Stop Stifling Spirituality

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Fred Craddock quotes former Yale preaching professor, Bill Muehl, as reminding his preaching students to “Remember, about half of your congregation almost didn’t come this morning.” A great reminder for those of us who stand in pulpits, but I wonder if he’s underestimated. I wonder if it’s only half.

Over the last decade or so, those engaged in conversations surrounding the church have focused much of their attention on the growing percentage of the population that describes themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” or those who value a spiritual, even faith-filled, dimension to their lives, but who have no interest in connecting with the church or institutional religion.

We have been taught to see this growing trend as emblematic of the decline of the church. And it has been a useful lens through which to view the struggle of the institutional church.     

But we have now reached a new stage in our challenge as the church in America.  Many churches have been forced to retreat from the challenge of trying to attract the “spiritual, but not religious.” Now we’re just trying to retain the “religious, but not spiritual,” or the half or more or our attenders who, as Fred Craddock reminds us, almost didn’t come last Sunday.

The “religious, but not spiritual” are those who were raised in church, who are familiar with our rituals, who know our hymns and have sat through our sermons, but have never found a faith of their own. Up until now they have come out of habit, but have had very little, if any, interior spiritual activity to support the outer religious habit. And they have for a long time been the silent majority in many of our congregations.  

And here’s my contention about this growing group of people. It’s not that they don’t WANT to be spiritual—even if they don’t know that’s what they want. It’s that the church has been stifling their spirituality without knowing it for quite some time now.

We don’t mean to stifle spirituality, but we do. In an effort to attract the “spiritual, but not religious” we have stifled the spirituality of all but the most committed Christians sitting in our pews! We stifle spirituality by avoiding the big questions of our spiritual lives and we do it for one reason—to avoid controversy. We avoid the big interior questions of spiritual faith out of fear that we’ll turn off the “seekers” in the world that we’ve desperately been trying to reach for several generations now.

Instead, we’re answering questions that people aren’t asking and refusing to address the questions that they are asking—questions about faith and culture; sexuality and marriage; conflicts between national and religious allegiances; war and peace and the sanctity of life; economic justice and care for the poor; and questions about ultimate meaning and purpose in a culture increasingly divorced from faith traditions.

And in ignoring the real spiritual questions of the people in our pews, we’ve inadvertently created a whole segment of “religious, but not spiritual” church-goers who find answers to those most important questions from secular sources in the media and popular culture.

But still they come to church. At least they used to still come to church. But that’s changing. Now, as a result of decades of less than optimal discipleship and spiritual engagement, they’re drifting away.

So what do we do now? How do we change the reality of the “religious, but not spiritual” in our pews? Can we somehow MAKE them more spiritual? No. But there are a few things we can do to help, and they all rely on a new found commitment to honesty.

The only pathway to holy, healthy and whole individuals and families is honest engagement with culture and with one another. We have to be willing to address tough questions, even if they may be controversial, if we hope to have an impact on our community.

Christ and Christian tradition have A LOT to say about the leading spiritual concerns of our culture. Honest engagement in honest community grounded in the love of God through Jesus Christ can help us address them one topic, one small group, one Bible study at a time.

Next week we’ll talk about specific steps we can take to begin honestly addressing the questions of the “religious, but not spiritual.”

See you Sunday.