When is being “spiritual but not religious” not enough?
Lillian Daniel has written a very good book titled “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church” in which she addresses this question by observing how important the local church community is for our spiritual development.
Daniel concedes that the church has done a lot of foolish things in its day – “from Koran-burning, pistol-packing pastors to the more ordinary preacher who was trying desperately to be inspiring and shouted out, ‘Let us launch out into the depth of the sea, standing upon the rock that is Jesus!'”
“Really?” she asks. “No wonder many good people get like the pop singer Prince – they want a new name for what they do, like the artist formerly known as Christian.”
The church has, indeed, done some embarrassing things, with which many of us do not want to be associated. But the church has done some good things, too.
And, as Daniel points out, only in church, in community, in relationship with other people sharing a basic commitment to Christ, do we learn how to be the body of Christ in the world.
A fundamental truth about the spiritual life is that it takes great love or great suffering to be the catalyst for spiritual growth. The church provides a context for both.
On the one hand, where else will we find people who will care for us when we are sick, encourage us when we are down, support us when we are weak, celebrate the high points of life with us, pray for us and tell us the truth?
Granted, not all churches do this equally well, but if you find people who will do this at all, you are likely to find them in church, in some faith community.
On the other hand, the faith community provides a context for us to experience the necessary challenges that must be faced if we are to acquire any depth and substance to our spirituality.
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities where the mentally challenged live with their helpers in community, knows all about the benefits and challenges of community life.
He mentions four great crises that must be faced by those living in community, and much of this can be applied to the church.
The first crisis comes when we join the community.
Everyone has to face the fact that there will always be parts of us that want to cling to the values we have left behind.
The second is the discovery that the community is not as perfect or good as we thought. It has weaknesses and flaws.
Our illusions are shattered and we have to face reality. I like to tell people: If you are looking for a perfect church, don’t join it because you will ruin it.
The third crisis comes when we feel misunderstood or neglected by the community.
The fourth is when we feel disappointed with ourselves because of all the anger, jealousies or petty frustrations that boil up within us.
Being in community forces us to confront these crises.
There are some who will leave the church when facing these challenges, but those who are committed to the community and work through these challenges are those who deepen their spiritual lives.
Those who remain become wiser, better, stronger and more compassionate and loving. Their faith develops deep roots as they become more gracious, generous and grateful.
I don’t believe such growth and spiritual depth is possible for those who typically claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Authentic spirituality requires community. For Christians that means learning how to be the body of Christ.
It takes many members with different gifts and responsibilities working together to be the body of Christ in the world. Being “spiritual but not religious” doesn’t count.
Chuck Queen is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, A Fresh Perspective, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @KentuckaChuck.