Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed many conversations with irreligious people about faith. In my encounters I’ve heard one recurring theme over and over–“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One person, when I pressed for further understanding, quipped, “Religion is sitting in church thinking about fishing. Spirituality is going fishing and thinking about God.” Without question, people are very open to spiritual things, but simultaneously bypassing organized religion to find and fuel their spirituality. Religious institutions are becoming less and less where people turn to in order to find meaning and make sense out of life. So where do they turn?
Harvard Divinity School published a study titled, How We Gather, that centered around the question, “How can we retrieve the ancient wisdom, without the constraints?” The research team discovered that people who seek spirituality do so by accessing several practices outside the confines of formal religion.
- Finding community by valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on serving others. Creating new communities is often more powerful than joining existing ones.
- Striving for personal transformation by making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit.
- Seeking social transformation by pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good with the goal of closing the asset gaps. This effort extends beyond geographical and political boundaries. It is global in its focus.
- Finding purpose and hope by clarifying, articulating and acting on one’s own personal life mission. (Yes, the secular world is challenging their employees to write their own personal life mission statements.)
- Fostering creativity by allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play, especially as digital interfaces become more common.
- Valuing accountability by holding oneself and others responsible for working toward decided goals, often without a centralized authority.
Yes, I realize that these are all core values of religions groups and local churches. The key distinction is the structure and constraints of religion and local churches. The listing above is expressed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic work reported in the Book of Acts. Perhaps the key is for churches to reevaluate their “constraints.” Churches have a lot of rules, some of them written, many of them unwritten. Unfortunately, many of these rules are reinforced from obscure verses from the Bible and the particular interpretive biases of church and denominational leadership. What isn’t cited from Scripture is purely the culture of the congregation. The result is that many feel invalidated as persons. Much of local church life is on the top shelf and inaccessible.
No, I don’t advocate tossing the Bible aside and giving in to every whim of popular culture. But I do think churches need to reassess what is most important and direct their resources and energy in that direction. The mandate of Jesus was and is, “follow me in a life of discipleship.” Not, join a church and become like them. The standard must be higher, not harder.