Spiritual, not religious: Your own personal Jesus
Brian, the pastor of a new church in Plano, Texas, works evenings at a coffee shop to make ends meet. His wife stays at home with their children, and their church is not to the point that it can support a full-time pastor.
As coffee shops grow in their social importance, pastors like Brian are realizing the value of spending time there. Some ministers have started book groups, knitting circles and even one-on-one counseling sessions at the corner coffee shop. Starbucks has become an extension of twenty-first century ministry.
As Brian prepared a drink for a young customer, they got into a discussion about occupations. He mentioned that he was the pastor of a church, to which she replied that she was spiritual, but not religious.
“Hey,” proclaimed Brian with a smile, “I’ve read a lot about you!”
In his book, Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Robert C. Fuller says that one-fifth of the American population identifies themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Approximately one in two Americans who do not attend a church identifies themselves in this way.
This means there are sixty million people in this country who feel some affiliation with a higher power, yet who are not connected to a religious organization. This is enough to make any pastor’s mouth water. The issues with reaching these folks in a meaningful way, however, are complex.
Prior to the 20th century, says Fuller, the two terms “religious” and “spiritual” were used almost synonymously. This was partly because people considered spiritual life to be a public, shared experience. Since then, spiritual experience – along with many other experiences – has become increasingly private. While churches historically have been built to accommodate a corporate worship experience, the values of the culture around it have moved away from the model we still use.
Another big issue is a negative perception of church. From emotional, physical or sexual abuse to a more vague sense of alienation, people have been hurt by church. There is accountability for both parties in this case. Many churches still are reticent to engage people about the pain they’ve experienced in church, and chances are the last place people want to do this is at a church.
However, negative past experience isn’t an excuse to give up on organized religion. I have been hurt by church too, but I’ve also been hurt by family, friends and pretty much any other group of which I’ve been a part. Generally, we don’t walk away from these, so why should church be any different? Walking away not only means that the person who was hurt loses the chance to find healing from the source of their pain, but it also allows the harmful dynamics within the church to continue.
Finally, research shows that most people who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious don’t see the church as the only means – or even the best means – for spiritual growth. The perception is that we’re not doing our job in offering a large contingency of the public what they feel they need to be spiritually enriched.
We need to ask ourselves whether making connections with people is more important than our church membership. If we could meet weekly with a group of people at the coffee shop, but who would never attend our church, would we invest the time?
Those who solely measure success by worship attendance and giving totals will continue to struggle to reach this group of sixty million. Ministry to this group may not pay the bills, but it’s as important as any work we do within our institutional walls.