Spiritual but not religious?

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A reflection of Rev. Peter K. Perry, pastor, First Olympia UMC

A recent Barna group survey resulted in an article about “post-Christian” cities in America. Not surprisingly Seattle-Tacoma (number 9) and Portland (number 45) both broke the top 50. (see https://www.barna.com/research/post-christian-cities-america-2017/)

Here we are, mid-way in between, living life in the Pacific Northwest where most people check none when asked about their religious affiliation. For United Methodists, it may be interesting to note that this map of Barna’s “least-Christian” cities of America aligns pretty well with the map of the most progressive conferences in United Methodism (or as our conservative colleagues might say, the most schismatic conferences). Barna’s findings are simply the latest metrics indicating that we are today in the midst of a religious upheaval comparable to the upheavals that marked the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening.

Rather than lamenting that we live in a post-Christian world, I think we would be better served by reflecting on inherently human spiritual yearnings that don’t disappear but find new expression in every epoch of human history. I believe that the Christian story will always speak to these spiritual yearnings. However, we in leadership in the church need to learn how to bridge the chasm that is growing between the Christendom of the past 500 years and the spirituality of people born in the last 50 years.

Building on Barna’s questions to determine one’s degree of “Christian-ness,” I propose a list of criteria to determine one’s interest in and connection to spirituality. My firm belief is that the church of tomorrow will meet people in the “yes” answers given to these questions and build ministry in new ways in response to the popular affirmation that “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

Here are my “spirituality” criteria. My assumption is that persons who understand themselves as Christians can easily say yes to all of criteria, and should therefore be able to successfully engage non-Christians who also answer yes to any of the criteria. Rather than asking Barna’s exclusionary questions, we are better served by asking these inclusionary ones. I invite you to consider your non-Christian friends and family as you read this list:

  • Believes in a Higher Power
  • Self-identifies as a spiritual person
  • Agrees that spirituality is an important aspect of their being
  • Prays/mediates at least once a week
  • Admires Jesus and other spiritual teachers
  • Recognizes the Bible as a possible source of inspiration in their daily life
  • Has donated money to a justice ministry or social welfare ministry in the last year
  • Has participated in a spiritual, philosophical, or religious activity in the past six months
  • Agrees that Jesus is worthy of imitation
  • Believes that authentic spirituality requires active work for justice, peace, mercy, or compassion
  • Regularly engages in spiritual reading or study, sometimes including the Bible
  • Has volunteered at least one hour in some form of community service in the last week
  • Meets regularly with a small group of persons to explore spirituality or life issues
  • Believes they are on a spiritual journey

Increasingly, the faith communities that approach their neighborhoods (AKA mission fields) with a welcoming attitude to those persons who answer yes to any of the above will be the communities that grow. Those that cling to rigid traditional expressions of faithfulness, insisting on tired and trite language and strict adherence to ancient creeds and customs,  will decline.

Some will argue that I’ve left Jesus out of the story, but my relationship with Jesus strongly suggests that he is alive and well in every one of the criteria listed above. Telling the story of Jesus today and in the days to come requires a willingness to let Jesus be seen in us and in the way we do these things of the spirit in our time.