Amy Thompson Sevimli: The 'spiritual but not religious' starting point

The airplane conversation with the “spiritual but not religious” person sitting next to you is irritating, but it can be the start to a deeper exploration of Christian faith.

I know about the discomfort of getting on an airplane and telling the person sitting next to me about what I do. Compounded by my age and gender, it’s almost always an awkward moment. So when I read about Lillian Daniel’s similar experience, I was sympathetic to her situation. What I was surprised by, and not terribly sympathetic to, was her reaction to the person sitting next to her on the airplane. She seemed especially put-off by those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Now, that phrase confuses (and annoys) me as much as the next pastor. Although I have actually spent time looking for and talking to people who describe themselves that way, I still don’t fully understand the phrase (Daniel is probably right about it being the spiritual heritage of self-centered, American individualism), and from my conversations with people who identify that way, my sense is that they don’t always understand it either. What I have found, however, is that the phrase is almost always a gateway into a deeper conversation about their spirituality (even if it is about sunsets). It is an opportunity for them to talk about their faith and their experience of the church -- which, by the way, has usually been negative. The results of these conversations vary, but more than once I’ve found people are willing to go back to church because someone was willing to talk with them about their spirituality instead of dismissing it.

There’s a degree of hubris at play when we Christians expect those outside the church to enter our congregations, “get” us, and then be like us, if they even brave entering our congregations at all. For a community of people who believe in the God that comes to them in Jesus Christ, we can expect an awful lot of people to come to us. We forget (or may have never known) what life bereft of church community is like, taking for granted the church’s theological framework we have to practice faith and spirituality together. We forget, in this sense, what it’s like to be “lost.” Instead of fully engaging those outside our churches, we sit back and wonder why the mass of spiritual but not religious people don’t walk through our doors. But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?

I firmly believe that the best way we can connect people with God in Christ -- and with the way we worship that God in church -- is by first listening to their spiritual story and only then telling our own. Often, they are more willing to listen to us than we are to them, usually not bored by us but fascinated by our faith and our willingness to give voice to it in a day when many are not. Spiritual but not religious is not an impediment to that conversation but an invitation if we are willing to accept it.

Amy Thompson Sevimli is ordained in the ELCA and currently serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod.