by Larry Peers

Q:  It seems that a growing number of people indicate that their religious preference is “none”—or say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Is there anything that congregations can do differently? Are we becoming irrelevant?

A.  Loyalty to religious congregations may seem to be waning among some people and some people express this as a suspicion of the “organizational” aspects of religious communities or their leaders. This might get expressed in a variety of ways, including the statement “I am spiritual, not religious” or checking “none” on a religious affiliation survey.

Rather than bemoan this apparent trend, I believe we can listen more deeply and learn from this. The fact of the matter is that not all of those who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are outside of our congregations. Some of them are sitting in our pews. I like to think that those who say they are “spiritual, but not religious” at least have one oar still in the water. I also like to think that those who don’t have a current religious affiliation may find pathways to a religious community at some point in their lives. In fact, research shows that many do.

So, rather than throw up our hands in despair or give in to resignation, I believe that there is an enduring task for religious congregations—a task of connecting to those outside and inside our walls who seek spiritual nurturance. Those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” whether they are outside or inside of our congregations may have the same yearnings as all the rest of us—a deeper spiritual life, a deeper relationship to God, or an integrity to their religious path that allows them to engage on their own terms towards ongoing spiritual growth.

If we listen to folks who claim to be “spiritual, not religious” we may discover that some of their critique may be useful to hear.  In particular, our forms of doing things, our way of organizing may be inhibiting rather than facilitating belonging.

I know one Baptist church that offers its adult Sunday School classes at a time that works best for older retired folks but does not quite work for families with young children. We know churches that make volunteering unavailable to those who work evenings, have young children, travel for work, or don’t have lots of free time.  We know Jews who have found their “spirituality” outside of the synagogue.  Our forms—our ways of doing things—may inhibit our capacity as religious organizations for people to “belong” even when they strive to believe.

Religious affiliation is a fluid phenomenon these days. People do not necessarily stay in the faith tradition in which they were raised. People go in the direction where their heart, their spirit is leading them—and sometimes this is outside the congregation.  And sometimes, it is outside because we have not remained as spiritually vital and creative as we can be within congregations.

Jews and Christians alike can identify with this critique by Rabbi Sydney Schwartz in Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue:

The Jewish community has lost some of the most sensitive spiritual souls of this generation. They are Jews who were looking for God and found spiritual homes outside of Judaism. Their journeys traversed the Jewish community, but nothing there beckoned them. The creation of synagogue-communities in which the voices of seekers can be heard and their questions can be asked will challenge many loyalist Jews. It will upset and enrage them. But it would also enrich them. (Chapter 16)

Perhaps, we need to think of “spiritual” and “religious” not so much as polar opposites.  Maybe the task before us is to recognize that there is something to cherish in each. So here are some suggestions for what your congregation can do to nurture the “spiritual” in the religious:

  1. Ask, what are we offering that explicitly responds to the spiritual needs of those who are searching, questioning and/or want to have meaningful experiences of encounter with God, with others in an atmosphere of dialogue and discovery?
  2. Do an audit of your programs and the times that you offer them.  Does your schedule make it difficult for different ages and lifestyles to participate?  I’ve noticed more and more creative programming in congregations these days. A parents group can be held during a children’s choir rehearsal, adult programs during religious school. Programs like “Messy Church” and “Tot Shabbat” allow parents and young children to experience liturgy together.
  3. Are you an intentionally “practicing congregation”? Have you found ways for those who attend to enter into and cultivate practices that can nurture their spirit and that can deepen over time? Many who seek meditation, yoga or other experiences are seeking to develop a practice that speaks to their whole person.  Some of our congregations are reviving centering prayer, experimenting with different ways of doing Torah study, or including service projects as reflective religious practice.
  4. Ask, who owns our congregation? Is one generation in charge or do you have a cross-section of generations and perspectives that are allowing you to look at your congregation through multiple lenses?
  5. Can you enrich your own offerings by joining with other congregations for some joint programming that you collectively sponsor?  When appropriate, can you sponsor interfaith programs that allow the seeker to learn various perspectives on some common human dilemmas and issues (ethics, parenting, dealing with transitions, etc.)

These are only some of the questions that allow us to bridge the dichotomies often created between the “spiritual” and the “religious.”

Throughout religious history there have always been teachers who have sought to reinvigorate religious institutions with direct experiences of the holy, with renewed emphasis on the spiritual basis of our “organizing.” The challenges of our time may be distinctly different, but it is a perennial religious task to form and reform the “potter’s clay” of our religious institutions so that they can truly be “a house of prayer for all people.”

Larry Peers is an Alban Senior Consultant specializing in whole systems planning, congregational revitalization, leadership training and clergy coaching. Larry works with a wide variety of congregations, judicatories, national denominations, and their leadership.

Congregations, 2010-10-01
Fall 2010, Number 4