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Are You Religious or Spiritual?

The world is increasingly focused on “What’s in it for me?” [and] we have a powerful message to share.
By DAVE JENNINGS
Read Time: 8 minutes

It’s common to hear someone tell us that they are deeply spiritual, but not religious. Often, we find that those we speak to about the gospel are interested in the message but have created a thick wall to guard against any invitations to consider a new church.

Religion has a bad reputation these days. There’s been a long list of organized religion failures that have affected this. Too many sexual abuse and cover-up scandals or news of financial misconduct. Some have concluded that the way to truth is not found in wooden pews and brick-and-mortar churches but in a personal journey of spirituality.

Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, wrote:

It’s popular, especially in America, to completely separate spirituality and religion. It’s true that there are differences, but there are also a number of problematic distinctions which people try to make. In particular, supporters of spirituality often argue that everything bad lies with religion while everything good can be found in spirituality. This is a self-serving distinction which masks the nature of religion and spirituality.1

But religion is quite clear, as the Scriptures define it. True religion engages both understanding and spiritual experience. James wrote that pure religion involved service to others, as well as being “unspotted” from the world. (Jas 1:27). This implies not only doing good, but discerning what it means to be holy. God, in His wisdom, knows we can best come closer to Him when we worship together with understanding in our fellowship.
Paul wrote:

Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5-6).

However, many people are ignorant of this principle today. Pew Research reported in 2022 that US adults who consider themselves religious have dropped precipitously since the pandemic. About fifty years ago, 90% of Americans considered themselves affiliated with a religion. That number dropped to 63% in 2022. Those who consider themselves spiritual but religiously unaffiliated have risen to an unprecedented 29%.2 Many people are rejecting church participation, which they define as “religion,” as they seek their personal pathway to truth. 

Over three-quarters of Americans wish to grow spiritually

While it is true that many people today have a growing aversion toward organized religion, most still are willing to engage in spiritual conversations. Over three-quarters of Americans wish to grow spiritually, and nearly 80% believe in a God or higher power.3 In fact, most Americans have expressed an openness to having a spiritual conversation.4

How is “Spirituality” Defined?

But there is a difference between being “spiritual” and “spirituality.” It’s essential we know the distinction.

Christina Puchalski, MD, a leader in trying to incorporate spirituality into healthcare, wrote:

Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.5

If that sounds familiar, it is because those pursuing spirituality often do so outside the parameters of the one true God and His righteous commandments. This situation traces back to the beginning of time when people worshipped human leaders and images of stone, metals, and wood. Men have been looking to the stars, the vastness of the natural realm, and even the dissected entrails of animals to find truth.

Spiritualism, outside of the worship of the one true God, is nothing more than a form of idolatry. Some claim “spirituality” but only wish to accept parts of the Bible’s teachings. That’s like approaching the Bible like a buffet table, where you select the baby corn and tomatoes but pass by the beets and mushrooms! Some people wish to accept or reject God’s commands based on their personal preferences.

Spiritual Versus Spirituality

As believers, we understand the thirst to be more spiritual. We learn the fundamental truths of the Bible, often as children. But we yearn to develop a closer relationship with the Father and Son through our adult lives. We don’t only want to know about the peace of God as a principle, we want to experience it. We don’t only want to know that God is working in the world today. We want to perceive how He works in our lives and the lives of others. We know God is love and understand the command to love one another. But we want to experience what it feels like to be loved and to love others.

Some live only within the limitations of religious observance and feel they have yet to explore the spiritual rebirth promised in Christ fully. Decades of attending church can make one feel they are doing the right things but fail to satisfy the deeply personal experience that the Lord offers. Our religious beliefs instruct us about God’s love, plan, and purpose with the world and us as believers. That knowledge serves as a guide and shepherd for our spiritual lives.

Spirituality without religion is self-involved and directionless. 

The Appeal of the Gospel

The preaching of the gospel was a call for all men and women to join in a collective understanding of God’s plans and commandments and then enter into new lives through Jesus Christ. Men weren’t invited to live alongside Christ but through him. 

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9).
If we limit our view of religion to doctrine or religious observance, we fail to see that Christ has invited us to discard our old life and live through him. He wishes us to have a spiritual experience, but grounded in truth. The Lord instructed disciples to deny themselves and “take up [your] cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). 

I suspect there is no better way to think about our spiritual experience than by contemplating how we are following the Lord Jesus in the workplace, the market, or school each day. Jesus wanted his followers to grow through his teachings and their spiritual experience as they put those teachings into practice in their daily lives.

