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I’m Not Spiritual But Not Religious (But I Can See it From Here)

I am usually quite suspicious of oft-repeated expression, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Actually, “suspicious” might be putting it rather mildly. I have something bordering on a pathological loathing of this phrase. It’s possible that I have even visibly shuddered in disgust in the various contexts where this expression makes its predictable appearance. I usually encounter it in people who either refuse to consider church in the first place or who have left it behind for the usual assemblage of real or imagined grievances. Or people who can’t be bothered to think very hard about what they might believe or why but like the idea of seeming a bit deeper than they in fact are. Or people who imagine that they have grasped the deeper truth that all religions are inadequately and intolerantly pointing toward. Or people who like yoga. Or people who think that all religions are neat and cool and inspiring except for when they say things that don’t confirm what they already think. Or when they infringe upon personal liberties and preferences… or sleep habits… or weekend plans or… well, when they infringe upon anything, really. “I’m spiritual but not religious” very often seems to me to be among the more vacuous statements that a human could utter.

Oh dear. I did say that “suspicious” was putting it mildly, didn’t I?

A funny thing happened last weekend, though. Over the course of a few conversations, I actually found myself developing a tiny bit of sympathy for this expression, even if in a heavily and qualified and belaboured way. I was attending the annual meetings for our provincial conference of Mennonite churches. As is the case with many denominational gatherings like this in the post-Christian landscape, it was a bit of a grim experience at times. Deficit budgets, struggles to fill various committees, stories of aging, dwindling congregations, stories of congregations leaving over theological disputes (mainly around issues of sexuality), anguished conversations about “how to get the young people back in our churches”­—these were the themes that floated to the surface. There were stories of hope and health and vitality, too, and it’s always wonderful to reconnect with friends and colleagues from other churches. But I think it would be fair to say that there was at least a wispy cloud of anxiety and uncertainty that hovered over many of the presentations and conversations last weekend.

This is, as I said, the shape of the landscape for many churches and denominations in the post-Christian west. The difference in our little Mennonite outpost of Christianity is that all of these issues are negotiated in the context of an ecclesiology that places a heavy emphasis upon communal discernment. So conversations about theological issues or about how church structures might need to change to reflect changing demographics and giving patterns or about how God might be steering the church into different expressions of worship and mission are negotiated together as communities. Which sounds really good in theory. But in practice, it often means multiple layers of time consuming and at times not particularly fruitful meetings at local, provincial, and national levels. We have meetings and meetings about meetings and meetings to decide what we’re going to say at other meetings and meetings to reflect upon which future meetings we might need to process past meetings. We have feedback forums and collations of feedback that are re-presented at other meetings and workshops to allow opportunities for further feedback and… well, you get the idea. These discernment processes can drag on for years and years. We’re kind of like Tolkien’s Ents. We seem to think that nothing is worth saying unless it takes a long, long, long time.

On a theoretical level, I can easily make a case for the value of all of these committees and meetings and discernment processes and forums. They represent a guard against the abuse of power, they express our theological convictions about the priesthood of all believers, how the Spirit is present in each one of us, etc. Yes, yes. All true. But on a practical level, I (and others) see and hear many people—particularly younger people—looking at all of this and just saying, “yeah, not interested.”

Which brings me back to the two conversations. One was with a young man in the coffee line at the gathering this past weekend. We had just sat through a presentation about discernment about church structure going into the future. He looked as fatigued as I felt. “So what do you think of all this?” I asked. He sighed and said something like, “You know, I grew up Roman Catholic… and there are many things that I appreciate about Anabaptist theology… But you know, in the Catholic Church, when you come to mass your only job is to worship—to encounter Christ in the sacraments. You aren’t asked to constantly be figuring everything out all the time. It’s exhausting. It’s no wonder to me that people aren’t signing up for this! People want to encounter Christ in church not spend a decade hammering away at some issue in a thousand meetings.”

The second conversation was with another young-ish person who was sorta, kinda, maybe in the process of leaving the Mennonite church. They said largely the same thing. They came to worship looking to encounter God. They wanted to be involved in the church to help others do the same, to form meaningful relationships through which to learn and grow in the love and knowledge of God. What they too often got, they said, was an inflexible commitment to structures and processes and meeting after endless meeting and committees and sub-committees and sub-sub-committees and discernment processes and… well, eventually they just got tired.

