Monday, June 07, 2010

Spiritual but not religious? Religious but not spiritual?

CNN has a piece out about the new generation of adults who are labeled “spiritual but not religious”, those who want to express some sort of generally vague spirituality but reject organized religion.

The debate over being spiritual rather than religious is not just about semantics. It's about survival.

Numerous surveys show the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as religious has been increasing and likely will continue to grow.

A 2008 survey conducted by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, dubbed these Americans who don't identify with any religion as "Nones."

Seminaries, churches, mosques and other institutions will struggle for survival if they don't somehow convince future generations that being religious isn't so bad after all, religion scholars warn.

That is very interesting. The debate is about more than saving souls, it is also about survival. Could it be that there are lots of jobs at stake out there? I think CNN is on to something that escapes many Christians. Honestly, Christianity is big business in America and there is a lot of money changing hands. I was reading over some information at the webpage of the Church Benefit Association, the association representing the pension boards of many denominations. The groups they represent as a whole manage $40,000,000,000 in retirement and health funds to church employees. I work in the financial services business and deal with some big numbers but no matter where you are, $40 billion is a lot of money and that $40 billion represents the retirement benefits of a lot of church employees. Make no mistake. Religion is big business in America, one of the biggest.

Predictably this is generating much hand-wringing, some of it justified and some…not so much. After seeing the emptiness of religion, it is little wonder so many people are walking away from it? We have peddled a lowest-common denominator church life where attendance=faithfulness and a cynical generation has seen right through that.

Is this move to "spiritual but not religious" really a big deal? Someone who “goes to church” for decades and believes they are "Christian by attendance" is actually in greater spiritual peril than those who have no church affiliation. One of the greatest barriers to the Gospel proclamation in America are the centuries of religious traditions that people associate with Christianity. As a culture we associate Christianity with church buildings, Sunday morning services, professional ministers, hypocrisy and anger, overtly political moralism. Our culture has made Christianity look like the antithesis of what it really is.

I have to ask a bigger question. Are these the only two choices? Are we stuck between choosing a vague, fuzzy spirituality or being locked into ritual and religion? Some will see this report as a clarion call to further entrench ourselves in institutional religion. I simply reject the either-or being presented here. Jesus is not calling His followers to be either spiritual or religious. We are to know what we believe and not be wish-washy about it. Jesus never proclaimed what the article describes as “Burger King spirituality” where you can have it your way. On the other hand Jesus had no use for religious people. I increasingly find it odd that His followers embrace religiosity so readily when our Savior rejected it so thoroughly.

This sounds like the latest bogeyman, the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. I understand the temptation to find these bogeymen. It is much easier, believe me, to rail against “those people” than it is to deal with the hard questions of Christian community in our own gathering. “Spiritual but not religious” is not a threat to Christianity. Affluence, comfort, repetition, lack of love? Those are the genuine threats. God’s elect will be saved but that doesn’t mean that those who are saved will live a life that is reflective of and worthy of the Gospel by which they were saved. That is where our focus should be.

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