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Spiritual But Not Religious

The church may have something to learn.





WE ALL KNOW THERE are fewer and fewer people in our pews on Sunday mornings. If you’ve been wondering where they are, I want you to know that I found them. They’re at IKEA.

Yes, when I skipped church on a hot summer day last year I arrived at the furniture store to find it bursting at the seams. The restaurant was packed, the play room was teeming with children and every aisle was crowded with a diverse mix of parents, grandparents, singles and students. They chatted and wandered together, discussed future possibilities, and gathered at tables around plates of bacon and eggs. They seemed happy.

For those of us who are inside the church and not out shopping on a Sunday at 10 a.m., it’s easy to be judgemental. Those people are lost, we say to ourselves. They should be in church. They are obviously not interested in a life of faith. They are shallow, selfish consumers with no spiritual interest or religious discipline.

We couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In a 2015 Angus Reid survey, almost 40 percent of Canada’s population placed themselves in the “spiritual but not religious” category. These are people not affiliated with any specific religious institution but who have an interest in some kind of spiritual philosophy, belief or practice.  

Those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are a diverse lot. Many have grown up in our post-Christian country without ever stepping foot in a religious building. Others are cynical, burned out or disenfranchised former members. Stuart Macdonald and Brian Clarke, who recently published their new book Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945 argue that, “they are much more likely to be eclectic in their beliefs and to hold particular beliefs that resonate with their personal experience and quest for self-fulfilment rather than believing in creeds derived from a tradition or some external authority.”

They learn about meditation or practise yoga. They sing, run or paint as spiritual expression. They develop strong communities rooted in love and justice. They acknowledge some kind of higher power. They just don’t go to church.

This is nothing the church hasn’t seen before. The earliest European missionaries in the fifth to seventh centuries such as Patrick, Aidan and Cuthbert faced the daunting task of sharing the gospel in a culture with wide-ranging spiritual practices. As they travelled through what is now Great Britain, they encountered individuals and communities with a deep sense of mystery and divine presence.

Although later missionaries would become much more aggressive, those early Christians were not only passionate about the gospel, but humble and curious as well. They did not condemn already established pagan artwork or traditions. Instead, they chose to recognize and lift up the spiritual leanings in the prevailing culture, adding another layer of understanding to the God their new friends had already glimpsed. Following the example of Paul on Mars Hill in the book of Acts, those ancient evangelists shared a new way of seeing the world, but they did so with careful respect. Together they left behind a legacy that shows itself in Celtic Christian knots, crosses, music and other beautiful artwork that has lasted for centuries.  

This example of evangelism is a helpful lesson for Christians in Canada’s changing spiritual landscape. For years churches have concentrated on programs that will draw people into the church building. Some mission efforts have been built on a secret hope of filling the pews. Most congregations are genuinely eager for others to become members so they can learn church songs, read church books and hear church testimony about what God is doing. The underlying assumption is that those beyond the church need to be brought into the fold and carefully educated on points of doctrine and religious traditions. Often the church unthinkingly takes on an air of authority and a smug righteousness. Where else could God be, except inside the church?

But what if those “spiritual but not religious” types have encountered the Triune God in other places? What if they have stories to tell about sacred moments and have already adopted spiritual disciplines that are nourishing and helpful? A humble church might want to ask.

Arlene Struthers-LaPier, a nurse in London, Ont., hasn’t been to church in years but considers herself a deeply spiritual person. “I attend yoga classes that have a real spiritual side to them,” she explains. “Plus my job has me seeing some amazing miracles. I have seen people walk out of the hospital that we never thought would. I believe in a higher power.” She readily speaks of heaven, offers generous hospitality to her neighbours, and tells anyone who will listen that living with kindness is essential. But, she adds, “I have a real problem about the way religious organizations think they are better than others.”

Joe Lyon, a father of two young children in Toronto with no religious affiliation, also sees the conflict between those inside and outside the church. Christians, he says, “try to make me feel ‘less than’ for not having the same beliefs. But I find the same can be said for the spiritual side – I have heard many spiritual people blame the church for a whole lot of things.” He believes in a higher power and that love and goodness are the heart of life. “Regardless of who and what we are,” he argues, “we are both on the same side.”

It’s time to break down those barriers, and not just to fill up the church pews with new converts. Both the church and the spiritually curious could learn from one another about matters of faith and practice, if the conversation could only get started. Stephanie Banks, a recent college graduate in Kitchener who grew up in church, no longer attends services or serves in leadership. She is frustrated because the church “is in non-learning mode.” And that’s a shame, she says, because “learning through people who believe something different can teach old and young new things about what others hold sacred.”

Looking around IKEA on that Sunday morning, I realized there were important spiritual experiences going on around me. Some families were breaking bread together after a busy week, finally finding time to look one another in the eye, listen carefully to each other and feel deep love in their midst. Others were seeking beauty in the colours and textures of photographs and linens. There was a sense of Sabbath-keeping in the relaxed pace and laughter of children. People were not in church, and yet they were engaging in some of our best-loved Christian practices and sensing our God of wonder, even if they didn’t call it that.

Most Christians can tell you how God is at work in and through their church. Unfortunately, this usually comes with an assumption that God is not at work anywhere else. Taking a page from ancient missionaries and adopting a posture of humble curiosity might disabuse us of that notion, and we may be surprised at what we find. The church has Good News to share, but it is entirely possible that the church has Good News to receive as well.  


  • Kristine O’Brien

    Kristine is executive director at Crieff Hills Retreat Centre in Puslinch, Ont. Visit them at crieffhills.com. Crieff acknowledges the traditional territory inhabited by the Chonnonton people, and other First Nations neighbours including the Haudenosaunee, the Anishnaabe and The Métis nation.

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