Spiritual, Not Religious, Part 4

Spiritual, not Religious, Part 4

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. Flannery O’Conner[1]

Various studies confirm that roughly a quarter of all Americans do not identify with a religious tradition, Christian or otherwise. The numbers are even more striking when considering young adults. A 2012 study found that “about 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.”[2] This rapidly expanding group of people, young and old, are also called the Nones, meaning when asked for a religious affiliation they answer, “None.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mainline churches had lost a third to a half of their members when compared with 1960.

It remains to be seen what churches will look like as the pandemic lifts. It seems unlikely that people will return in unprecedented numbers. The question is how many will return at all. If a church neither retained nor established its relevance during the pandemic, why would anyone expect it to gain relevance post-pandemic? Church members from older generations, from a time when church membership was the norm, are dying off and not being replaced by younger generations, at least not in comparable numbers. This falling away from the church is, in my opinion, not a rejection of spirituality, nor does it reflect a lack of belief in God. Rather, it reflects disillusionment with the current presentation of spirituality and the corporate worship of God as embodied by the church. The current trends are a rejection of Churchianity, not necessarily Christianity.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister distinguishes between spirituality and religion by describing the Christian religion as “the organized institutional expression of the following of Jesus.”[3] She continues, “Spirituality, on the other hand, is the personal expression of that following of Jesus.”[4] In other words, both a spiritual community and personal practice are required to progress along our spiritual quest. “We could go to church every week throughout every year of our entire lives and never develop our own spirituality. We could jump through every religious hoop, and at the end of the day, still not have any real spiritual consciousness.”[5] I believe Sister Joan nails the issue behind declining church participation in this statement – that even many people who attend church regularly are failing to experience growth in spiritual consciousness. Where are they to learn their responsibility to develop their personal expression of Jesus if not from the church? She concludes, “Religion is meant to lead us to a spiritual life…but religion doesn’t necessarily lead us to spirituality. We have to do that for ourselves.”[6] Brilliant. Religion alone, meaning church, cannot of itself make us spiritual. Personal spiritual practices cannot do it either, however, because we also need the “organized institutional expression” and supportive community of the church to arrive at something beyond our own personal and narcissistic understandings of what it means to be a child of God. That both a communal and a personal expression of Christianity are needed seems clear to me.

That the church has fallen short in its task of being the institutional expression of following Jesus is apparent. In addition, it is not leading people to the personal spiritual transformation they seek or need. The church is not offering a transformation worthy of abiding with the imperfections and frustrations that accompany institutional expression of anything. No wonder increasing numbers of people classify themselves among the nones. The quandary is that if the church is not taking the lead on either front, where are people to turn for spiritual development? Should the church relinquish its role in spiritual development, holding tight to its old traditions and restrictiv practices, or should it confess that this is an area it has fallen short and adapt?

In my opinion, the church should embrace the arenas of spirituality that are filling the needs the church has vacated. Primary among those needs are religious and spiritual practices that appeal to the non-intellectual parts of our beings. For me, that begins with shorter sermons and more music; fewer creeds and more evocative poetry; shorter spoken prayers and more silence; integrating interpretive dance, incense, and other non-verbal worship elements. Why not offer yoga classes, instruction in silent and other forms of personal and community prayer, embrace mindfulness, model presence, and focus hard on the needs of the community – especially those needs with no reasonable expectation for a pay back in increased membership numbers or collections? Caring for immigrants, feeding the hungry (including spiritual hunger), tending to the hurting – this is the stuff of Christianity, if the life and teachings of Jesus are to be followed.

This is the 25th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.

[1] Flannery O’Conner, “Letter to Alfred Corn,” The Habit of Being. 1979.

[2] https://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/25/opinion/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325, accessed June 26, 2021

[3] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-is-prayer-a-conversa_b_603667, accessed June 27, 2021

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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