Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
There’s no doubt that many people, including teenagers, are searching out for spirituality. We get a bit confused, because we often link spirituality with church attendance. And the figures show that church attendance is declining, especially with the younger generation.
Someone once told me they thought young people will not sit in hard pews listening to a preacher go on and on for 45 minutes. They would rather a short message, and even take part in some dialogue with the preacher. That makes sense to me.
There is an immense spiritual hunger out there—a search for meaning and purpose, beyond what we can see, hear, feel or touch. ‘Spirituality’ is a vague and fuzzy word, which can mean almost anything. But I think we want a reality beyond ourselves. There’s always a part of the soul that’s yearning for something greater, seeking answers to life’s biggest questions: What is sacred? Why are we here? How should we live? We like to feel we are mere mortals but we are part of a grander scheme somewhere else.
Robert C. Fuller, a Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University, is the author of a book titled Spiritual, But Not Religious. He writes:
This phrase probably means different things to different people. The confusion stems from the fact that the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ are really synonyms. Both describe belief in a Higher Power of some kind. Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power. And finally, both show an interest in rituals, practices, and daily moral behaviours that foster such a connection or relationship.
In the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, the number of Australians describing themselves as ‘spiritual’ (47 per cent) exceeded the number describing themselves as ‘religious’ (39%). According to the International Social Survey Program—which conducts surveys in 40 countries and of which one part is the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes—identification as ‘spiritual’ is growing in many countries, while identification with religion is declining in almost every country.
In Australia and in many other countries around the globe, more younger people than older people describe themselves as spiritual (Hughes, 2011). Twenty-nine per cent of young people under the age of 30 described themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ compared with just 10 per cent of people aged 60-and-over in the 2009 Australian survey.
Churches—more like hospitals than country clubs
It’s a great thing to attend church—I’m all for it. But going to church will not necessarily change your life or make you happy. It was the old-time preacher Billy Sunday who once said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
Some people equate spirituality with going to church. They assume that if one goes to church he or she must be ‘right with God’. Why else would they go? Unfortunately, this very thinking is what keeps many people from going to church. They reason that church is only for those who ‘have it together’. If that were really the case, no-one would be eligible to attend. The only specimens of Christianity who are finished with their journey are asleep in their graves. Everyone else is on the battlefield of life. Actually, churches are more like hospitals than country clubs. They exist to administer healing and encouragement to those who are ravaged and broken.
Whoever came up with the idea that churches should be spiritual utopias needs to reconnect with reality. Of course we should expect to find more good than evil in churches, but we should not be surprised to also find conflicts and personality clashes, just as you’ll find anywhere else. True spirituality is not defined by what happens inside the walls of a church as much as by what happens when we leave it. Do we treat our families, co-workers and strangers with compassion and mercy? Do we stand up for justice whenever we can?
It really is a very intriguing question—so I believe spirituality is a relationship with the everlasting God, the creator and sustainer of our universe. We should be letting him journey with us each day, being a big part of our lives, whether in church or not. I’ve lost count of the times when someone has said to me, I’m not religious, but I am interested in spirituality. That is a thought many have today. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Professor of Religion John David Dawson of Haverford College says that several years ago he began teaching a class in “Introduction to Christian Thought” by inviting students to reflect on the nature of religion. One of the students promptly volunteered, “I think of myself as a spiritual person, but I don’t have anything to do with religion.” Almost the entire class nodded in approval.