Religion and Spirituality: How Different Are They?

It’s often said that religion and spirituality are fundamentally different. The arguments for this position go something like this. Religion is about dogma, fixed beliefs, and rituals to which people must adhere. Spirituality is individualized, focused on experience, and free flowing.

At face value, there’s something to be said for this distinction. But upon further reflection, a couple things strike me about this analysis of spirituality and religion. First, many people who claim to follow a purely spiritual path utilize spiritual practices from various religions but just don’t recognize it. While the vocabulary may be secular, all forms of meditation evolved in religious traditions. Creating one’s own rituals or sets of practices is also not fundamentally different from religious ritual. The main difference is that one is private and the other is oriented to a group experience. Second, anything in life can be approached, appreciated, and apprehended as something spiritual or a spiritual practice. It’s a common meditation to eat a piece of fruit, like an orange, in a mindful way. One can play a drum in a way that draws self into a state of meditation. Or one can engage in a sexual experience in a focused, other-centered way that’s described as spiritual. These are just a few examples of how various ordinary activities can be understood from a spiritual perspective or as a spiritual practice. Participation in religion is much the same as any other activity.

From my perspective, the issue is not whether religion and spirituality are fundamentally different from each other. Spirituality is a dimension of human experience that has the potential of being operative in any aspect of our lives. Instead, I find the actual problem about religion and spirituality is that the practice of religion often does not facilitate people’s spiritual experience or nurture the spiritual dimension of life.

Each week, I receive a number of newsletters and mailings from various churches. As I look over the information provided, I find very little about integrating spirituality into people’s lives. There are many other wonderful activities provided by these churches, both in terms of social events and ways to help others. There’s often a strong social consciousness in churches today. But what about a spiritual consciousness? Well, in many churches, not so much.

Some churches do offer prayer or meditation groups or various kinds of classes. But these kinds of programs don’t address spirituality in the community of faith in a direct way. Instead they are offered as a special program for those interested in the topic of spirituality. I think that spirituality often doesn’t get addressed in religious settings simply because it takes a great deal of attention to engage large groups of people at this level.

A number of years ago, I was asked to facilitate a staff retreat for a large congregation in my own denomination. There were about twenty people who were part of the staff, both full time and part time. We met at a denominationally related conference center for a few days. The group decided that they did not want to use the chapel for our formal times of prayer. Instead, they wanted to pray together in the meeting room we used for all of our other activities. It was explained to me that they didn’t want to separate prayer from their sense of ministry and vocation by using different locations. When I saw the space, I decided to set it up so that the prayer area would be a circle in the middle of the room with working areas along the sides. My intention was to keep spiritual practice and prayer central by arranging the room in that way.

One morning, as we gathered for our time of meditation and devotion, members of the finance committee arrived. We invited them to join us but they said that they needed to get their work organized. So, the staff prayed together, while off to the side, the finance committee members quietly sorted papers and got organized for business. Then we all joined as one group to address budget planning.

At some point in the process, the chair of the finance committee looked at me and apologized. An executive in the finance industry, he noted that he missed what I was attempting to do during the morning prayer. He said that he came to the realization that the point of church finances was not about creating a balanced budget but to discern how the church is called to use its money in response to the community. I agreed. I then suggested that we just take two or three minutes in silence and open ourselves to the perspective of discerning how this group could best decide to use financial resources to respond to the needs of the larger community. After some silence, the business resumed and went very smoothly. Deliberations that were often a source of tension broke way to new levels of understanding. An issue that concerned most people in the room was the needs of youth and their lack of participation in the life of the church. Rather than just trying to throw money at the problem or telling staff to “fix it,” a strategic approach was developed to assess needs and interests of youth and to build programming around that. It was agreed that the goal wasn’t getting young people to Sunday service but to the safe environment of the church which had a great recreational facility. