How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m spiritual but not religious?”
Oprah loves to say it on her network. Church folks love to write books about it. It’s the number-one excuse in certain parts of our world as to why folks have decided not to come to church anymore.
For me, it’s a conversation I often don’t like having because I find myself as one who has a religious degree and ordination status from a religious denomination.
I also consider myself a spiritual person, and I feel the debate comes with these assumptions:
âˆ’ Spirituality is good, while religion is bad.
âˆ’ Spirituality equals pure faith and God’s presence, while religion equals corruption, human-made flawed structures.
âˆ’ We find religion in churches, while we find God in spirituality.
The book of James has a lot to say on this topic, even though it’s often known as one of the least religious books of the Bible and one preachers rarely plan sermon series on.
James’ community had two camps. There were those who said, “We’d better get our theology in order. We need to write more doctrine.”
And there were others who said, “Theology is well and good, but what does it mean? What does faith look like?”
James answers these clamorings, saying, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Simply put, religion for religion’s sake is worthless. If we keep up tradition, for tradition’s sake, it’s worthless.
Let’s apply this to our context. If we conduct church business in a particular way because of how they did it back in 1995, it’s worthless.
If we maintain our buildings for the sake of maintaining our buildings, then it’s worthless.
It’s not that traditions are bad or religious structures like church buildings are evil. Rather, James exhorts us that if we do not consider why we do certain things, then we really shouldn’t call this faith.
I’m glad to have James as a teacher because he reminds me that mindless choices made in the name of cultural religion are not always full of the gospel.
If we believe that the Spirit is always moving in our world, then what God wanted from us and what we spent so much time building in 1980 might not be what God wants from us in 2014, right?
James begs the church of his day and the church of our day to ask ourselves this: Are we spinning our wheels on building up what matters or are we just spinning our wheels?
Is our religion that of caring for orphans, widows and others in need of compassionate service? Or is our religion that of building bigger buildings and structures that leave a mark of “we were once here”?
If the latter is true, then maybe we need to rethink our spiritual formation and our religious practice.
Anytime I do a funeral service, I find myself repeating a phrase of exhortation to the mourners. It’s a series of question that gets to the heart of life’s meaning:
“When you and I die, only one thing matters: Not how much money we have, not how many flowers decorate the alter, not how many people attend, not how many groups or societies we belonged to–only one thing–is it well with our souls? Are our lives in harmony with God? What will it profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world and loses their own soul?”
I realize some local churches can be dysfunctional, frustrating places. Institutions are like this.
Sometimes we make good decisions that bring us together, and other times we miss the mark painfully. God is not always in all communities claiming to be church.
Nevertheless, it is OK to be both spiritual and religious, and both are found in the local church.
Many of the traditions of the church are wise. We have beautiful music, rich liturgy, and much to offer those who are seeking faith in our worship and community life.
Is the church perfect? No. Yet, I won’t leave the church even if I’m not the pastor in charge.
My faith is communal. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who have gone before me as well as those who fill the pages of my life right now. I need the church’s religion for my spirituality to have a home.
Thank goodness that this popular debate is not a new debate. It’s been going on for centuries, and we still have the wise words of teachers like James to spur us on our way.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Virginia, and Oklahoma City. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared. You can follow her on Twitter @Elizabethagan.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.