Now, I know that “church business” is not a synonym for “religion.” Not by a long shot. I know that the etymology of the word “religion” points to something true and beautiful and, in my view, vitally necessary. But I think that, rightly or wrongly, in people’s experience these two are not far off. “Religion”=“endless meetings and mechanical church services”; “spirituality”=“relationships, existential issues, prayer, connection with God!” And if we can suspend our judgment and work temporarily with these crude and, yes, not altogether admirable or accurate categories, it’s not hard to see that when people who are hungry for or curious about or open to God come to church expecting this hunger to be addressed… and what they in fact get is an invitation to serve on a committee…

Well, yeah.

Then I guess I can get why someone might be tempted to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

To head off any number of critiques or complaints that might arise based on the preceding, I know that church structures matter. I know that discernment processes are important. I know that meetings must be held (even if I’m reasonably convinced that we could do with few less of them). I know that serving on committees and encountering God are not mutually exclusive categories (who knows, it might even be possible to encounter God on a committee!). I know that past generations laboured long and hard through many a tedious committee meeting to deliver to us the institutions and theological frameworks that form the ground upon which we now stand. I know that our manner of doing things as an Anabaptist church expresses deep and important theological convictions.

I guess I just wonder if all of these “I know’s” might sometimes—particularly at this cultural moment—get in the way of the one “I know” that really matters: to know God. Because this is still the point of it all, right? To know God? Not to preserve our denominational identity or institutions, not to come up with a shiny new committee or task force to address this or that vital issue, not to be vindicated over our theological enemies, not to convince the broader church to pursue our pet agendas, but to “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The church is still about encountering God… Right?

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    When people today want to ‘encounter God’ I think they mean they want to experience an emotion (a sense of peace or joy), or they want to have a special insight into their life. They essentially want something to happen within themselves, a pleasing something that they can attribute to God. When people in the Bible encountered God, it was usually traumatic. Isaiah was undone, Paul was blinded, and Abraham nearly murdered his own child. I am content not to encounter God. I will revere God and follow after God from a distance.

    March 21, 2017
    • I agree, this is often what people mean when they talk about encountering God. Very often we’re just expressing a desire for some pleasing inner state that can be attributed to God. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, easy as it is to manipulate and misinterpret such desires, and easy as it is to describe them in skeptical and reductive ways. For would we want to say that God can’t encounter us via our inner states?

      I suppose I’m also thinking of something like the desire to connect with something sacred or transcendent, something that points to a meaning or purpose for life that goes beyond what we can manufacture on our own. The “thin places” of the Celts maybe. Or meditating on an icon and coming to a new understanding of the suffering of Christ in light of one’s own pain. Or an experience of forgiveness and love at the Lord’s table. I don’t know. For me, these are more than desirable brain states or “pleasing somethings.” These are signposts that point to something beyond. And I think people really do (sometimes) want things like this from church. Sadly, such desires are often swallowed up by crude pragmatism and religious business (rumour has it this can also be true for pastors!).

      Re: people in the Bible encountering God. Yes, you’re of course right. There are stories of divine encounter that are nothing short of traumatic. There are other stories, too. Like this week’s gospel reading of the man born blind. Or Thomas encountering Jesus after his resurrection and gasping, “My Lord and my God.” Or Peter encountering Jesus and being forgiven for his denials. Or Elijah and the still small voice. Or a woman spared the stones of religious fervour. I think encounters with God cover a pretty wide range in Scripture and this is as we should expect from a God who both loves and accepts us as we are and loves us too much to leave us where we are.

      March 22, 2017
      • Chris #

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My cynicism was directed toward the SBNR folks themselves. I agree there is a positive side to the idea of encountering God. I still shy away from it, though, perhaps because in recent years God has been remote to me, more absent than present, more far than near. Peace.

        March 22, 2017
      • Ah, of course. Thanks for pointing that out, Chris. I apologize for misinterpreting your comments. Although the more I think about it, the more I think your observations apply both the SBNR crowd and many who would put themselves squarely in the “R” camp.

        I hear what you’re saying about shying away from “encounter” language. It makes me apprehensive as well. I very often wonder what business I have even speaking like this or presuming to lecture anyone on what churches or church leaders should be about given how inadequately and infrequently I have experienced the encounters with God that I speak of. Perhaps this whole post is little more than the expression of a vague and inchoate desire for what the church could or should be about and what we, as pastors could or should be doing with our time and energy.

        March 23, 2017
  2. Nomad #

    I will try to exert maximum restraint here with my comment.This is an extremely emotionally charged topic for me personally.
    I lay fault for the slow motion demise of Christianity and the subsequent rise in Atheism squarely at the feet of the self-appointed ego driven jesuspreneurs and the seminaries who foster the grandiose pipe-dreams of these men and women who are seeking to fulfill a deep unmet psychological need for validation,recognition and a halo of Glory. I have become convinced over the years that 98% of preachers don’t know God in any meaningful way hence have not progressed beyond the shallow rhetoric that they parrot week after week after week.The congregation hasn’t spiritually evolved over time because the man in the pulpit himself is “stuck” and experiencing whats commonly known in other disciplines as “arrested development”. There is no hope for them,barring a Divine intervention, and in most cases they would not accept it anyway due to doctrinal brainwashing and Pride.

    I liked Chris’s comment. Sadly we have been programmed and conditioned to believe that God is a certain special FEELING or EMOTION that we must get before we can confirm His Presence, nothing could be further from the truth.

    March 21, 2017
    • 98%, eh? Whew, that doesn’t sound too promising. Part of me wants to say that you’re giving preachers far too much credit. I’m not sure we’re influential enough to direct massive cultural trends like the rise of secularism. I just read an article in my local paper that says that 80% of people in the pews don’t agree with preachers most Sundays anyway, so maybe the blame would more appropriately be directed toward the sheep than the shepherds! Spoken like a true pastor, eh? 😉

      On a more serious note, I do think that you’re describing a phenomenon that is real. It’s undeniably true that some preachers “don’t know God in any meaningful way” and that this has real consequences in congregations. My interpretation of this might not be as alarmist as yours (i.e., I don’t think that pride and immaturity among Christian leaders is a recent innovation—on my reading of history, the church has always had to contend with this!), but I do think it’s a trend that we must always be seeking to resist for our own sake and for the sake of those we lead.

      March 22, 2017
      • Nomad #

        ….always the Diplomat… 🙂

        March 26, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Yes the church is only, “true” to the extent it is in relationship with (encountering) God.

    In my church (Roman Catholic) it has been my witness, shared through conversations with many who see a similar pattern, that priests who lead our parishes often become preoccupied with administrative duties before spiritual ones. Further it seems the archdiocese recognizes this outcome by often providing associate pastors who tend to be more spiritual in disposition and vocation.

    I don’t mind and see the need for the worldly vocations of ministry and finances, to name a few but this worldliness becomes toxic when it undermines spiritual truths. The harm is done when worldly dispositions and philosophies replace those of the Spirit and our traditions.

    In our parish for example this kind of thinking has eliminated the reciting of the confiteor at Sunday Mass. ( a communal prayer of confession, acknowledging our sinfulness, our dependence on God’s forgiveness and mercy and our plea for prayers and support, from the Blessed Mother, the Saints and from one another)

    It is the penitential disposition we have been called to assume throughout the millennia as we approach the Holy Altar and Tabernacle of God.

    Administrators worry that such dispositions, to modern ears, sound too condemning, too judgemental and could be a vehicle for self loathing and a host of other insecurities that our church has been deemed guilty of inspiring through the ages.

    My church like many others opts to perform the Kyrie Eleison ( Lord of mercy) prayer sung in multi tonal harmonies by our best singers. It is true we are utterly dependent on Christ for mercy but apparently we aren’t supposed to talk about, or acknowledge publicly, what (if anything) makes His mercy so neccessary….lest we offend.

    It may seem small to read on paper, the Lord knows it seems like no big deal to many Catholics, most prefer the new way far as I can tell but how does one truly encounter God if we do not have the honesty and integrity to meet our God as we truly are. If I come to him denying my sinfulness, my brokenness, my need for absolution and mercy, who is it that stands before the Lord?…..Not me, that is for sure.

    How do we form any honest relationship with anyone when we present a false image of ourselves?

    I encourage anyone who might read this to take a small amount of time daily, at the same time, early morning works best for me, and convene with the Lord your God. Come as you are. Your loving God is waiting to embrace you. Chris your observations about encountering the Holy Spirit of God ring true and your Lord knows this. He does not invite any of us to come hopeful of a sign, he knows our hearts and our limitations. What we can handle and what we can’t. He calls us to come as we are. We present our true selves. Nothing more, nothing less. If just for a few moments a day we can come before our God as we really are, somehow he meets us there. Loves us, forgives us and inspires us to be our better and truer selves. I know this for a fact. He is dong it for me. To the extent that I am willing to come before Him daily, just as I am, He will continue to do so. The grace stops when I do. God will never take His loving gaze and support off of anyone who comes to Him. His mercy and grace are infinite.

    Take heart Nomad, there is a home for you. Scandal and sin will always abound, but through it all the Real presence of our Lord is waiting for you. Find a community that supports holiness and true worship, not self aggrandizing ministries that corrupt. I know that the sacrifice of the Mass is a true way. The Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of all worship. I cannot say with complete conviction say that it is the only path. I just know with conviction that it is a true one.