Understanding and Spiritual Fulfilment

A sound spiritual experience is anchored first in knowledge and understanding of one’s religion. For instance, in Corinth, some had the Spirit gift of speaking in tongues but used the gift without an interpreter. That may have been a useful spiritual experience for the person with the gift, but there was no edification to the hearers without interpretation. Paul made this point.

Whatever makes up our spiritual experience requires a proper grounding in Scripture.

Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody. And if the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle? It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space. (1 Cor 14:7-9 NLT).

Whatever makes up our spiritual experience requires a proper grounding in Scripture. If not, it may arouse emotions or increase self-awareness but leave us no closer to our God. Music in our services effectively encourages spiritual growth, assuming the words evoke a sound understanding of Scripture. Hearing a lovely and catchy tune is helpful, but the worship music properly connects us with the expressed message. This connection is why so many of our beautiful new and old hymns are constant partners when we need to come closer to God. 

Seeking Spiritual Experience 

Understanding the truth and spiritual experiences work in harmony. The more we learn from God’s word, the more we desire spiritual experiences. The more often we have spiritual experiences, the more they drive us to God’s Word, sort of like faith and works. When James spoke about this, he used the example of Abraham. In his offering of Isaac, he was justified not only by works but also by his “faith wrought with his works.” (Jas 2:21-22). By his works, his faith was made perfect. When we have faith in God to help us through a specific trial, we are, in effect, demonstrating that we understand Him as our all-powerful and loving God, and we invite Him to guide us spiritually through the hardship. 

Therefore, by the activities of faith, we can experience the spiritual growth that so many seek. Want to grow spiritually? Try serving others. Love someone who is not easy to love. Teach the gospel to someone who is seeking answers to life. 

How This Affects Our Preaching in a Secular World

Bro. Richard Morgan’s recent articles6 on preaching in a secular world are helpful in this consideration. Paul didn’t preach from the Law when he spoke on Mars Hill. Instead, he adapted his preaching to words and concepts that were interesting to and understandable by the Greek philosophers of that day. 

Perhaps we tend to lead in our preaching with doctrinal exposition. We discuss the return of Jesus Christ, baptism, and associated topics. Of course, these are critical and must be explored at some point if one wishes to be saved. But the world is increasingly focused on “What’s in it for me?” We have a powerful message to share.

We can emphasize what Christ does for believers to relieve sorrow and grief. We can share what it means to live through Christ. If one feels powerless to overcome an addiction or sin, we can describe to them that the strength to overcome is by God’s power, not our own. We can share Godly principles from Scripture for strong marriages and how to effectively raise children. We can share the beauty of God’s love and our call to embrace it in our interactions.

a strong religious life reinforces spiritual living

Once we meet people who show interest, we can then share the eternal principles of God’s plan with them. When we get the opportunity to share God’s wisdom for spiritual living, men and women who are being called will surely overlook the concerns about participating in an organized religion. They will learn that a strong religious life reinforces spiritual living.

For Us

It would serve us well to spend a more significant portion of our time together conversing about our own spiritual experiences. These stories can build faith in us. There is immense value in hearing the testimony of how a sister endured cancer treatments by revitalizing her trust in God. Or by hearing how a brother was brought to tears when he found reconciliation after years of conflict with another brother, by following the principles of Christ. 

The children of Israel experienced great wonders while being delivered from Egypt. Future generations would not have known the power of these experiences unless they were shared by those who saw them. (Deut 6:6-7).

Indeed, as Peter wrote, we “as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:5). We are indeed a “religious” community. We strive to praise God with one mind and one mouth during our worship services. But we are more than this. We are a spiritual house, making spiritual sacrifices to our God. Our time together and the time we spend individually putting the truth into practice all make up the most wonderful experience any man or woman could desire this side of the Kingdom of our Lord.

Dave Jennings

 

  1. “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research Center, September 13, 2022.

  2. Cline, Austin. “What’s the Difference Between Religion and Spirituality?” Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/religion-vs-spirituality-whats-the-difference-250713. 

  3. “Rising Spiritual Hunger in the US,” Barna Research, 2023.

  4. “What Does it Mean to Be Spiritually Open?” Barna.org, Jun 21, 2023.

  5. Pulchalski, Christina M., “Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus,” Journal of Palliative Medicine, June 1, 2014.

  6. Morgan, Richard, “Preaching First Principles in a Post-Christian World,” October 2023-February 2024.

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Alison Bartley
1 month ago

Well written & presented

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