Spiritual but Not Religious?

by Rev. Stephen Wenk

As a chaplain in a university hospital setting, I have the privilege of speaking with people of all faith backgrounds, usually about the role their belief plays in facing a medical crisis. Frequently, patients tell me they are “spiritual but not religious.” I confess that too often when I hear those words (or something like them), I expect an excuse for not going to church is soon to follow.

Sometimes it does. What patients have taught me over the past 20 years, however, is that the reasons people aren’t actively involved with a church are highly personal, often inaccessible to me and reality for them.

According to a recent survey, 30 percent of people admitted to a hospital identify themselves as “non-religious, spiritual.” The idea of “believing” but not “practicing” one’s faith is not new; we now have popular language to express it. A 2008 Pew Research Survey showed that among the millennial generation (those aged 18–29), 26 percent cite no religious identity, yet 40 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives.


Some clarity is needed. Particular wording varies, but definitions basically agree: Religion has to do with the outward expression of what we believe to be true. In other words, it’s the doctrine, the dogma, the ritual practices. It’s the part that the majority of millennials sees as irrelevant or unimportant.

Spirituality, then, has to do with the inner experience of the faith. It is a personal, often spontaneous, experience of God outside the traditional structure of the church. Can one be “spiritual” without being “religious” or vice-versa?

We Lutherans hold they are one in the same. Take our creedal confession of belief “in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.” You can’t get much more spiritual depth than that.

This can also make being Lutheran difficult. Most families are a mix of religions, denominations and no beliefs at all! So, how do we talk to our family members about this sensitive topic without turning them away from Christ or becoming cynical ourselves?

To the cousin or sister who says she can commune with God by walking in the woods just as well as by worshiping in church, we owe our best listening. The brother-inlaw who claims his belief in God doesn’t depend on sitting in the pew on Sunday deserves our most receptive posture.

In your thinking of, reading about and speaking with family members who, in one way or another, convey they are spiritual but not religious, consider the following. (My experience is drawn from my duties as a chaplain, but it applies to family situations too.)

Listen. Many patients who at one time were affiliated with a church have told me their reasons for leaving. For one man, it was anger that the priest would not baptize his niece because she was born without benefit of marriage.

Another person related how she felt shamed when an elder at her congregation, with all good intention, hand-delivered their box of offering envelopes to the house. “We had just made the difficult decision to file for bankruptcy, and that box was a visible reminder of money we simply didn’t have to give.” She said she still believed in God and in Christ as her Savior, which only heightened her sense of guilt for no longer worshiping. Our patient listening to such stories from family members is a place to start a conversation about the importance of Christ, faith and forgiveness.

Find the truth in what’s being said. Taking in the majesty of the Rio Grande on a canoe trip is not a substitute for being in church on Sunday, but it can be a setting in which to enjoy God’s creation. The college student who says he is on a spiritual path (though that path skirts around the church) is acknowledging the profound truth that there is more to him than flesh and bone. These are points of contact, opportunities to start discussions and cracks through which the Holy Spirit just might choose to blow and bless.

Approach with humility. Everything is a conversation. That’s the case even—and especially—when it comes to our faith. In Baptism, God recreated us through the death and resurrection of our Lord. Jesus has lifted from us the burden of our need to be right at the expense of others. He reserved His most severe criticism for those who measured their neighbor according to their own fine religious calibration. So instead of turning inward and thinking only of ourselves, we would do well to remember that our families deserve our humble honesty, our legitimate concern.

In the end, it is God alone who does the sorting of each family, He alone who sees into hearts where faith is formed. It is ours to remain faithful and be renewed through body, blood, and Word, ready for the Spirit to consecrate and do His work.

> Did you know? People who “do not identify with any of the myriad of religious options” are called “nones” (ARIS Summary Report 2008).

> Thirty-four million american adults (15 percent) are nones, and 3 percent of current nones identified themselves as Lutheran when growing up (ARIS 2008).

For Further Reading

Spirituality of the Cross
“I aimed the book partially at those people today who say they are ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious. The fact is, Christianity has its spirituality . . . grounded in the Incarnation of God.
—Dr. Gene Veith

Grace Upon Grace
The longing for spiritual fulfillment is common among Christians. John W. Kleinig clarifies that there is no process for becoming spiritual. Instead, God graciously gives to us every spiritual gift that we need, beginning with the very gift of faith in Christ, our Savior.

For Further Discussion

The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church
This presentation is tailor-made for all of you who have struggled with your faith because of what you re seeing and hearing in your church. Listen to or read this powerful address from Dr. Rod Rosenbladt.

About the Author: Rev. Stephen Wenk is staff chaplain at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Wis.

April 2011


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