I’ve previously addressed this topic in sermons and we’ve touched on it in shorter articles as well. But the question is huge because it goes to the morphing of what it means to be church and do church.
Typical 'spirituality surveys' demonstrate that many North Americans believe one can be spiritual without necessarily being religious. Of course, definitions of both words must be considered when this question is pondered. Does ‘spiritual’ refer only to one’s own inner life, or does it acknowledge a spiritual world (including a God) beyond the human soul? Does ‘religion’ refer only to faith practices, or does it inherently include the ritualism, legalism, self-righteousness, etc.?
The objections of formal religious structures that are in business to provide a religious experience must be considered. Typically and primarily, of course, the objection is that spirituality is too broad and wide and may allow people to presume that they know God when they really have no idea.
Of course, the flip side of that objection must be examined – can one be religious but miss the boat when it comes to having an authentic spiritual relationship with God? Can one think they had a spiritual experience just because they drove to a religious outlet and sat there for a while?
To be fair, spirituality is not an automatic experience and benefit enjoyed by those who avoid brick and mortar buildings and ceremonies. Many others would point out that “spirituality” might allow for Eastern thought, to the exclusion of Jesus, and be considered on equal footing with Christ-centered faith.
Yes, one angle that interests me is how many who claim to move from religion to spirituality actually make one of two other ill-advised moves.
1. They move from Christless religion to Christless spirituality, which in the end becomes utterly vague and vacuous. Thus, ‘spirituality’ is reduced to personal experiences of the sublime, or worse, the nourishment of one’s ego through the endless pursuit of the next ‘liver-shiver’; or …
2. They move from Christless Christianity to Christless religion (e.g. now I'm 'spiritual' because I'm a pop-Buddhist, for example) ... If other faiths are taken seriously, rather than reducing them to the latest celebrity trend, we see how they too require belief in their own set of dogmas and practice in a new forum for religious hoop-jumping.
In other words, I think this new era of spirituality in the West is shifting again very quickly and our response needs to shift with it. The previous era assumed religion was good. Now it assumes religion is bad. What are the implications for ministries like CWR? Here are a few:
a. Might we help Evangelicals assess whether they are still subtly but badly bound up in religion in post-modern ways? Many think they've freed themselves from religion just by wearing torn blue jeans incorporating clanging cymbals in their worship. Some of the most religious expressions of the church are now quite spontaneous and dude-looking ... fundamentalism with smoke-machines. In other words, we need to clarify that one does not escape religion just by becoming less formal if we are still moralistic, legalistic and judgmental.
b. Might we help ex-Church-goers to understand that Christianity still offers a healthy anchor and maintains a core content: namely, the Jesus Way. Any spirituality that ditches Jesus along with religion is no longer Christianity. In fact, doesn’t it just open itself up to whatever or whoever will step into that vacuum? A Christless spirituality seems to be as vulnerable to hucksters and as prone to spiritual abuse as Christless religion ever was. That is, the move from religious hierarchy to spiritual anarchy carries it’s own real risks.
c. Might we acknowledge that not all 'faith practices' should be jettisoned as 'Christless religion'? For example, the practices of prayer, Bible-reading and Christ-centered worship doesn't automatically make one 'religious' in the bad way. It seems to me the issue is how we frame these practices: certainly the most prayerful people aren’t always the most ‘religious’ … nor does avoiding church gatherings always make one less ‘religious’ or more ‘spiritual.’
I suppose the litmus test across the board is whether one’s ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ is Christless or Christ-centered; self-based or grace-based; law-driven or love-lifted. In this way, we can discern between Christless religion, vacuous spirituality and the living faith of the Jesus Way.