    As I’m sure you are well aware my church is often beset with scandals, much of it true I imagine but that doesn’t alter God’s holiness one bit. He serves those faithfully who come to Him honestly, just as they are. And for the others He waits. He abides. Until the time of His choosing there is still time for all who repent to be saved….. and that my friend is worth smiling about. 🙂

    March 22, 2017
    • Thanks for this, Paul. I really appreciate this window into your world and the realities that your church faces (which are not so different from many of ours). And I appreciate your gracious words of support and encouragement to those who are wrestling with these issues in this online space and beyond.

      March 23, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        This one took me longer to reply to then I am comfortable with. I am sorry, Ryan.

        Having the Spirit guide me into subordinating my pride, well I can’t speak for the Spirit but it tires me out. 🙂

        I am so thankful for your appreciation. It means a lot to me. I can’t help but wistfully wish that I had been more constructive to you here, years ago….subordinating pride….and then I remember that you have forgiven me and I laugh out loud. 🙂

        if you have the time perhaps you could comment on my ongoing participation here. Do you think it serves, the Lord? Does it serve your interests? Are you happy to have me here? Do you think my service would be better served elsewhere?

        I truly value your wisdom and am often in awe of the way you are able to logically and with the Spirit, defend your thoughts.

        April 12, 2017
      • Your participation here? Well, I have little to say other than that I welcome it, have profited from it, and am glad for it! I can’t speak for how you think your time and engagement would be best spent, but I can’t imagine that God would be displeased by the shared pursuit of truth, dialogue, conversation that goes on here.

        Thanks, as always, for your very kind words of affirmation.

        April 12, 2017
    • Nomad #

      …Beautiful message in your comment,Paul. However, I think institutional Christianity in all it’s various forms is far too damaged to survive effectively in this age of the rational and “enlightened” seeker. I believe an era of “New Monasticism” is upon us, where those who seek to know God and His Christ will do it best through adapting the all but forgotten ways of the first century believers..turning inward in quiet contemplative solitude, much as the great mystics, monks,hermits and recluse devoted their lives to…..God Alone.

      March 26, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thank you, Nomad for both your affirmation and follow up observations. I am in complete agreement with what you say. The wheat will and is being separated from the chaff with regard to the institutional church(s). The sifting is happening now. What will remain will be both smaller and stronger (true).

        My simpler language and call to prayer is to be read as a contemplative discipline. It has been my experience however that overtly, “contemplative” language has a threatening effect on many Christians. Almost every Christian community has had negative experiences with subsets within, that claim a closer spiritual connection through more direct contact with the Holy Spirit. Deceivers who have done great harm. People are naturally reticent.

        Further post modernism has ingrained such faith in materialism that spiritual wisdoms are viewed solely as the purview of the superstitious and the ignorant.

        The mature Catholic contemplative understands this journey as the necessary transition from ego to spirit. The, “meat” of faith as St. Paul would likely describe it. Yet most of the faithful and I think it has and will always be so, remain on the, “milk” of faith.

        A true contemplative journey requires a lifetime of formation.

        Be careful, Nomad. Though the contemplative experience is a solitary one, it’s understandings and outcomes are always intended to be communal. What graces we receive in private, we are commanded by faith to share with all who seek fraternity with Jesus Christ.

        His peace be with is always.

        March 27, 2017
      • Nomad #

        Thank you for these wise and helpful insights, Paul. You have a depth of spiritual understanding that I admire and envy.

        March 27, 2017
    • micki #

      Paul, thank you. I have been contemplating the “contemplative life” much as of late & am currently working out a way to become a “contemplative nomad.” i have to wait until my familial obligations are in a different place (son is in transition, and i am currently taking care of mom.) i find it is easier to meet God in the morning in a calm quiet place and since i can’t seem to find one of those lately, meeting Him has been difficult. i will continue to do what you encouraged us to do, thank you 🙂

      April 5, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Sorry, Micki I have been aware of this response for a few days but needed to take a little time to formulate, think and pray about, a response.

        I just have this to tell you. Stay relaxed, well rested and wash your hands and face before offering yourself in communion. Try not to think. If the mind interupts…mine is a terrible interupter lol…focus and quietly repeat, only as often as necessary, simple mantras of truth….”Jesus I love you”….”Jesus I need you”….”Jesus I trust in you” are all I can safely recommend at this time.

        Remain in this posture for as long as you can remain at peace.

        For me transitioning back from Spirit to mind is best mediated through corporate prayers that I recite out loud after my period of silence.

        I hope this is of help to you.

        May the peace of the risen Christ be with you always.

        April 10, 2017
      • micki #

        Paul thank you. I will do these to the best of my abilities (my mind is a horrible interrupter as well.) Peace be with you.

