By Peyton Majors
Christian Action League
January 19, 2024
New data showing that between one-fourth and one-third of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious” should lead churches to examine their own practices and then reach out to the surrounding community, say two faith leaders.
A Pew Research Center survey from December found that 22 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while another 48 percent say they identify as both religious and spiritual.
The same poll found that 89 percent of the “spiritual but not religious” say they believe people have a soul or spirit in addition to their physical body, 88 percent say they think there is something spiritual beyond the natural world, and 74 percent say they believe there are some things that science cannot possibly explain.
Last summer, a Gallup poll found that 33 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while 47 percent identify as religious. Further, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they’re neither spiritual nor religious rose from 9 percent in 1999 to 18 percent today.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said churches must not shrug off the data as unimportant.
“Expressing a stance as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ has often prompted me to raise an inquisitive eyebrow,” Creech said. “It brings to mind a cherished close relative whom I deeply loved, and with whom I had concerns about the state of his soul. I would inquire if he knew the Lord, and his consistent reply was, ‘Yes, in my own way.’ Yet, the challenge with such a response lies in the fact that we do not approach God on our own terms; rather, we must approach Him on His terms.”
True religion, Creech said, “cannot be likened to a spiritual buffet, where one selects fragments of beliefs and concocts a customized spirituality.”
“Even if it seems to satisfy one’s individual preferences, it mirrors the actions of Cain, who presented an offering of his own making, fruits of the ground, before God’s altar instead of the required blood sacrifice, resulting in God’s rejection,” he said.
The church, Creech said, has contributed in “various ways” to this predicament.
“We live in a time marked by flagrant sin, yet, instead of serving as a catalyst for correction and cultural transformation, the church often mirrors these shortcomings,” Creech said. “There are instances of significant doctrinal compromises among various denominations and a plethora of scandals involving priests and clergy. Simultaneously, external forces have played a role in shaping this landscape. Today’s institutions of higher learning, it appears, deliberately steer students away from matters of faith. Additionally, public schools often treat religion as an elective rather than an integral component of a meaningful and morally upright life.
“Undoubtedly, no church is without its imperfections, a truth well understood by anyone who has engaged in church life. However, these imperfections should not lead us to discard the entirety of church life, opting for one’s own spiritual construct. There are still exemplary churches and steadfast denominations.”
Creech encouraged Christians to pose such questions as: “Do the members truly hold the Bible as God’s complete Word? Is the Gospel of Christ faithfully proclaimed? Does the church community exhibit a spirit of compassion and support for one another, as well as those outside its fellowship? Is there evidence of lives being changed, families restored and strengthened, people being kind and gracious, and generous?”
Carl P. Greene, a researcher and pastor, asserted in a blog for the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center that the Pew and Gallup data are an opportunity for the church to invite people back. The data also should lead to change in how Christians talk about their faith, Greene said.
“When we focus our gospel message as solely ‘Jesus and me’ we send the clear message that Christian community is extra credit,” Greene wrote. “Should it come as a surprise that people subsequently end up satisfied with the truncated experience of ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’? As much as we want to complain about people who do not regularly participate in church, we need to look at how we have invited them.
“Often,” Greene added, “we have invited them into a privatized experience with God, and the only reason to join with other people is if they have a problem or difficult situation that needs to be worked through. This might be especially significant for rural churches plowing the hard ground of remnant Christendom where there is a need to push through the culture of American civil religion — but we must not leave the blessing of organized religion behind as we call for personal renewal.”