Renewed Spirituality: Honest Engagement With Culture

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Last week I wrote about the "religious, but not spiritual," the silent majority hiding in our pews who are familiar with our religious habits, but largely lack the interior spiritual life that gives rootedness and meaning to faith.

This group has historically attended church regularly, but that trend is changing. Although cultural expectations and norms kept them in the pews for decades, the "religious, but not spiritual" are now drifting away, and the church bears much of the blame. 

 Churches have unknowingly been stifling the spirituality of all but the most religious among us by shying away from the spiritual questions that fill all of our daily lives--ultimate questions about meaning and purpose, faith and culture, and morality and virtue. In many cases, this stifled spirituality is the unintended consequence of trying to appeal to as many people as possible. So as many churches have made a strategic decision to be silent--or just lacked the courage to address sometimes controversial issues--church-goers have learned to turn to politicians and the media for answers to their spiritual questions.

We've seen an example of that phenomenon just this week in the wake of the Paris terror attacks as Christian Americans weigh the conflicting goods of wanting to protect our country from even the potential of a terrorist threat and our Christian moral obligation to welcome the stranger and love our neighbor.

Where there is conflict between what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Christian, there's a spiritual decision to be made in the heart of every American Christian about where ultimate loyalty and allegiance lies. But, as the current debate illustrates, the church's tendency toward silence in the midst of controversy has conditioned the faithful to turn to media voices and the halls of Congress for guidance, often at the expense of sound theology and without the context of centuries of Christian history. 

But Christ and Christian tradition have A LOT to say about the leading spiritual concerns of our culture. And honest engagement in honest Christian community grounded in the love of God can help us address them. 

So here are a few specific steps we can take to begin honestly addressing the leading spiritual concerns of our culture as we seek to re-engage the “religious, but not spiritual” among us.

We can HONESTLY acknowledge the foundational questions of the “religious, but not spiritual.”

We can start by asking questions many are afraid to ask. Give your church members permission to ask questions that are scary to give voice to. One way to do that is by being honest about our own questions. It’s okay to say “sometimes I believe, but a lot of the time I’m not so sure that God is there when I'm praying.” Or, “What does it mean to have a spiritual experience? I'm not sure I've ever experienced God."

We need to understand that most honest questions aren’t designed to be hostile or to challenge the basic tenets of theology. The first questions from the “religious, but not spiritual” group are about personal engagement with an unseen God and the presence or absence of spiritual feelings in their individual lives. They’re about connectedness and groundedness and hope. They’re not questions designed to destroy the church; they’re questions designed to find it.  We shouldn’t be afraid of them. We should allow space for them to be explored and wrestled with honestly.

We can allow for HONEST engagement with the broader culture.

Our natural inclination has been to avoid engaging often controversial cultural topics lest someone accuse us of being TOO political. But every time we avoid HONEST conversations about where our religious convictions intersect with real-life experience, we stifle spirituality. Spirituality is the honest quest for truth, and it requires honest engagement with culture.

So honest questions about faith and science, about climate change and creation care, about caring for the poor and our attitudes toward people of other faiths should be welcomed. Christ has a role to play in our political conversations and convictions, and we ought to be willing to talk about them in a spiritual context. Our faith and spirituality ought to guide our convictions about war and peace, issues surrounding the sanctity of life and gender and sexuality.

When we fail to engage these topics it’s no wonder that the majority of people in our pews see church as an optional part of their lives. A faith that seeks to bolster spirituality explores the real-life questions that people are asking, and is willing to accept that we may honestly and faithfully come to different conclusions as we do so.

Finally, we need to be willing to HONESTLY accept the doubts of those in our pews.

We all have doubts sometimes about our faith. But there’s an important distinction about how we acknowledge them. We have to move beyond understanding doubts as obstacles to faith and instead understand that doubts are necessary components of faith.

Faith that isn’t regularly and seriously challenged by doubt isn’t faith at all; it’s dogmatism, and it isn’t healthy. And church--and our experiences at church--should be healthy!

When it gets right down to it, what we’re really talking about when we talk about honest engagement with church-goers is health--the spiritual health of our church members; the spiritual health of their families; the spiritual health of our churches; and the spiritual health of the communities our churches serve and inhabit and influence.

Even more than that, though, religion without spirituality is boring and hollow and dead. If we can’t ask honest questions about faith and culture; about truth and love; about God and country; about life and family and hope; about all the things that really matter most, then not only is what we’re doing not spiritual, it can hardly be called religious.  

Spirituality is the honest quest for truth. There’s wonder, mystery, excitement and adventure in spirituality that blind religious dogmatism can’t fathom and won’t allow for.  

So let’s ditch it and do something honest and healthy and exciting instead. In the process of honest engagement we might even discover that we're becoming holy, healthy and whole together. Wouldn't that be fun?

See you Sunday.