Religious But Not Spiritual
by Rev. Dustin Bartlett
Much ado has been made lately about the rise of the “nones” – the religiously unaffiliated, the “spiritual but not religious.” Over the last 50 years, the share of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has risen exponentially. As of this year, those with no religious affiliation make up the largest “religious group” in the United States.1 This has caused something of a panic among church folk – especially among my fellow pastors, who are wondering whether or not their job title will even exist in twenty years.
There are a lot of theories as to what is causing this mass exodus from organized religion. Some people blame it on the end of prayer in public schools. Others worry that their churches seem too old-fashioned for the younger crowd, and so they try to compensate by adding contemporary worship services with rock-and-roll style praise music. Among Millennials, a common reason given for leaving church is the historic stance of many Christian denominations (not my own) against LGBTQ rights.
There’s probably a mix of reasons why people are leaving the church, but one often overlooked piece of data gives a big clue into the empty pews on Sunday morning. Although religious affiliation is rapidly declining, the number of Americans who consider themselves spiritual is actually increasing.2 There’s only one possible conclusion: If church attendance is decreasing while, at the same time, the desire for spiritual experience is increasing, it can only mean that people are not finding the spirituality they seek in the church.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time in churches and hanging out with church people, I’ve seen that there is a correlation between the number of people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and the number of churches that are effectively “religious but not spiritual.” You know these churches. These are the churches where people come out of a sense of guilt rather than a sense of joy. They’re the ones that can spend an hour listening to the teachings of Jesus on Sunday morning and spend the other 167 hours each week ignoring them. “Religious but not spiritual” churches care more about the church building than the children who might make it messy, and care more about rules and tradition than about healing and love.
Jesus and the “religious but not spiritual” people clashed. All. The. Time.
So what are us church people supposed to do in an increasingly non-churched society? The same thing we were supposed to be doing all along! We’re still called to shine with the joy and the love of the Lord! The problem isn’t that the culture is shifting. The problem is that churches have let the fire burn low.
In the meantime, it’s worth pointing out that not only is the Millennial generation less religiously affiliated and more spiritual, but they also volunteer at higher rates than previous generations.3 They’re giving their time and their money to causes they care about, supporting their friends and their communities. Church folk should be in the trenches of community service alongside them, not necessarily to bring them back to church, but to be reminded that service to others is at the heart of true spirituality.
- “The Rise of the Unaffiliated.” September 22, 2016. http://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-2016-religiously-unaffiliated-americans/.
- Pew Research Center. “Americans May Be Getting Less Religious, but Feelings of Spirituality Are On the Rise.” January 21, 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/21/americans-spirituality/.
- Philanthropy News Digest. “More Millennials Value Volunteering Than Previous Generation Did.” January 5, 2015. http://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/more-millennials-value-volunteering-than-previous-generation-did