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Messages: Culture is intentionally shaped as the right messages are consistently and clearly communicated to the staff, church leaders and membership

Is There A Difference In Being Spiritual and Religious?

In recent decades pollsters in a number of countries have discerned a clear trend: the word “spiritual” is far more appealing than the word “religion.” For much of our history, the words spiritual and religious meant roughly the same thing. In his book “Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America” Robert Fuller observes this is no longer true: “The word spiritual has gradually become associated with the private realm of thought and experience, while the word religious has become connected to religious institutions and denominational doctrines.”

In general, polls show that “spirituality” has taken on a positive connotation while “religion” is often perceived negatively. To be “spiritual” is to be authentic, open and have a live faith while to be “religious” means you are, among other things, unwilling to ask questions about the Bible, you oppose women’s rights, dislike gays, immigrants and abuse the planet. These same polls find “religion” is on the wane and “spirituality” is on the upswing.

Spiritual and Religious Word Association

Much of the language of spirituality is different from the language of God, faith and church that most of us grew up with who consider ourselves religious people. These new and unfamiliar definitions for religion and spirituality fosters misunderstanding. It is easy for religious people to dismiss spirituality as New Age, consumerist or self-centered without realizing it is a commentary upon the institutional church.

In her book “Christianity After Religion” Diana Butler Bass notes that “to say one is spiritual but not religious is often a way of saying I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor and my own life.”

The various ways people of all faiths and demographics are now defining the words religion and spirituality is difficult to scientifically quantify, but the following word association comparison is representative of how the terms are being perceived in our post-Christian society.

Religion Pathway Spirituality Pathway
Institution, denomination and authority based Experience, relationship and practice based
Outer religious expressions Inner sacred experiences
Programs to produce disciples of Christ Practices to deepen love of God & love of others
Beliefs Faith/Trust
Doctrine/Dogma/Creeds/Orthodoxy Midrash/Multiple interpretations
Either-or/Certainty/Arrogance Both-and/Hold the paradoxes/Doubt
Holy Scripture Sacred Writings/Spiritual Reading/Spiritual Truths
10 Commandments Sermon on the Mount
Puritanical codes/Moralistic rules/Do’s & Don’ts Plank in your own eye – he who is without sin….
Buildings Nature
Great Commission Great Commandment
Salvation Transformation
Resurrection Crucifixion
Jesus Holy Spirit/Trinity
A student of Jesus An imitator of Jesus
Who and what to believe How and why to believe
Knowledge and information about God Experience and connection with God
Know more about God Know God more
Head Heart
Seek the answers Seek the questions
Teaching/Tell me Training/Show me
Speaking/Words/Doing Listening/Silence/Solitude/Being
Ascent/Power Descent/Powerlessness
Exclusivity/Sameness/Membership Inclusivity/Diversity/Relationship
Traditional Christian Spiritual Disciplines Ancient Spiritual Practices
Spiritual Gifts Spiritual Fruit
Rational and logical Mystery, wonder, awe and discovery
Control Letting go
Closed systems Open systems
Boundaries Inclusive
Principles Wisdom
Organizational/Hierarchy Organic/Community
Corporate Experience Individual Experience
Small Groups Mentoring
Social Ministry Social Justice
Hypocritical Authentic
Critical of others Self-critical
The business of the church The mission of the church
Stays in the church Leaves  or changes churches or multiple churches
Goal: Sanctification-Christ-Likeness-Centeredness Goal: Incarnation – Christ Mindedness – Oneness

Regardless of definition, it is increasingly difficult for church leaders to dismiss the differences in spirituality and religion. And, it is important to note that most people see themselves as both spiritual and religious.

Accepting that a growing number of people are signaling a discontent with religious institutions, yet are longing for a deeper connection with God, themselves and others, is a prerequisite for the church to discover new ways for every generation to experience God.


Posted on July 18, 2017
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Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5