Congregations should reach out to those who are 'spiritual but not religious'

www.bethyam.orgFebruary 1, 2014 


Traditional religions should reach out to those who are "spiritual but not religious."

LARRAURI — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

What does it mean when people say, "I'm spiritual but not religious"? I've heard this comment countless times in casual conversations, and I am not sure what it means. Sometimes I wonder if those who use this expression really know what it means.

Whatever the spiritually independent crowd -- as I've heard it called -- means to say, there are a lot of them.

This movement transcends all faith traditions. They are usually not interested in doctrine. They do not like to join religious communities. And they often have a story of something that happened when they were younger that turned them off to institutional religion.

The mystery of this movement is that they still keep a toe in the waters of religious experience. They appreciate the feeling of spirituality. Some will enjoy alternative activities that heighten their search for transcendent moments, such as yoga, meditation and communing with nature.

Some belong to a congregation they don't regularly attend, except perhaps on special occasions. They are observers rather than participants.

For them, religion is too constricting with all its rules and hard and fast beliefs. They might feel that the religious are judgmental or too "inside the box." Finally, many do not like the emphasis on money -- a reason, they say, institutional religion has lost its allure.

The question is what can we do for such individuals to bring them into the fold? Should we even try?

Congregations should first examine themselves. Are we relevant? Engaging? Change is difficult because religion is typically a conservative culture that aims to preserve a historical narrative in the faith or a particular theological doctrine.

We like the structure of stability and routine, especially in the liturgy and music of our services. Maybe it is time we provide alternative services that reach out to the unaffiliated.

Another idea is demonstrating why money is not a bad thing if it is part of an overall philosophy in the congregation's core values. It is only when the money dominates the congregation's culture that we lose track of our religious and philanthropic values. We need to use our respective Scriptures to teach that giving can be a spiritual experience, particularly when we know that the money is being used for good works. We live in a society where too often the perception is that many congregations value the biggest donors and everyone else is second rate. Developing a connection between financial generosity and spirituality is crucial.

One final point is that we should not be reactive when people sincerely question or even criticize the doctrines of the faith. Questioning a theology does not mean we are undermining the religion. Questions actually help us clarify and sharpen our base of knowledge. Questioning longtime practices and rituals can rebuild confidence and demonstrate respect for both the newcomer and for the community.

For those who identify with the "I'm spiritual but not religious" community, I respectfully urge them to read more about the history of their faith and to keep current on what is being written these days. Remember that identifying with one faith does not have to mean we are putting down the other ones. We can afford to be more accepting of the ideas and wisdom that emanate from many sacred teachings without feeling threatened. Moreover can we not look through the lens of our own religious traditions and find at the same time a feeling of universalism too?

Should mainstream religions remain in their cocoons? Somehow there needs to be a recognition that if we do not re-evaluate how we are presenting ourselves we might inadvertently be contributing to the ranks of the spiritually independent and diminish over time our faith traditions.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at and follow him at


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