    deb: yep. I know that one too. I know I need to get my bottom in the seat no matter what. But sometimes I just have to take a vacation day.

  14. Songbird, you are so on it, here. Beautifully written. In all of the church growth “stuff” they talk about how important it is for people to be able to articulate why church makes a difference in their lives, or why God matters. Also, the spiritual but not religious I think is part of the growing number of young people in our culture that have never ever been to a worship service, but feel spiritual. In the most recent Pew studies on religion they have added a category of “none”, which captures the spiritual but not religious crowd. Very interesting stuff.
    Anyway, I love this post. Thank you.
    I am going to make a sign for the front of our church (changes once a month) that says, Spiritual? Religious? Both? We’ve got a pew for you!

  15. After almost six decades I have left church because it is so much more religious than spiritual. I can still believe and still have a spiritual discipline of worship – even with others – at specific times and places. But the structure of church, the pontificating attitudes of so many of its leaders, the assumption by every single minister/priest that she/he actually IS a leader just because the seminary tells them so, the infighting about things that DO NOT MATTER!!, the whining by members when meetings run late, the whining by pastors that they must attend meetings and then be expected to show up for work the next day just like all the other folks who were in those meetings, all the ridiculous blah-blah-blah about boundaries and keeping things private when we are supposed to be in community TOGETHER, church budgets that allocate stingy amounts to mission and huge amounts to building maintenance, the adoration of choirs and organs instead of God, Christian ed curricula that are condescending and empty… Those transcendent moments are lost in all of this. And those transcendent moments can be had, in my experience, in contexts other than the organized church. I wanted to love church; I wanted to find spiritual life there; I have given so much time and energy and money to church over the years that I really wanted it to work. But it doesn’t. So now I am spiritual but not religious. I do not belong to a church, but I do belong to the Church. I still experience community and grace and love and acceptance and, yes, transcendent moments. Without all the c**p that “church” entails. Our desert fathers and mothers had it right, I guess.

  16. Jane, of course transcendent moments can be had elsewhere. I’ve had them myself. I say so above. But I’m not convinced that they are for all times unavailable in church. In fact, I know they aren’t. It’s in that hope that I continue to follow a call to ordained ministry in institutional churches with all their flaws and foibles. Churches are like other human institutions, imperfect. I’m not sure what you mean about boundaries being blah-blah-blah. It sounds like there is a powerful story in your anger.

  17. Sorry I sound so angry – I’m just weary. I’m absolutely sure that transcendent moments are not for all times unavailable in church – just that they are in very very short supply. And since they are available in larger supply elsewhere, why stay?
    W/r/t the boundaries blah-blah-blah stuff: I’ve become extremely tired of listening to clergypeople talk on and on about boundaries. Should they let their congregation know they are having a root canal? How to handle introducing a date to members of the congregation encountered in – gasp! – a restaurant? How awful it is to have a pizza delivered to the house because then everyone knows!
    And the same folks moan that Jane Doe had a miscarriage and didn’t even tell me. Mary and Sam are engaged and she didn’t even know they were dating. Harry was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and is just now letting him know and only because the prognosis is negative.
    Why in the world should we share our lives with someone who won’t share hers/his? And when we don’t, why should that person be surprised? Why should I be vulnerable with someone who apparently does not trust me enough to be vulnerable with me? And yet, congregation members having boundaries is often seen as an obstacle to ministry. At least by many of the ministers I know.
    My pastor is my pastor – not my mom, not my dad, not my boss, not the president, and definitely not a representative of Christ different from any other Christian. My pastor should be (IMO) another sister/brother/friend in Christ. Educated in a different way with a different job than my daughter’s teacher or my next-door neighbor. But still a Christian friend. I expect and hope for a different level of knowledge and confidence if we are discussing koine Greek or eschatology or church history, but when it comes to just getting through life my pastor is a human being just like me. This special need to keep secrets, guard time, be private while expecting that congregation members will be completely forthcoming, available whenever the meeting or mission activity is scheduled, and totally transparent about their lives is absurd. We should be a community of Jesus’ followers, IMO, with no one more “special” – and certainly more secret – than the rest.
    But maybe this is just a fad? Like “self care” was 15 years ago….

  18. My experience will vary from yours, Jane. I spent 15 years as a layperson (and part of those as a seminarian) in a large, multi-staff church, where I had no expectations of being close to the pastors as friends. Then I went to be pastor in a small church where people were still hurt that the long-time pastor two before me had been friends with some members and not others. This reinforced my feeling that my relationship with them as pastor was not the same thing as being a friend. Friendly, caring, yes. Friends, no. I don’t say that because I think I’m more important but because I don’t believe I’m called to any of the churches I’ve served to make friends for myself.
    That said, I’m pretty transparent about the events of my life. Church members who care enough to pay attention will know that my husband travels, my kids are of major importance to me and I’m nuts about dogs. I was adopted, and the parents who raised me are dead, and I’m a Democrat and a knitter and a blogger, etc.
    I think one of the major issues around those personal boundaries is that it is harder for a new pastor to come into a church when the previous pastor was friends with the congregation and continues to be in contact. It makes the relationships confusing and, frankly, competitive. Maybe in the old days, when pastors served out a whole career in one church, being friends worked. Maybe it had to happen. That was also a culture in which a young male pastor was expected to find his wife in his first church. And it was a culture that hid clergy sexual misconduct, passing pastors on to another church to hush up scandals. Perhaps we’ve overreacted by establishing more personal boundaries than we used to have. But my experience, both as a layperson and as a clergyperson, is that I want that distance for everyone’s sake. I don’t want it to be acceptable for a pastor to be trolling the congregation for his next wife while still married to the current one. (I’m not making that up; it happened in my longtime church.) I can love you agape without loving you philio, if that makes any sense.
    I’m not sure where you’ve heard this discussion about a root canal; perhaps that’s intentionally exaggerated? Certainly at RevGalBlogPals there has been a discussion about how and whether to tell the congregation when a clergywoman is having a hysterectomy. We had a wide range of responses. If pastors in churches you’ve attended were worried about being seen with a date, maybe those churches gossiped about the pastors’ personal lives. I know this feels like an issue to young clergywomen in my circle of friends. They worry, perhaps naturally, that people will speculate about their intimate lives. For many of us, being a clergywoman is complicated enough without adding that level of concern. And yet we didn’t sign up to be nuns, either!
    Anyway, thanks for your comments. I’m afraid I can’t help since we disagree, but I am grateful for your honesty and will take your experiences into consideration. My goal in writing this post is to develop a way to encourage people who are active in churches to recognize where the divide occurs between being spiritual and religious, in hopes of opening a conversation about it.

  19. Thanks for “listening.” Only by sharing can we learn from each other…

  20. As a Christian by faith and a Unitarian Universalist by denomination (15 years as lay leader, 15 years as pastor) I could buy a Starbucks franchise if I had but a dime for each time I’ve heard the “spiritual but not religious” descriptor. Unitarian Universalist congregations made their living on such people for decades and I know they are now common in all denominations. As one who cherishes common worship and congregational life, I am mystified and challenged by this; what have we in the institutional church missed? Is it just that the notion of convenience and unfettered free choice trumps all? Have we become that much of a consumerist society, that we can’t be bothered to adjust our schedules or suffer our freedom to be fettered by the “demands” of the institution? At least on the liberal wing of the Protestant church (where Unitarian Universalism hangs out in the foyer, shuffling its feet) I’m not sure how much further we can move toward not demanding anything of anybody at anytime and yet still exist as an institution.

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