Over the last few decades there has been a rise of people around the world that call themselves spiritual but not religious. What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’? According to Wikipedia it is “a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organised religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.” This can apply to individuals who ‘love Jesus but not church’ so they do not want to be involved in institutions of Christianity, and it can also apply to people who believe themselves to be spiritual but they do not believe in a defined god. This second group could even include atheists and agnostics who are intrigued with spirituality. Their spiritual experiences are deeply personal and private.
A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in 2017 of about 2,000 Americans, found that 18% of Americans self-identify as spiritual but not religious. Australia also noticed that the increase of people selecting ‘No Religion’ in their latest census included this group of people who were not wanting to be affiliated with a religion or Christian denomination.
I’m sure you would have met or know someone who considers themselves to be spiritual but not religious. They talk about praying or having a relationship with Jesus but do not belong to, or attend, a church. They practice yoga or meditate on a regular basis and encourage you to do the same. You may hear them say things like – Send me some good vibes or you are in my thoughts. What are these vibes they are referring to? They believe in an afterlife but not in a defined heaven and hell. You will find yourself in conversations with them about spiritual things but there isn’t much structure to their spirituality.
This out look on spirituality is on the rise in my generation. I noticed this phrase mentioned a lot, growing up in Christianity – It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship. For the most part, I agree with that statement but I would argue that there must be some structure, or support, to our relationship with God.
I believe the word ‘religion’ has gotten a bad rap over the years. It has come to be defined as everything that is wrong with Christianity. But I don’t think there is any problem with religion when it is defined correctly. The word religion merely means “a particular system of faith and worship.” So, if by religion we mean the traditional customs and practices of Christianity found primarily in scripture and secondarily, in church tradition (when it is not in contradiction with scripture) then I cannot see how that is a problem. For example, it may be considered religion to attend a weekly church service on Sunday that includes worship and preaching . But this practice is Biblical because in Judaism the Jews were instructed to dedicate one day a week to God and the writer of Hebrews encouraged the church to ‘not forsake the assembling together’ in order to encourage each other in their faith. There are also references to the disciples of Jesus meeting on Sundays (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2) after His resurrection, which was also on ‘the first day of the week’, a Sunday (Luke 24, John 20).
Religion is just a framework by which we are to pursue our relationship with God. That is where I believe individuals who claim to be spiritual but not religious get it wrong. Because true spirituality, as defined by the Bible, requires religion. It is through religion that we are taught how and why we pray. It is religion that instructs you to give and bless others. It is religion that encourages you to read scripture and to go on a fast. Sure, you can be spiritually led to do these things but will you pray, read your Bible, fast, have faith or give sacrificially when you don’t feel spiritual?
I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are issues with just being religious. The Apostle Paul addresses this in his writings to Timothy. He says:
“Holding to a form of [outward] godliness (religion), although they have denied its power [for their conduct nullifies their claim of faith]. Avoid such people and keep far away from them.” (2 Timothy 3:5 AMP)
Paul is telling Timothy to avoid people who pretend to be religious but deny the life-changing power of God’s Spirit. He’s not saying that being religious is a bad thing but rather that only being religious in outward appearances is wrong.
Jesus spent much of His ministry condemning the religious men of His day which were called Pharisees. He once compared these individuals to “whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” He continued to say, “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Mat 23:27-28 NASB) His issue with them was not their religion but rather that their religion was only an outward show. That is why He also said concerning the Law that these men purported to follow:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB)
Jesus didn’t come to destroy the religion of the Jews, seeing that He was the one that established their religion through their forefathers, but He came fill it full of meaning!
So, can you be religious and not spiritual? Yes, I believe it is easy to settle for rituals and customs instead of a true relationship with God. But can you truly be spiritual, in a good sense, and not religious? I do not believe that is possible.