Hopeful Church

Are we too religious to be spiritual?

By N. Graham Standish 

I’m a little bit obsessed with the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” I have been ever since I first said it about myself when I was in college: “Nah … I don’t go to church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I still said this about myself even when I returned to church in my mid-20s after a nine-year hiatus to explore “the spiritual.” I said it about myself while I was in seminary as the seminary president chastised me for not going regularly to the daily chapel services. I told him that I had a hard time feeling deeply spiritual in those services because they felt too religious. He told me hat going to the services were part of my obligation as a student. Floosh! My comment apparently whizzed by him. I wasn’t seeking obligations. I was seeking an experience of God. Why is obligation more important than experience?

I tussled with finding “the spiritual” as an associate pastor, although by then I was able to create small groups for those also seeking a deeper spirituality within the church. I struggled with it while working on my Ph.D. in spiritual formation as I studied the Christian spiritual tradition. Even after finishing my degree and becoming pastor of a church for over 22 years, I kept wondering whether or not we can ever overcome the basic problem that those who are “spiritual but not religious” criticize the church for.

Can you hear their critique? 

We often don’t hear it because we’re too busy critiquing them. We say they’re spiritually lazy. That they’re just immature and will return when they get older (they’re not). That they’re too self-consumed and worship themselves. There’s some truth to all of it, but knowing that just causes us to become blind to our own problem.

Do we hear what they’re saying? 

What’s their critique? It’s a simple one. They’re telling us that we’re “religious but not spiritual.” Could they be right? Are we too immersed in our particular religious traditions and theological thinking to fully appreciate how much we’ve diminished the spiritual in our churches? Here’s a way to tell. In your church, how often have you heard visitors and new members who weren’t already Presbyterian remark, “I came here because I really, really wanted to learn Presbyterian theology.” How often have they said, “I came here because I particularly like Presbyterian liturgy.” Maybe some, but they aren’t the ones who’ve walked away.

How many people do you know who’ve said, “I find God more on a walk with my dog than I do in church.” Or, “I just don’t find God when I’m in church.”

What can we learn from them?  How can we address their legitimate concerns? If people aren’t experiencing God in our churches, what are we really offering?

How can we become spiritual AND religious? 

I’ve spent my career as a pastor obsessed with creating a church that’s both spiritual AND religious. I’ve written about it in so many books and articles. So have SO many others. And it frustrates me that we’re still stuck being “religious but not spiritual.”

So here are some thoughts you can discuss amongst yourselves to potentially help our churches reach out to the spiritual but not religious, and in the process possibly rejuvenate ourselves:

  • If we were to ask visitors where they experienced God the most in worship, what would their answer be?
  • If they don’t experience God, how could we change to help them experience God?
  • What would it take to change in ways that help them experience God?
  • Why do we persist in doing things that turn off those who have walked away, such as:
    • Reading stodgy prayers from a book written in a formal style suggesting that God only listens to those who speak the right way? Why not just say prayers in a more sincere, normal voice?
    • Reading our sermons, which then are really written to be read instead of said? I have a simple thought: pretend your sermon is you causally talking to a friend over dinner, and only use language and sentences that would make sense one-on-one. And would you read your conversation from a manuscript?
    • Using odd “preaching voices” that feel out of tune and of a bygone time? Use your own voice and speak how you would want to be spoken to.
    • Persisting in loading services with words, words, and more words when tryig to reach generations that are more musical, visual, and experiential? Let go of printed, responsive calls to worship; reduce printed prayers; and simplify the service by adding more times of silence and music. The music doesn’t have to be contemporary, just varied.
    • Why won’t we ask those who’ve walked away what might get them to walk back, AND then try new things? Have members talk to their children and grandchildren, neighbors and friends, and start generating ideas on how to become a place people who’ve walked away from might walk back towards.

Can those who are the problem become the solution?

I do know what prevents us from all of this. We’ve already lost younger generations because we haven’t changed, and we fear the wrath of older generations if we do. So make that older generation part of the solution. Lead them to realize that it’s their responsibility to create a church for others, not themselves. Get them to investigate and discuss the problem, and ask them to lead the changes. It’s not hard. It simply means getting them to stop criticizing those who’ve left and start listening to them.

A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 7 books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (www.ngrahamstandish.org).