Spiritual, Religious, etc.

A while back I thought I’d start some Facebook discussion by posting this status: “It’s not the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) who worry me, it’s the religious but not spiritual.”  The discussion turned to, “how do you define the terms spiritual and religious?” 

I think the distinction that I’m looking for is one of substance vs. structure.  Spirituality is like the substance of faith – the experience of encountering the Divine, a belief in that which is greater than oneself, a sense of connectedness with creation and its creator.  Religion is like an attempt to add structure to that substance: rites, rituals, church buildings, prescribed doctrines, defined boundaries.  

At their best, spirituality and religion are beautiful together. My brother and I were baptized together when we were teenagers.  We had gone through a confirmation class with our pastor, and the sacrament was administered in accordance with the rituals and disciplines of the United Methodist Church in the midst of a worship service.  The religious parts (confirmation, doctrines, rituals) were in place.  However, there was something deeply spiritual happening as well. My brother and I had both recently come to a crucial turning point in our faith.  We had become Christ-followers and Christ-lovers, where before we had simply been church-goers.  The water poured over our heads, the building where we had gathered, and the words of the ritual were deeply religious.  The spiritual bit is what made me laugh and cry at the same time and imprinted the experience into my memory.  

I believe there’s hope for the church if we tap into both religion and spirituality.  We can’t shun one and embrace the other. The world is full of “spiritual but not religious” people.  When the church gets it right, we can help the spiritual give structure and discipline to their spirituality.  Its substance can take shape through the teachings and practices of the church. 

The world is also full of religious but not spiritual people. Some have turned faith into intellectual endeavors, moralistic lists, and inflexible doctrines. The church can help them drink from a deeper well of spirituality and connect with realities greater than themselves.  

The hardest part of reaching the RBNS crowd is helping them realize that they’re getting all the dance moves right but missing the beauty of the music.  

As a pastor, it’s imperative that I take seriously my leadership in integrating religion and spirituality. I have to attend to both my religious inclinations and my spiritual desires. In order to lead the SBNRs toward the structure of religion, or the RBNSs toward beauty beyond the rules, I must be a model of integrating spirituality and religion. 


Author: pastorwillie

Husband to a beautiful wife, father to four awesome children, Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, pastor of a great church in rural southern Illinois, guitarist, songwriter, ukulelist, blogger.

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