A number of years ago a college-age church member introduced me as his pastor to a group of his friends. Immediately, one of the Millennials responded, “Nice to meet you, Reverend, but with all due respect, I don’t go for all that organized church stuff. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am spiritual, just not religious.”
He later defined spiritual as his internal, direct, personalized connection with God. He believed that being spiritual meant rejecting religion, which included cold institutionalism, meaningless ceremonies, prescribed traditions, formal worship, demanding rules, reliance on biblical authority, and all too human leadership. He felt that spirituality was internal and personal, while religion seemed external and corporate. Spirituality allowed for a personal, subjective journey; religion called him to conformity to objective standards.
at one level, I agreed
Initially, I resonated with much of his argument, wondering whether I should also declare myself to be spiritual and not religious. After all, I’m opposed to a works-based religion, and I seek an intimately personal, relational faith with God. I recognize that, in the name of religion, religious people have persecuted, tortured, and killed those found guilty of rejecting their established church.
Even today, charlatans con people out of their money by promising financial gains, healing, or elevated spiritual states—all in the name of religion. The media has exposed sexual scandals among priests, pastors, and famous public evangelists. And when religious people prove not to be spiritual, religion gets a black eye.
So, yes, I agreed, yet many things about this man’s point of view troubled me. Do I have to be spiritual only? Might something be gained by also being religious?
I’ve found that peoples’ definitions of spirituality and religion differ significantly. Many take everything they dislike about organized faith and label it religion, while they label all the best aspects of an intimate experience with God as spiritual.
when did religion become a bad word?
In some countries, only two categories exist: religious and irreligious. Americans have developed a third category, which my church member’s friend labeled as spiritual. This philosophical concept emerged during the 1960s anti-authority, anti-government, anti-law, antiestablishment hippie movement. Their countercultural protest rejected all established authorities, including the church, as evil. Nonconforming dress, free sex, and drug use became their symbols of personal freedom, including the freedom to define right and wrong individually.
The Beatles helped this movement along. Paul McCartney, a band member, became known for his statement “I’m not religious, . . . I’m semi-religious.” For him, spirituality didn’t conflict with his use of drugs, his experience with sex and rock and roll, or his rejection of society’s norms of morality.
Today’s young Christians might see “spiritual but not religious” as meaning that they determine for themselves the parameters of their relationship with Jesus. Maybe they haven’t considered where a nonreligious spirituality might lead them.
The Beatles’ press agent, Derek Taylor, stated in an August 1964 Saturday Evening Post article, “Here are these four boys from Liverpool. They’re rude, they’re profane, they’re vulgar, and they’ve taken over the world. It’s as if they’d founded a new religion. They’re completely anti-Christ. I mean, I’m anti-Christ as well, but they’re so anti-Christ they shock me, which isn’t an easy thing.” McCartney further explained that not only were the band members non-Christians, they were also atheistic agnostics. He declared, “We probably seem antireligious because of the fact that none of us believe in God.”
McCartney understands spirituality to be a self-defined relationship with a higher power. This perspective on spirituality elevates one’s individual experience over biblical authority. This then gives a person license to mold and define his nonreligion any way he wants and call it spirituality. With this definition, a rapist, drug dealer, or murderer can claim to be spiritual.
God gave religion
The Bible does not agree with the dismissal of religion as creeds, forms, and traditional ceremonies. In God’s eyes, true religion goes beyond superficial forms. It evokes a personal, heartfelt response. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). God calls on religious people to move to a higher plane of action: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (verse 26).
Thus, instead of contrasting religion and spirituality, we should consider the difference between true and false religion. God rejects legalistic religion as corrupting true religion. He hates it as much as we do.
People who are genuinely religious will cultivate a personal spiritual experience with God. Real religion transforms Christians from living as slaves to sin and makes them obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17). Jesus didn’t tell the legalistic Pharisees to stop being religious and stop following the law.
Instead, He told them to look deeper and find what true religion means. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” He said. “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). We should both follow the law and have a personal spiritual experience.
Religion helps me to be more spiritual. I go to church meetings to organize how I can cooperate with my fellow church members in caring for the elderly, the sick, the uneducated, and young parents and their children. The exercise of my religion takes me to church multiple times a week to pray corporately, to worship with others, to encourage each other in our spiritual journeys, and to receive spiritual instruction in God’s Word. My religion holds me to an objective truth that directs my life.
As part of religion, God instituted ceremonies, such as baptism, that join me not only to God but also to a religious community as I become a part of His family. Like a wedding, this celebration happens in the presence of the community as a whole.
Religion and spirituality aren’t an either-or choice. I need both. I know that I need an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, which for me is a profoundly spiritual experience. Religion is more than an external attendance at church and observing certain rituals. I choose to be religious because religion helps me to be more spiritual. Being religious roots out the selfishness of sin. It prevents me from deceiving myself. It leads me to godly living. Being religious allows me to minister and receive ministry from fellow Christians. It helps me to cooperate with God in accomplishing His mission to the world. God designed religion and commanded me to participate in it, so I am religious in obedience. I will be spiritual, and I will be religious too.
James Berglund is the pastor of the Killeen Seventh-day Adventist Church in Killeen, Texas. He contributes occasional articles to Signs of the Times®.