        April 12, 2017
  4. Kevin K #

    Ryan. Thanks for this post. A welcome reminder/encouragement about what we are called to as a churches (and denominations). In the MB world we could use a few more committees, but maybe not to the extreme you describe. Balance is good, I suppose.

    I also remember reading somewhere about us Jesus followers being called to be a city on a hill, and the light of the world. Cities still have sewers, and someone has to make sure wax doesn’t get everywhere when you burn a candle, but if salt loses it’s saltiness…

    As always, thanks for the reflections!

    March 22, 2017
    • Thanks, Kevin. Yes, even cities on hills have sewers. What a memorable and appropriate way to put it. 🙂

      I also appreciate your reminder that there are pitfalls on both sides of this issue. Authoritarian structures and leaders that casually bypass the very people they claim to be serving also abound. Somewhere in between is the best response, I suppose. Somehow the church has to find a way to engage in communal discernment (and in a way that goes beyond mere lip service) and to foster meaningful church engagement in a cultural context of radical individualism and consumerism that mitigate against these at every turn. It’s a tall task. At times, it can seem insurmountable.

      March 23, 2017
      • Kevin K #

        Appreciate your reply. You do such wonderful customer service on your blog! Thank-you. And we don’t even pay you for your work, what a shame…

        On the matter of the business of running the church, in some reading last week I came across a welcome reminder from David Hansen in his seminal work, “The Art of Pastoring.”

        “If the church is a womb that saves and nourishes lonely and impoverished souls, I thought that being a pastor was climbing into the womb for good. I wanted the warmth and acceptance I received every Sunday. I wanted it all the time. Being a pastor seemed like the way to get it… I misconstrued ministry as full-time security in the womb of the church. [But] the call to pastoral ministry is a call out of the womb of the church into the perilous and painful role of being pregnant with the church, of giving birth to it, of nursing it, and raising it” (P. 36).

        That point being said, we still do well in this business of managing the womb to do our best to provide light and life to our fellow managers, committee members, or disgruntled conference delegates. A tall task indeed.

        March 29, 2017
      • Fantastic quote. Thanks, Kevin. I may have to revisit Hansen’s book.

        (Re: customer service, my initial instinct is to say, “I accept cash or cheques…” but the truth of the matter is that in my better moments I don’t think of my readers as “customers” but fellow pilgrims. So, in that sense, I’m not providing service but engaging in conversation… I hope. 😉 )

        March 29, 2017
      • Kevin K #

        Fellow pilgrims is a nice way of putting it. It’s good online company to keep, that’s for sure.

        March 29, 2017
  5. ken@saanichcommunity.ca #

    Hey RD, love you as you know; enjoyed the discussion as well. Curious that no one else commented on the double negative in your title. Is there a message there as well?
    Cheers,
    kmp

    March 23, 2017
    • Thanks very much, Ken. I’m curious about you might interpret the double negative!

      March 24, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    1 Thessalonians 5:11. 😀

    March 28, 2017
  7. micki #

    i love this post & find it exactly where i am. i am in a non-denominational church & am weary of the “structure.” i feel like i am connecting neither to God nor to the church. A friend of mine put it thusly: “Just because we have community in our name does not make it true.” I think it must be so much worse in a denomination. God bless you for your blog Ryan. I read you as much as possible.” Thank you.

    April 5, 2017
    • Thanks for this kind affirmation, Micki. I appreciate it. I think it is possible to connect with God and the church from within denominational structures (I wouldn’t be working in one if I didn’t at least hold out this hope! 🙂 ), but it certainly isn’t inevitable. I worry about the barriers that we may be inadvertently placing in front of those who are simply curious about Jesus and what it might look like to come to him.

      April 5, 2017
      • micki #

        i see what you are saying. i didn’t mean to write off denominations as a vehicle for meeting God – i actually miss some of the rituals i grew up with, that all pointed to the holiness of God. i do want to say that in your honest writings about your struggles as a pastor, i see my struggles as a christian in our age, and i am thankful that i am not the only one wrestling with the hard questions. thanks for your honesty & your heart for people.

        April 6, 2017
      • Yes, I totally resonate with what you’re saying, Micki. I need the rituals, the practices, the historical connection, the discipline, the reminder that these things called “Christianity” and the “church” preceded me and will long outlive me… And yet the structures can so often be experienced as constricting and lifeless. It’s really hard to get the balance right.

        (Oh dear, did I just advocate “balance?” Ugh… I’m starting to irritate myself… 🙂 )

        Again, really appreciate your affirmation and encouragement. It means a lot.

        April 6, 2017

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