Spiritual but Not Religious

Fifteen years ago, I was dining alone in New York City when I overheard a Christian woman ask a friend for dating advice. She had met two men on eHarmony. One said he goes to church and the other said he was “spiritual but not religious.” I thought his line was clever.

Clever turns of phrase thrill me. I collect them the way my sister-in-law collects stamps: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog (Mark Twain), and, The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder (G. K. Chesterton). I pasted Spiritual but Not Religious into my scrapbook.

I had thought that eHarmony guy was ingenious, but I found he was just quoting a book title published in 2000, Spiritual but Not Religious. Since then, I’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times. It even has its own hashtag, #SBNR, or its sibling, “spiritual but not affiliated,” #SBNA.

Both acronyms express our modern-day frustration with “organized religion.” Too many believers have suffered from churches more interested filing pews than caring for the people in those pews, or from plans that focus on programs over pastoring.

I’m sympathetic with my “spiritual but not religious” friends, but I wonder (Chesterton would be proud) if we’re being duped by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

A New Way of Thinking

I have friends who worked in large automotive companies whose cumbersome administration stifled their creativity. I worked for a smaller company, but it’s bureaucracy still bugged me. I feel bad for the victims of impersonal processing of any organization, religious or corporate.

But my biggest life problems have nothing to do with the bureaucratic nonsense I’ve suffered. Our biggest problems come from deceitful beliefs. I collect clever phrases because they structure new ways of thinking:

  • I read Augustine’s, Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. I have hope amidst my restlessness because a true rest is possible.
  • In a sermon on the Wedding at Cana, Tim Keller concludes, Jesus went through life sipping the cup of sorrow so that we can go through life sipping the cup of future joys. I see that picture and I feel worship and delight.
  • My friend Gary Barkalow once wrote, We have been set apart, not set aside. All past rejections from organizations (corporate or religious) evaporate like morning mist. God is in charge; he laughs at puny human attempts to marginalize his children.

But notice what these clever turns of phrase do to me: they “organize” my thoughts. When we reject the officious structures of religious institutions, we discard the most toothless of tigers.

The Only Organization that Really Can Harm

Look at the sneaky belief beneath “spiritual but not religious.” Those words are organized religion in themselves, a thought-structure of the vilest duplicity. Their pithiness shapes our thoughts, organizing our hearts to believe we can do Christianity alone.

They say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

Religious structures will be with us until Christ returns. For some reason, God chooses to work through imperfect people. But it’s not the committee meetings that will harm us. It’s the cultural creep of secular thinking whose wit appears as an angel of light.

Our submission to “spiritual but not religious” is the ultimate submission to organized religion: religious thoughts shaped by the secular world bent on dismembering the body of Christ. The only way we can love our neighbor in the pew is through a spiritual change which moves us to sit down next to them.

When minds are molded by a nonspiritual world, perhaps the hashtag should read, #RBNS:

Religious but Not Spiritual.


P. S. True spirituality reveals itself in relationships. It begins with a relationship with God. And he moves is inwardly–in our spirits–to love those we wouldn’t naturally love. It begins with knowing a Being who wants intimacy and communication with you.

To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (Is that all there is?), and read, Hearing God in Conversation.

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What do YOU think?

7 thoughts on “Spiritual but Not Religious

  1. I differ from you on this, at least a little. I’ve followed this field of debate for a few years myself and usually people who come down on the “institutional church is flawed but necessary” start with the assumption that those of us with an opposite view are deeply wounded by church and reacting from that. I appreciate that you’re not doing that. I would also agree that we need fellowship even though people hurtful etc.
    For me the entire phrase Spiritual but not Religious makes an assumption that there’s only two dogs in the fight. I think the third factor is an authentic, intimate walk with Jesus and a group of people. The battle isn’t to join an institution or go it alone. For me, institutional Christianity is a distraction. I’m not afraid of rubbing up against other’s opinions, or being hurt by other Christians. I don’t want to subject myself to a church handbook “policy and procedures” manual when I could have the Spirit of God living in me and read the Scriptures with the author.

    • Hello Sir Bunch,

      If I recall, it’s been about five years since we met, I think on a retreat out in Portland. I hope you are doing well.

      I always like it when you disagree with me. It makes me think! But I also think we mostly agree on this one. The problem with the phrase, Spiritual but not Religious, is that it is highly influenced by modern, individualistic spirituality; but Christianity is a Community Belief. I’m not arguing for people to join a church (especially one that subjects people to their “policy and procedures” — YIKES!!).

