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What Does "I Am Spiritual Not Religious" Really Mean? (Part One)

What do people really mean when they say, ‘I’m not religious I’m more spiritual’? Why is this important?

Here’s what we know: There are a growing number of people in America who are expressing dissatisfaction with organized religion. That trend has been obvious for well beyond a quarter-century. 18.2% of Americans now identify as ‘religiously unaffiliated’, aka “religious nones”, according to the Pew Research Center.

More and more I am running into people who claim they are no longer affiliated with organized religion (these conversations predate the pandemic). Instead, these persons consistently state, “I am spiritual, not religious”, which means “I no longer attend worship service, I do my own thing at home” (or something to that effect).

In this article, I want to cover a little of the history behind the phenomenon of “I am spiritual not religious”.

A person who is ‘religious’ follows a certain set of beliefs formulated by a body that sets doctrine and rituals for a religious belief system. Conversely, a ‘spiritual’ person is one who is attuned toward the inner nature, as usually exhibited by spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible study, fasting etc.)

The two approaches were never meant to become mutually exclusive.

Religion is an ‘external’. Spiritual is an ‘internal’. Religion was never intended to be a matter of rites and regulations; it initially was intended as an external way to express matters of devotion.

That was up until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed 95 theses on the sale of indulgences to the castle door of the church at Wittenberg. Indulgences were a type of payment for the securing of forgiveness and penance. As you can imagine, the practice became riddled with abuses (never mind the fact that Christ never, ever commanded such a rite!).

The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against what many perceived the church had become: a system of creeds, vestments, pomp and ceremony. It had lost touch with the common person.

Unfortunately, in too many instances, the same is happening today. There are those (as respondents to the Pew Research polling suggests) who have become frustrated with organized churches and denominations. As mentioned, mainline denominations have for some time seen declines in membership.

The Reformation is happening again. Only now, it’s happening in small clusters of disaffected worshippers and it is manifesting as “church hurt”.

It was not intended this way. The early church in the decades after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was an incredible gathering of Christian believers who shared meals, looked after the common good, observed the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Christ and who, most of all, nourished their commitment to Christ in private and as a community. There really was no demarcation between “religion” or “spirituality” in those days. The early church shared an experience of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ, one that would galvanize the Christian faith and upend the whole world.

So why did it require a Reformation to fix the problem? Is the problem really fixed at all?

Biblical spirituality is both an inside-out and outside-in process; it was, therefore, never meant to become stalled in one or the other.

At the heart of ‘religion’ is spiritual devotion. At the heart of spiritual devotion is a religious experience that binds a community. How does this work?

I will cover that subject in my next article.

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