“Spiritual, but not religious.”
The term has been around for a few years now. In fact, it’s risen to such prominence and is used by so many people that it now enjoys its own checkbox on religious identity surveys.
The term is relatively simple. Many people, particularly in younger generations, don’t see the point in identifying with institutional religion, have no desire to attend or join any religious center, want no part of any particular tradition with all its obligations, limitations, and historical baggage.
The “spiritual but not religious” may believe in or wish to pursue a connection with a transcendent of some kind, but they’d rather do it in their own way through any number of activities or self-directed study.
Sure, there might be some that just claim the label to avoid a conversation, but there’s no easy way to sort one person from another without asking.
A lot of more formal religious institutions seem to have a problem with the “spiritual but not religious.” If the reactions that I’ve seen from prominent authors, speakers, and leaders are any indication, many with a dedicated denominational affiliation tend to be dismissive of this identity group.
Many of us have chosen to believe that this group is lazy. Entitled. Self-centered. Vapid. Unoriginal. Boring. Insert your own favorite pejorative term.
And then we turn around and wonder why they don’t want any part of our churches.
Don’t kid yourselves, fellow mainliners. If you go into this new religious landscape convinced that an increasingly substantial number of your fellow seekers are ridiculous for claiming the identity that they do, then you have no right to write all your thinkpieces explaining why we’re facing shrinking attendance and budget numbers thanks to this group.
Part of the problem is you’ve decided to disengage from a large group of people who don’t see why you’re worth the hassle. And turning up your nose at them isn’t helping. Surprising, right?
Here’s the thing about the “spiritual but not religious.” There may be a category for them, but there’s no way to really categorize them. One finds God in a daily yoga practice. The next feels most connected to the divine through music. The next feels most spiritual while with friends at the pub.
But why? And how? And what do they mean by “God” or “divine” or “spiritual,” anyway?
You won’t know until you talk to them. You won’t know until you ask and then listen—I mean really listen—to their stories..
We as a denomination haven’t yet figured out how to listen to the “spiritual but not religious.”
We’re too busy griping about them to do that. It’s past time we change in order to really understand who they are and how best to engage them.
Until then, spare me your thinkpieces.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. In his free time, he enjoys playing music, reading, and keeping up with Michigan sports teams. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.