Spiritual But Not Religious? (Part 2)

Written by Carl Greene

November 17, 2021

People are about as consistent in their use of the words “spiritual” and “religious” as they are in saying that the weather is “cool” or “warm.” Think about how we use cool and warm—a hardy Midwesterner might think that 60 degrees is warm spring weather, while someone from the southern tip of Florida will think it is less than cool. There is also within individual variability with these terms. That same Midwesterner will consider 40 degrees to be warm weather in February, unless it is the temperature of their living room.

Clearly, there is variability of “warm” and “cool” which limits their usefulness as labels. The same is true for spiritual and religious. While someone might use the “Spiritual but not Religious” (SBNR) statement to say that they do not go to church, conservative Protestants might use that same SBNR phrase to emphasize that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is necessary over cultural Christianity. The “religion” that these conservatives are separating themselves from is very different than the “religion” that the “nones” and “dones” are referring to.[1]

Even the word “believe” has radically different connotations. A Christian might use it as a means of talking about devout spirituality while a skeptic might use it as a way of describing superstition, which would still get lumped in as spirituality. Likewise, the word “belong” can represent a positive identity with a group, or in the opposite direction it can serve as a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian structure where the individual loses their own voice.[2]

So What Does It Mean?

So SBNR is not a phrase with consistent meaning—but what can we as churches learn from the increasing use of this phrase? “Spiritual” consistently refers to a privatized experience. The word is to indicate what someone does on their own. At the same time, spiritual is not necessarily distinct from the religious group that the individual identifies with. An individual’s privatized experience necessarily overlaps with the religious activity of a group.

“Religion” focuses on organized tradition. For Christians, this is generally some sort of reference to a local church. Yet, participation in the local church does not mean that the individual avoids privately oriented expressions.[3] Religion lacks authenticity without an accompanying “spiritual domain.”[4]

Thus, there is not a binary distinction between spiritual and religion—they actually overlap, even with the different nuances that people give to these words. The key to note is that people experience different overlaps of religiosity and spirituality.[5] Some will attend worship services yet practice few spiritual disciplines in their home. Some will rarely attend a worship serve, yet fervently prayer and consistently read their Bible.

The window of opportunity for the church is to invite people into an overlap of spiritual and religious. That is an opportunity that the church should be an expert in—but often sends the wrong message.

Next week we will take a look at the wrong message that the church sends, and the opportunity that we have to re-message our invitation to belong.

[1] Ammerman 2013, 274-5.

[2] Ammerman 2013, 273.

[3] Streib, Heinz and Ralph W. Hood. 2011. “‘Spirituality’ as Privatized Experience-Oriented Religion: Empirical and Conceptual Perspectives.” Implicit Religion 14 (4): 433-453. 449.

Streib, Heinz, Hood, Ralph W., and Barbara Keller. 2016. “Deconversion and ‘Spirituality”—Migrations in the Religious Field.” In Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, edited by Heinz Streib and Ralph W. Hood, 19-26. Switzerland: Springer. 24.

[4] Ammerman 2013, 276.

[5] Snell Herzog and Beadle 2018, 15.

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