Religious, But Not Spiritual

“Spiritual, but not religious” – Frequent pick on multiple-choice demographic questionnaires

Over the past decade there has been a steady decline in the number of Americans who identify as Christian church-goes. According to a recent study, only 65% of respondents said they actively attend religious services, down from 77% to 65% in just the past ten years. The same study revealed that the folks leaving the church are not departing for another religion, but are rather leaning towards being agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual, but not religious.” What has been happening over the last decade to cause this dramatic shift?

The largest drop in church attendance over this span has been among Millennials, 64% of whom said they attend church fewer than five times a year in the study. It’s pretty much Christmas, Easter and the odd wedding or funeral for the group designated Generation Y and born between 1981 and 1995. I don’t know how or why these dates were chosen for the “Millennials” designation, but it isn’t hard to figure out why they might be falling out of love with the Church.

The first reason is one I find encouraging. In recent years evangelical Christian megachurches, operating as pseudo non-profits, have become huge political donors, and are thus steering the political system so that large percentages of one political party take on hot button issues as a significant part of their platform. When a religion which claims to be followers of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth champion anti-Jesus stands on gay marriage, the LGBTQ community, and women’s rights to make their own health care decisions, it drives people away. Unlike the generations before, Millennials have grown up with friends who are openly gay, and it’s awfully difficult to demonize someone for a particular character trait when you know people from within that growing community. Fear of the unknown is far more prevalent than fear of the known, and honestly, Millennials just aren’t as hung up, thankfully, on things that their parents found intolerable.

“You’re trans, I’m straight, we both like Star Trek, hey let’s be friends!”

With more than 400,000 women reporting cases of sexual assault annually, they also known women who have had to make difficult decisions about pregnancy. They’ve held their hands, let them cry on their shoulders, offered counsel and comfort as they try to grapple with impossibly difficult choices and the aftermath of those decisions. Far from wanting to judge or throw ancient unrelated texts at them (go ahead, try to find “abortion” in the red letters), they show compassion and love despite the tone all too often set by the Church.

Kudos! The more the Church gets preachy about social issues that didn’t matter to Jesus, the more people find other things to do on Sunday morning.

A second compelling reason for the shift away from organized religion is the vast expansion of our knowledge of the early Christian Church and how it came to be what it is today. Religious scholars like Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Brian D. McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Robin Meyers are doing for Christianity what Jesus did for Judaism two thousand years ago. Specifically, they are telling us that we’ve been focused on the wrong details of the story, choosing to focus on things that likely didn’t happen at all while we ignore the blatant teachings and how they call upon us to live. Odds are, if you’re still going to church, you’re going to come across a Sunday school study from Rachel Held Evans or Rob Bell, and those studies will challenge you to rethink the faith of your parents’ generation. Sadly, that often means you have to turn your back on churches that insist on clinging to old school ideas about what Jesus represented.

The third reason for the move away from the Church (I choose three only because the great preachers I have known always made three points in their sermons) is the rise of self-awareness and a growing focus on spirituality. The American culture has grown increasingly destructive and selfish, with political leaders who embrace false narratives and espouse racism, sexism, classism and increasingly try to marginalize anyone who disagrees with them. This is not how normal people behave, and seeing leaders act in this manner has, I believe, challenged us to look inward and reevaluate our perspective. My personal journey has lead me to study the extreme similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha and align my mental and physical practices accordingly. The more I can turn off the noise of our culture, the more peaceful I feel.

In essence a trend I have personally observed in organized religion is a trend toward “religious, but not spiritual.” Some kid in jeans and an untucked button-down shirt comes on stage after a rock concert full of similar-sounding, forgettable, pop songs devoted to loving Jesus. Their theology is usually about as deep as the lyrics to the aforementioned pop songs and leave you contemplating where you’re going to eat lunch when the shit show is over. Is it any wonder that more and more people are opting to skip straight to the lunch part?

The message of Jesus was one of love, acceptance and cooperation; his stated goal was to bring “the Kingdom of Heaven” to fruition on Earth. It seems the Church gets further and further away from that with each passing year, which explains why people are moving further and further away from the Church.



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