Spiritual vs Religious: Exploring the Dividing Line

Spiritual vs Religious: Exploring the Dividing Line


“I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’m sure you’ve heard somebody say it. I know so many people, me included, who are scared away by some parts of organised religion or ‘church’ and feel torn in the spiritual vs religious debate.

Some are put off by the ‘religious types’ – who can seem very judgemental.

Others by the way Christianity can be presented like a big business opportunity … one where you have to get into the in-crowd with the big guy upstairs to get rich.

Finally, others are disappointed – disillusioned, even – by the hypocrisy of the church or some key Christian leaders. Who didn’t feel the quake caused by the pedophilia scandals from the Catholic Church? What Christian didn’t wince at the allegations against respected theologian Ravi Zacharias?

No wonder so many find themselves drifting further and further towards the spiritual side of the spiritual vs religious spectrum.


Spiritual vs Religious: What’s the Difference?


In his book Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford: OUP, 2001) Robert C. Fuller tries to draw the parting lines between those who think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ and those who think of themselves as ‘religious’.

Spiritual = ‘the private realm of thought and experience’.

Religious = ‘the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines’.

In other words, for those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, personal spiritual experience is more important than the authority of religious institutions.

This means that many people who regard themselves as ‘spiritual’ like to pick and choose their beliefs. They can shop around for things to believe not only between different denominations but also different religions. They can take ideas from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and more to form their personal belief system.


Spiritual vs Religious: My Journey


Personally, I’ve never been one for shopping around between religions. That being said, I myself was (and still am to some extent) more comfortable distancing myself from the ‘religious’ label. For a long time, though I regarded myself as a Christian, I didn’t go to church. I know I’m not the only one. There are lots of us.

What’s more, at uni I had a complex relationship with my university’s Christian Union. I enjoyed some of the CU talks. In my third year I began to deeply appreciate some community within a smaller CU group but I was never part of the ‘Christian crowd’. I didn’t feel comfortable there at the time. I saw university as a time where I could explore new ideas and have my viewpoints challenged – better to do it at the start of my life than to realise at eighty that my life had been built on lies, right? Too often the Christian crowd seemed like a bubble formed to protect you from just that.

Plus I didn’t grow up in the church. My parents were Christians – committed Christians who did Christian work in Bolivia for twelve years. Yet from the age of eight onwards we didn’t go to church. Leaving church was a painful chapter in the life of my family. I watched as my parents, friends of my parents and others left church, carrying deep wounds as they did so. This being so, I grew up regarding church and institutional religion in general with a lot of suspicion. When I got baptised, aged fourteen, it was with just my family watching in a lake in the countryside.  

Then, after university, I moved to Colombia and became a church attender again. Why? I was as surprised as any.

In the end it came down to one word: community.


Christian community


My family and my Christian friends had always been my Christian support network back in the UK. Once in Colombia I felt something missing. It took some time but I eventually found a Christian community here in Bogota. Once I’d found it I learned to appreciate it. I realised that being part of a healthy Christian body is a joyful, beautiful thing: one that nourishes and fulfils.


I also learned that a Christian community can give you a deep sense of identity.


Before the healing which becoming more deeply involved in a formal Christian community gave me, I’d always felt divided within myself somehow. I didn’t know how my Christian identity could sit comfortably with me. There was part of me that distrusted Christians … which was inconvenient to say the least given that I was one.

Let me reassure you if you’ve ever felt something similar. Once you’ve accepted that you will never live up to the label of being a Christ-follower and have taken that scary leap of associating yourself with others who are doing a less than perfect job at it too … there is so much to gain. Jesus never intended us to live spiritually isolated lives. Take a look at the Lord’s prayer. It isn’t: ‘give me this day, my daily bread’. Instead it’s: ‘give us this day our daily bread’. We’re supposed to pray in community. We’re supposed to form our identity within community.

I found myself teetering back to a more central position on the spiritual vs religious scale.


What kind of identity can the Christian faith offer?


