Spiritual but not Religious
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” Have you ever heard someone say this before or read about it anywhere? Chances are, you’ve most likely have. A growing number of individuals have become disenfranchised with the idea of religion and are promoting the ideals of being strictly “spiritual.” They are a part of a growing movement that identifies as “Spiritual but not Religious” or SBNR for short.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, about a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. At the time of the survey, 22% of adults between 18-29 identified as part of this movement, as well as 36% of adults between 30-49 (1). The questions that we want to answer are: what does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to be spiritual? Is there cohesion between the two? Can you have one without the other? Let’s discuss.
The Problem with the Spiritual but not Religious Ideology
Many of the individuals who make up the SBNR movement grew up being a part of some sort of religious faith and some even consider themselves Christians. I don’t doubt their sincerity at all, it’s just the SBNR ideology that has to be called into question. What’re the reasons why some have decided to shirk their faith and just identify as spiritual? Well, one reason is that organized religion is just not appealing to this group.
One artist in Arizona who grew up Southern Baptist says he finds organized religion obtuse and hopelessly convoluted. Instead, he finds his religious meaning in creating powerful art (2). And a resident out of Mountain View California says he believes in God and studies the teachings of Jesus but will never identify with a particular religion because the structure and rigidity of a church, he believes, is antithetical to everything Jesus represents (3).
Those who identify as SBNR try to find spiritual nourishment in things such as yoga, meditation, art, and silence/solitude (4). They rely on the physical to teach them about the spiritual (5). They try to look “within” to connect with God and seek to have no formal ties to a church/faith. Essentially, this group desires Jesus but not everything He has to offer. Scripture plainly teaches us that you can’t belong to Jesus if you don’t belong to His church because He died for us and is the head of the church.
The apostle Paul wrote in Acts 20:28:
28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (ESV).
And we read these words in Matthew 16:18:
18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The church is the finest institution on planet earth because Christ is the head of her and it is completely made up of people (1 Cor. 12:12ff; Col. 1:18). There’s only one body that makes up the Lord’s church, and that is the church of Christ (please read Facts About the Church of Christ for more details). And it is through the word of Christ that reveals the religion of Christ (Heb. 9:15-17). When a person studies the Bible, they will become aware of these truths. Christianity is a religion founded by Christ. It’s not about just what you do - it’s who you are. Dear reader, my Christian identity is that which shapes me.
What Does a Spiritually Religious Person Look Like?
It truly is impossible to be spiritual without being religious. Those who identify as SBNR seek to find God through other means but the only way to spiritually know God is through the religion of Christ (5). As already mentioned, the religion of Christ is revealed in scripture. It was prophesied by the prophets and made manifest through the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 4:9; 2 Pet. 1:21).
Paul said only the spiritually minded accept the apostles’ teaching and become a part of Christ’s church, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14) (5).
In essence, the spiritually religious person is he/she who vigorously pursues the will of God and strives to obey it (Eph. 6:17). Pursuant to obeying the word of God is putting on the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). True Christian spirituality involves engaging in Bible study, worship, fellowship with the church and selfless obedience (5).
I understand the angst that many SBNR people have with organized religion but most of the misunderstandings come from a misinterpretation of scripture. Denominations are not pure and do not wholly follow the word of God. The religion that Jesus died for and established is truly simple (Jas. 1:26, 27). If you identify as SBNR, I ask that you reconsider after you study from the scriptures what true spirituality is all about. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions!