Religious, but not Spiritual!?

10 09 2019

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy now most of us are well aware that America, and perhaps the world in general, is more spiritual than religious. Survey after survey, book after book, sermon after sermon, all tell us that people have been driven away from the historical forms of Christian religiosity in favor of a more personal and self-defined understanding of spirituality.  And this is certainly understandable.

The largest and most visible religious movements of our day tend to be inclined toward fundamental extremism, and are accurately judged by many to be naive and narrow, anti-science and anti-intellectual, and morally hypocritical and ethically inconsistent.  And while many of these right-leaning churches have let go of empty rituals and traditions, and managed to engage culture and society in meaningful ways; their relevance has often come at the expense of a theology with any modicum of intellectual integrity.

Meanwhile, many left-leaning churches have worked hard to create a theology that is intellectually credible and morally consistent, but in so doing they have neglected the task of being relevant to an ever and always changing world.  As a result they appear to be in a perpetual state of decline.  Far too often they are more concerned with maintaining their religious rituals and traditions, than finding new ways to reach out to, and connect with, the community and the culture.  They embrace a faith centered around the incarnation, and a God who in the words of Eugene Peterson “moves into the neighborhood,” but their talk about incarnation appears to have little if any impact on what they do and how they do it!

As a result, religious activity and church membership continue to decrease around our nation.  Rather than ‘going to church’ on Sunday mornings, people are now attending the soccer games of their children, visiting their local Starbucks to read the morning paper, or merely surrendering to the simple desire to sleep in!  Because people remain spiritual beings they want to hang on to their spirituality; but as far as religion goes, they want out!  They want nothing to do with our religious institutions and traditions because they have rightly concluded that we have lost our spirituality.  They regard us as more religious, than spiritual: and that conclusion that has left the future of the institutional Church hanging in the balance.

While we Church folk are quick to label many of the unchurched and dechurched people in our communities as being spiritual but not religious; perhaps it would do us well to consider their assessment of us; for they regard us as religious, but not spiritual.  And as someone who has spent his entire life in the Church, I’m inclined to agree.

Churches on both the right and left — as well as countless that would be described as ‘purple,’ ‘middle of the road,’ or as I’m more likely to say, ‘lukewarm’ about anything that really matters — have lost their voice and no longer have much to bring to the public square.  We were once respected, and brought a great deal of wisdom and integrity to our communities.  We had much to contribute to the national dialogue about the important issues of the day, and while not always consistent with Biblical values, we were never the less at least attempting to do good around the world.  But this is no longer the case.  Sunday morning worship attendance continues to decline, growing Churches are merely ‘stealing sheep’ from other congregation and NOT making new disciples, and the respect for and admiration of clergy is now as low as it is for attorneys!

Why?

Because the world’s assessment of us accurate.  The American Church is far more religious, than spiritual!  We love our buildings more than we love the people in our communities.  We are more concerned with budgets and bulletins, than with the hungry and the homeless.  And the only thing we’re interested in changing, are light bulbs!  . . . and even then, only after three committee meetings and congregational vote!  We’re still singing the same hymns we sang 200 years ago, reciting creeds that were written to address issues from a different time and place, and memorizing passages of Scripture without the slightest knowledge of Biblical history or the task of Biblical interpretation.  Most tragic of all, we believe that our mercy ministries absolve us from entering the world of politics, where we might become the justice-seekers we’re called to become as followers of the most-high God!  It is as though we’ve become content with debates about the virgin birth, musical styles, whether or not wine can be served on church property, and how long someone can remain on our prayer chains.

Are any of these matters spiritual?  Do any of them have anything at all to do with one’s spirituality?  Some perhaps come close; but most are not . . . by a long shot!  So what if our theological discussions were less about telling people why Jesus had to be born of a virgin, and instead focused on what it means to understand God as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being?”  What if we stopped telling people that worship was about getting together for an hour on Sunday morning, singing, and telling God how much we love Jesus; and instead helped people find ways to worship God Monday thru Saturday, in the ways they engaged with their neighbors, their colleagues work, the students with whom they go to school, or the strangers on the street?  What if we stopped even thinking about wine before we got the coffee issues solved, and stopped serving warm dishwater simply because it was on sale at Cosco; and instead sought to make our fellowship times opportunities for real and genuine sharing, where people were not afraid to be authentic in their interactions, vulnerable with their struggles, and honest about their faith journeys?  And what if we we began to understand prayer as less about telling God what we’d like done over the next few weeks; and instead more about becoming mindful of God’s presence in our world and the Spirit’s movement in our lives, so that we might become agents of reconciliation and transformation?

After 34 years in ministry, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the world needs far fewer religious people and far more spiritual people.  And if that means that the Church as we know it needs to die; then let it die.  Perhaps then something new can be born.  Perhaps then resurrection will become something more than a simplistic and naive interpretation of the activity of Jesus on the third day, and more about what it means to be “born again!” Perhaps then the Church can become what it was meant to be: Christ’s living body in the world: seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Church, let’s stop worrying about everyone outside of our walls, and better deal with those inside!  Let’s stop trying to make spiritual people more religious, and instead focus on making religious people more spiritual.

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2 responses

10 09 2019
pastorleann

Hey, man! You are singing my song!

LeAnn Hodges Pastor, Oaklands Presbyterian Church http://www.oaklandspres.org (Pronouns: She/Her/Hers)

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10 09 2019
Bob Melone

That’s why you’re one of my favorite colleagues!

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