Defining yourself as a Christian isn’t like defining yourself in the ways we so often do nowadays. It isn’t like going out to buy a new outfit because the clothes you already have ‘aren’t really me’. It isn’t like ordering a coffee at Starbucks either – proclaiming to everyone how unique you are because you take almond milk with no sugar. For some people who are attracted to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ way of thinking, this is probably a bad thing. For many, it would seem, this kind of individualism – this ability to define exactly who you are and what you represent without the community around you getting in the way – is what attracts them. Yet, I’ve walked that way and found it wasn’t enough.

That’s not to say you should swallow down whole everything that a person in a pulpit teaches you without discerning if it’s true.

In fact, definitely don’t do that.

It also doesn’t mean that everyone in a Christian community should think exactly the same things. Some diversity in thought and opinions is healthy.


Our identity in the big picture.


Yet as Christians we know that we’re not the measure of all things. Jesus taught that truth is something that exists outside of us and: ‘the truth will set you free’ (John 8: 31-32). We can learn about this truth by ‘abiding in [Jesus’s] word’ (John 15:7). Studying the Bible together, praying together, encouraging each other, living alongside each other; these are all ways that we can become spiritually healthy and whole together on our spiritual journey as Christians.

For me, I also find something really beautiful in how balanced the Christian identity can be if we live it right. We believe that we are saved sinners. What a freeing thing to be?! We sin (as much as we try – and should try – not to) but the blood of Jesus wiped that sin away when He died on the cross. This being so, we are both blameless and to blame; humbled but not humiliated. There’s no need to feel shame, but no reason to be proud either.

By being a Christian, you find out who God intended you to be – no more no less. We learn what His design was, what His heart was, in creating these loveable, complex but deeply flawed creatures called humans. In Genesis we learn that everything in God’s creation had order and it was peaceful and perfect. Humans destroyed that order because they wanted to be what they weren’t. A snake deceived them and told them they could be like gods. We’ve never been on the same terms with God since. That hasn’t stopped God though. Ever since then God has been working to restore the created order and get His relationship with us back on track – ultimately through His son Jesus.


How do we claim this Christian identity?


To claim the identity God originally intended for us, there are two things we must do:

  • We must accept that God is God and we never will be. This means, which can be a bitter pill to swallow, that we also have to do what He tells us. It turns out though that obedience can be, well … freeing. Through obedience we get back to where we should be – where God originally intended us to be – in His plan. We become part of the forces which are restoring His creation rather than destroying it; the forces that draw us closer to Him rather than further away.
  • We must also accept our brokenness and that we need someone to save us. Jesus already has saved us through dying for us, meaning we can now have a relationship with God if we want to. Not just any relationship. A really close relationship. One more like Adam and Eve’s where God would hang out with them in the garden … can you imagine that? We find the deepest type of fulfilment possible in that relationship because it was what God created us for.

The Pros and Cons of Being Spiritual or Religious


In my case, I realised that by rejecting everything that institutional religion had to offer I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.

Sure, many churches, their leaders, and their doctrines have their problems sometimes. They nor we will ever be a perfect image of Christ’s message. Yet within many of these institutions are centuries’ worth of experience and wisdom for us to draw on. Plus, as I’ve already mentioned, we can’t undervalue the benefits of being a part of a healthy Christian community: supporting each other, growing together, learning from one another.

It’s tricky, but we have to find a balance. We have to balance the benefits of criticising what preachers or church institutions say with running away from the discipline and the well-worn truths many have to offer.

Of course, that can be difficult. Especially if:

  • Institutional religion has hurt us.
  • The impressions we’ve got at a distance of church and religious institutions are really bad.

Or on the flip side if:

  • We’re afraid to break the habits of a lifetime and start criticising religious authority.
  • We want to start thinking through our faith for ourselves but have no idea where to begin.

Which is why I hope you’ll hang around this blog a while as we navigate the boundaries between spirituality and religion and form a little community of our own along the way.


Prompts for thought:

Where are you on the religious vs spiritual spectrum?

What are your experiences with institutional Christianity or church? Are they positive or negative?

I’d love to hear your responses in the comments!


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