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Churches should welcome the spiritual but not religious

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The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The Rev. Torey Lightcap
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Religion is the act of linking with God (however you name or acclaim God) through study, ritual, relationship and corporate prayer; spirituality is the hard daily work necessary to create a place where we are ready to receive the fruits of linking with God.

You can see by those rough definitions that these terms ” “religion” and “spirituality” ” are hugely interdependent, basically useless when practiced by themselves.

What I see today, however, is a world in which persons who cling to both, who refuse to let either one slip out of their grasp, are judged as being out of touch. These days it’s most common to let religion go first.



The typical term to describe this movement is as close as your front lawn. Go and stand outside and water your geraniums, and when some friendly-looking stranger flits by, strike up an easy conversation about this or that. (I like Garrison Keillor’s suggestion: “How much did you pay for that dog?”) When the subject comes around to religion ” and when doesn’t it? ” you can say something like, “You know we’re not supposed to talk about religion or politics.”

To which your neighbor is practically guaranteed to say, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious.” You’ve now found the sweet spot of this conversation.



“You know,” you can say, “I’ve heard that a lot but I’m not sure what it means. Tell me what it means to you.” Then introduce yourself and offer a hearty handshake; and listen hard, because this person is about to disclose a huge amount of information you wouldn’t otherwise get (unless you looked at his or her blog).

From this point the conversation will go one of three ways.

In the first instance, the person will stare vacantly for a few seconds and say something indicating that he or she hasn’t actually thought much about that statement beyond how cool it sounds. Around here, this is rare.

In the second instance, the person will share a story in which he or she was involved in church or some kind of religious community, possibly as a teenager, and was either excommunicated from that church or abused in it, or saw the same thing happen to another and decided it was unfair. (It probably was unfair, too; in any event, it’s not your job to argue. Oh, and check to see if the hose is still running.)

In the third instance, the person will describe a circuitous journey in which supreme truth was sought and found outside the walls of traditional religious institutions. This might’ve occurred in practically any moment or place you could name, in some grand gesture of spirit or in a small detail packed with meaning. It might’ve come from a book, a person, a mountain … anything.

In the case of the first kind of response, request clarification.

In the case of the second kind of response ” a story of excommunication or abuse ” you may find it appropriate to say that God is bigger than church, and that furthermore so far as you know, a lot of people in church are just doing the best they can with what they have. This will be more than a little true.

In the case of the third kind of response ” finding truth somewhere outside of traditional routes ” you are likely to hear sincerity and simplicity. “I knew I was loved”; “I knew everything was going to be okay”; “I knew I wasn’t alone.” And upon reflection, it would seem that these are statements that don’t require any kind of clarification or improvement. They sound so final and so profound, and that’s because they are. Why argue in the least? You might only say thanks, and tell the person your own story of the journey of your faith.

But let me tell you something just as final, and you can put all your pennies on it.

The universal church ” the church in all its wild manifestations and threads of faith ” needs to listen very carefully and intently to each and every story that can be told as to why people label themselves as spiritual but not religious. You need to take what you hear being communicated to you and feed it back to the leaders in your congregations, and you need to do that with dispatch and care, and if you ARE a leader in a congregation, you need to do something about it.

You need to do that because the future of your faith tradition is riding on your ability to understand this cultural condition and respond to it ” not out of some marketing sensibility or a wish to seem fashionable, but out of a genuine position of faith.

The more you listen, the more you’ll see that spiritual but not religious is pretty much the coin of the realm around here. The research firm Percept tells us that for the ZIP code 81601, the level of receptivity to matters of faith is “very low,” and that 46 percent of households are not involved in a faith community of any kind. View these statistics however you will, but view them nevertheless.

This is a phenomenon that’s not going away any time soon. It anticipates and articulates a restlessness within people to connect to their divine source.

Wouldn’t it be consistent with the position of faith to listen and respond to this restlessness with ways of being spiritually religious?

In short, will we offer rest to the spiritually hungry pilgrim and wayfarer? Or is this exercise of church just another fancy game we play?

The Rev. Torey Lightcap is priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glenwood Springs (www.saint-barnabas.info). Torey and his wife have two children and live in New Castle.


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