We have a lot to learn from the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd.
Chances are, though, it’s not what you think.
I’ve taught a number of classes in church in which the topic of people who identify as “spiritual-but-not-religious” comes up. A growing demographic in the US, (20% of the US population in 2012), they are often the object of misunderstanding and pity among church folks. Something along the lines of “I feel sorry for them! How can they get along without God? How can they get along without people to pray for them? What’s wrong with them?”
True, some spiritual-but-not-religious folks are lone wolves. They have no spiritual community per se, just a sense within that there is More to Life than Meets the Eye. Others, however, are deeply embedded in community of every kind—unaware they should be missing us. They sense the transcendent in the ordinary, the Divine in the everyday.
I have also heard pastors remark that what these spiritual but not religious people are identifying as needs—community, people who care about each other, significance over success, a deep relationship with Something that is Bigger than Us—can all be provided by the church. If only they knew about the church, and would adapt a bit to it, they would find everything they are looking for!
Bottom line: We have this sense that if we can figure out what’s wrong with them, or what they’re missing, then we can get them “back.”
I’d like to propose a whole new way of relating to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. Instead of seeing them as missing what we are offering I suggest we see them as offering what we are (or may be) missing. In fact, I’d like to share with you 3 gifts we can glean from them. And how to incorporate them into your congregation.
Three Gifts From the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Crowd
- They are a living reminder of our roots. Every great moment in the Bible is defined by someone walking away from known reality. Abraham leaves his father and his kindred to follow God to a new land, sight unseen. Jacob wrestles with a Divine figure which is part human, part angel. Moses serves an invisible god who identifies as Being itself. Ruth gives up her cultural identity to identify with her mother-in-law’s people. John the Baptist leads people away from their day to day lives out into the wilderness. Jesus himself ushers in the long-awaited, but previously unexperienced, Kingdom. Just as these people walked away from known reality for something new, so too the spiritual-but-not-religious. Rather than see them as lacking something, consider that their spiritual journeying reflects the essence of Biblical stories.
2. They remind us of the value of experience over form. For the spiritual-but-not-religious, the direct experience of God is the goal, not doctrines or dogma which point the way to the experience. Jesus, while faithful to Judaism, experienced oneness with God. He even taught others that “The kingdom of heaven is within.” Why should we be surprised, then, when people discover direct access to the Holy, and prefer that over the form of religion?
3. They point to the convergence of science and spirituality. Quantum physics points to a conscious universe, and the deep interconnectedness of all forms of life. While some Christian believers are fighting over science and religion, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks are moving beyond duality by seeking how science and spirituality inform each other. This is cutting edge.
Applying the Gifts
How can we apply these 3 gifts from the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd in the life of the church?
- Encourage spiritual adventuring. For instance, you can offer classes on centering prayer or meditation. Build a labyrinth and encourage people on their spiritual journey. Invite a Spiritual Director to affiliate with your congregation. Ask for testimonies from congregants who have had a near death experience or other spiritual awakening. Give people the tools to experience heaven here on earth.
- Follow Jesus by teaching that the Kingdom of God is within. Then create special times for people to experience God’s presence within themselves. Encourage the use of creative arts to give expression to this reality. Re-think worship to make space for this opportunity.
- Don’t be afraid to explore the overlap of science and spirituality. Read and discuss books that hint at this such as neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s dramatic Proof of Heaven.
The Spiritual But Not Religious in Action
A few weeks ago, I visited a spiritual-but-not-religious megachurch. Megachurch, you ask? Yes, megachurch. They actually exist!
What made this experience work? Excellent music that emphasized unity over duality. A welcome that not only affirmed God’s unconditional love indwelling all people, but their congregational acceptance of all people. Preaching that connected body and soul. Prayer that affirmed rather than begged.
But most of all, what made this a spiritual-but-not-religious service was that it assumed people wanted to experience God, and not just hear about God, or just work on behalf of God. So after initial announcements, the lights were turned down low so that the collective congregation could spend about 4 minutes in silent meditation. Likewise, after a rousing blessing sung at the end, one-on-one prayer was made available to seekers. In between, the music ranged between the sacred and secular—all of it carrying an empowering message of love.
Churches like this are spectacular, fun, and rare. Likely, they can’t be reproduced in small town Iowa or desert New Mexico or city center churches in New England. No matter. Take some of the principles offered and use them to re-create what the spiritual-but-not-religious can teach us: the experience of God transcends all. And is ever so attractive.