      But I do argue against the belief that Christ ever intended for believers to go it alone, without other human (very human) partners. When he calls us his “body,” he teaches more than sticking bumper stickers to our cars. He means real community!

      Your line, “an intimate walk with Jesus and a group of people” is the walk we all should have.

      Even when some of those people disagree with us 🙂 .

  2. Now, now. Methinks you’re over-generalizing… Yes, this catchy phrase has been used defensively by people who just don’t want to have anything to do with church, but it’s also been a means of conviction for individual Christians, and an insightful clue for churches wondering what form the age-old longing is taking in our time. Your first response to the phrase wasn’t untrue. Your later analysis is not untrue, either, but it isn’t likely to be useful on the ground in dealing with Christians and churches unless it’s used as a discernment tool rather than a rule of thumb. Otherwise, you run the risk of just initiating another catchy idea — with an opposite weakness.

    • Hi Martha,

      My point (obviously not made well) is that our biggest problems are not caused by institutional churches, even though they are filled with people who make huge mistakes, like this one that happened to me when I was a kid: http://beliefsoftheheart.com/2014/03/04/avoiding-the-pain-of-regret/

      My biggest caution is that phrases like, Spiritual but not Religious, are catchy and we adopt them. (Who wouldn’t prefer to be spiritual over religious? Not me.) But the phrase itself comes from a path of individualism, self-religion, or any unaffiliated state. It also comes from a strong Eastern religious influence that is growing in its effect on Christians.

      Our biggest issue is when we let our minds by organized by non-Christian, secular thoughts that just “seem cool.” If nothing else, we read books or hear sermons by people who shape the way we think. We simply need to examine these in light of all of Scripture, and (honestly) we need to examine them against centuries of Christian thought.

      C. S. Lewis argues we ought to make a practice of reading old (centuries old) writings of believers because they aren’t blinded by our culture (though they may be blinded by theirs!)

      • Your point about thought-shaping is well taken.

        The thing about thoughts, though, is that they’re not subject to easy examination—which is why semantics are both important and problematic.

        My point is that when someone says they’re spiritual but not religious, it’s essential to ask them what they mean. And if a church describes itself as for the spiritual but not religious, it’s important to ask them what they mean, too. The phrase may be a sound bite and its history may be traceable to Eastern ideas, but the meanings of “spiritual” and “religious” in the mind of the person who is using the terms is of essential importance when you’re having an actual conversation with him. In my experience, you often discover in “spiritual” the place where they’re in conversation with the Lord, and in “religious” the place where their scar tissue is.

  3. There is a modicum of truth in all this, but also a lot of semantics. “When we reject the officious structures of religious institutions, we discard the most toothless of tigers.” I doubt anyone feeling the results of crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions – or even just the gossip and stigmatizing and excommunication that is normative in Christian circles today – could ever agree.
    I land with SirBunch below that there are more options than “go alone with the institution despite it’s many flaws and abuses” or “go it alone”. Being in community is essential once one has entered God’s family.
    I feel institutionalized forms of faith have their limited uses. But be careful not to pretend like they are harmless (toothless tigers?) – and also careful not to make false equations. Someone who has a thought process that is organized isn’t what anyone ever means when they say they oppose “organized religion.” Your argument only rests on your semantics, and your semantics don’t rest on common usage of the terms. I get trying to spin an old problem in new light, I just don’t think you do much justice to either side here.

  4. As someone who spent over 2-3 years in a wilderness searching for more authentic community and thinking I had it for another 3 years in what is known as an Organic Church, where such catch phrases have found some type of expression,I think I may have come on the other side of the motivation behind terms such as Spiritual but not Religious. Many people are trapped in a postmodern mindset, where we have been continually challenged to move away from the concrete to that which is more amorphous, and I believe this is where this saying has had its roots in. It is a movement away from the concrete, and objective, and is more tinged with Eastern Mysticism that it is with biblical Christianity. Our Father is Spirit, and yet He can be known in an objective manner. One other area I found with people who subscribe to the “Spiritual but not Religious” is that they tend to reject any form of leadership or Authoritarian structure. The movement I was a part of plainly rejected the teaching of Godly leadership, instead insisting that every member was equal before God therefore Leadership was anathema, of course such teaching are contrary to scripture, God establishes godly leadership because of the need for the proper functioning of His house.