Why Church? I’m Spiritual but not Religious

October 1, 2013


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Sept. 15, 2013

 “Why Church?  I’m Spiritual but not Religious”

I Thess. 5:12-24


“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.”  This seems to be a common statement today.  It’s as if religion has become a bad word.  Surveys have found that about 1 in 5 people – or about ½ of those who don’t attend church – describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious.  How many of you have had a discussion with someone about this topic: being spiritual but not religious?


Today we are continuing the “why church?” theme.  Today, I’m exploring the most popular excuse (oops, I mean reason) given to stay away from church.  I’m also planning to address some other reasons given, such as:

  •  “The church is full of hypocrites.”
  •  “Too many wars are fought because of religion”.


So what’s the difference between spirituality and religion?

  • Ø Religion has come to equal (in people’s minds) an institutionalized, codified set of beliefs and practices.  “Institutions”, “churches”, “systems”, and “doctrines” are words associated with religion.  One person even wrote that religion is a 2nd hand experience of God, while spirituality is a personal experience with God.
  • Ø Spirituality has come to equal a personal belief in a supreme being along with a set of values and a sense of inner wholeness.  “Internal”, “ethereal”, and “intangible” are words associated with spirituality.


There’s a new trend to “do your own spiritual thing”, forming your own religion based on a kind of a la carte sampling of traditions and religions.  From Buddhist meditation, yoga, Christian prayer, to a vegetarian diet, people are trying out new ways to be spiritual.  In fact, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that of the millennial generation – Americans from ages 18-29  – 64% say they are absolutely sure of God’s existence but practice outside of organized religion.


Ironically, before the 20th century, the terms religious and spiritual were used interchangeably.  But various cultural and intellectual forces have identified a difference between the so-called private and public spheres of life.  In the modern world, there is a stronger reliance on science, scholarship and cultural relativism in place of loyalty to religious institutions.  So “spiritual” has gradually been associated with the private understanding of a higher power and “religious” has been assigned the public, institutional part of faith.


It follows then, that religiousness is associated with interest in church attendance and a set of prescribed beliefs while spirituality is associated with interest in mysticism, experimentation with a variety of practices and beliefs and negative feelings toward clergy and churches.  Yet, listen to the ancient words of Paul written to the church at Thessalonica…

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,* to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you;13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14And we urge you, beloved,* to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.16Rejoice always,17pray without ceasing,18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.19Do not quench the Spirit.20Do not despise the words of prophets,*21but test everything; hold fast to what is good;22abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound* and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.     I Thess. 5:12-24.

Often, when a person says “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” they are saying that they reject organized religion as a way to grow spiritually.  Imagine their surprise if they heard what Paul urges the church to be (look at the action words in our scripture for today):

  • respect,
  • esteem,
  • be at peace,
  • encourage the faint-hearted,
  • help the weak,
  • be patient with all,
  • don’t repay evil for evil,
  • do good,
  • rejoice always,
  • pray without ceasing,
  • hold fast to good.


So what shall we say in response to the statement “I’m spiritual, but not religious”?  I think there are at least 5 ways we can dialog with people about this topic.


  1.  Share your own experiences of spiritual enrichment at church.  (This may take some thinking before your conversation with a person).  Think of times you have been inspired while at church or with church folk.  When have you experienced God because of something someone said?  When did your skin break out in goose bumps when we were singing together?  What have you learned as you worship here?  Share these things as a beneficial part of being a member of a church.  Give a testimony!

We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die.  We also become spiritual when we are moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning beyond our visible world.  Tell someone about how you have asked and found answers about these things while at church.


  1.  Challenge them with the truth that community is a more important spiritual concept than individualism.  God works in the plural.  “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”  Even creation was accomplished in the plural “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness.”  While personal meditation/ prayer are important, it is not the sole purpose of any spiritual life.  Being in a community brings spiritual awareness in ways we may not even realize. Because we gather together instead of finding God on the golf course, we experience what it means to love your neighbor, to do good to those who hurt you, to find the best in each other, etc.  Being a spiritual person means being in community, not isolation.
  2. Speak of the ways you put your personal faith into action because you are a member of a church.  If UCC hadn’t introduced you to the Hygiene Pantry, would you save your Sunday newspaper sleeves, volunteer at the pantry, or even know of its existence?  The church educates us about how we can be involved in our communities.  While spiritual people may write checks to their favorite charities, having a hands on multi-issue outreach program is almost impossible unless you belong to an organization.
  3.  Offer an invitation to an educational event at the church – a class, a special event, or a book study.  Consider the demographics of those who invoke spirituality over religion.  According to Robert Fuller, who is a key writer on this topic, the profile of a person who says “I’m spiritual, but not religious” includes:
  • Those who have a college education
  • Those who work in white-collar jobs
  • Those who are politically liberal
  • Those whose parents were not heavily involved in church
  • Those who are socially independent

Take time to think about something they would enjoy – the Monday evening class, the special events, the speakers – these are ways to involve them in our church in a way that is comfortable.

  1. And most importantly, be and do as Paul instructs so that religious people ARE spiritual people: rejoice, pray, give thanks always, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with others, hold fast to what is good.


Lao-tzu, a 6th century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher wrote, “As rivers have their source in some far-off fountain, so the human spirit has its source.  To find his fountain of spirit is to learn the secret of heaven and earth.”  May we all seek and discover the fountain of spirit as we seek to be spiritual and religious.

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