“I’m Spiritual but not Religious”
Over these last few weeks I have heard this comment spoken by more than a few people. We seem to be in a time when spirituality is important in the lives of people but religion, that is the institutional expression of faith and spirituality, is losing favour. This is not something new but has been evolving over a few generations. Even as a young person growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, fewer of my friends attended church than not. I need only look at my family, at friends, at families in my own congregation, and folks in my neighbourhood, to see that fewer and fewer people are attending church.
An Angus Reid poll in 2017 found that religion or spirituality plays a role in the lives of 8 in 10 Canadians. It also discovered that 67% of all Canadians believe in God or a higher power, while only 20% attended religious services other than weddings and funerals.
Being a part of a faith community seems to be less and less important in the lives of people and families. As a minister, I certainly spend time reflecting on this trend, given that I am in the business of institutional religion.
And I get it!
People don’t want to be told what to believe or how to believe. People have been hurt by the church. People have seen and experienced the many ways churches have failed groups of people, thinking of Indigenous Peoples and the LGBTQ2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Two-Spirit) community. “The Church” and leaders within it have caused irreparable harm to children. Wars are fought over religious rights and freedoms, land and governance. My heart breaks when I reflect on the abuses that have taken place in the name of religion or God.
The phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious” takes me back in time, to my own faith journey. I grew up in a home where we attended church each week. I was a part of the youth group. I sang in the choir. I was a server (acolyte). I was part of the Sunday School as a student, and then as a teacher in my teens. I lived two separate lives when it came to faith and church (for those who know some of my story it is okay to laugh at the comment “I felt I lived two separate lives!”). I was raised to believe the stories of Scripture in a very literal way. I knew I needed to work to get to Heaven and the last place I wanted to be was Hell. I believed in a God who rewarded the good and punished the bad. I believed the incredible stories in the Bible full stop. I never questioned whether they were history and reality or parable and narrative meant to convey Truths. What the Bible said, happened!
The disconnect for me came very early in my life. My lived experience caused me pain and brokenness. I must have been bad- evil- if the things that were happening to me were real. The abuse had to have been my fault. I must have deserved it because of some huge flaw in my character or person. I couldn’t find a way to merge these two realities. So I kept going to church, hoping that God would see me as good. I prayed harder. I tried to be even better at everything I did. The harder I tried, the more off the rails life seemed to be moving. There had to be something deeply wrong with me for my life to continue to unfold as it was. And yet, I felt something within, stirring in my heart. It was something that felt a part of me, but not. It made no sense. I had a thought that I would be a minister. Don’t think that wasn’t hard to get my head and heart around! The very place that was teaching me I needed to pray harder, believe more strongly, read the Bible with more fervour, was the very place I thought I would spend a lifetime serving!!!!????
It was a struggle that went on for years for me from my teens years into my 20’s. As the struggle grew more intense my conviction to become an ordained minister grew stronger and stronger. I kept asking why I couldn’t help people, to give them hope and life and wholeness as a therapist, as a psychologist? Why did it always come back to faith, to the Divine?
Because I had started to figure something out! My mum quietly modelled for me a faith that sustained in the midst of challenges, heartache, brokenness and disappointment. I came to discover that people who lived outwardly good and faithful lives could be, and were, very different people behind closed doors. I was beginning to question everything.
Maybe that man in my home congregation who told me if I had “only prayed harder, none of the abuse I knew would have happened”, was wrong.
Maybe I did pray hard enough!
Maybe I did go to church enough.
Maybe I was a good enough person (well, that might be pushing it at the time- it took me a lot longer to figure that one out.)
Maybe just maybe what I knew as God was helping me, not bringing me down.
Maybe what I knew as God made it possible for me to survive.
Maybe what I knew as God, made it possible for me to have certain people cross my path at opportune times.
Maybe just maybe, I had an experience that I could share with others.
Maybe, just maybe, I had hope to offer to those who struggled with church and faith and life. Maybe, just maybe, I could make a difference for just one person.
Maybe, just maybe, one person would find hope in the midst of despair, life in the midst of death, joy in the midst of heartbreak and brokenness, because of me, an instrument of a power greater than all of us.
Maybe, just maybe, one person would know that they were not alone, because of me and through me.
I recall time and time again, in interviews for ordination being asked “why ministry?” There were lots of reasons but the reason that was closest to my heart, the reason that I was, was that I knew of a strength and a love that was far greater than anything that I had within me. There was God, the Divine, Love, Light, whatever you want to call it, that was drawing me to healing and wholeness not death and destruction. It was drawing all of us to wholeness. It was drawing all of us to justice and peace and love. It was drawing us towards community that was life giving for all, especially those on the margins- those who were perpetually left behind.
I knew of an energy within me that fought the darkness that threatened to take over my soul. A power that was not of me as I encountered good people (particularly good, honest, trustworthy men) who entered my life at a time when I needed them most to heal. I knew of guidance that led me to ministers who walked alongside me, people who modelled deep spiritual and faithful lives, committed to justice and wholeness. A God had made a difference in my life. I knew that I was where I was because of this Love and this Healing. It had nothing to do with what I believed and nothing to do with church governance or dogma. Nothing to do with how I should read the Bible- literally or figuratively. It had everything to do with a power that was greater than I. It was found in relationships that were authentic, in community where belonging was at the heart of existence and it was found as I grew to understand who I was, as I grew in authenticity.
So you say “I’m Spiritual not Religious”, but trust me…. There IS a community of faith where you can discover authentic living, where you can find true belonging, where you will be inspired to live lives not only for yourself but for others.
There IS a community of faith where you are not told what to believe, where you are invited to question, to come as you are, to seek that which beings Life, that which brings Love of self and others, that which brings reconciliation to self and others, that which brings hope.
There IS a place where what truly matters is coming together with others who are less than perfect, seeking to live lives of justice, spiritual connection, community and personal growth.
There IS a place where the Jesus we encounter in the Bible has words to speak to us. They are words of Truth that we continue to find in the lives of others as they seek to bring a world into being that is very different than one focused on self, power, influence, money.
There IS a community where you will discover your true value, your purpose and your call to be authentically you.
There IS is a place where you are encouraged to be your best self.
I am grateful for those places where I discovered this for myself and for those communities of faith where I have discovered this in my journey. I am grateful for the ways that I am able to be part of a community in Bowmanville where we seek to be this very thing. I am grateful to know that there are places where you can be spiritual but not religious, if what you think religion is, is rigidity, dogmatic restriction, blindly believing what you are told to believe, exclusion, and where there a “one size fits all” way to engage your spiritual self.
I am a better “ME” because of my faith community, because I have a space with others to feed my spirit, and where I can draw on a strength and love that is far greater than myself (found in and through the people I gather with).
The 2017 Angus Reid poll also found that higher degrees of spirituality, and connection to communities of faith, not only correlated with higher self-professed happiness, but also correspond with higher degrees of community involvement, volunteer work, and charitable giving.
In an ever divisive world, where self means everything, may we each find those communities where we can experience the Divine- God (however we understand that power that is greater than ourselves).
Rev. Michelle St. Paul’s United Church, Bowmanville ON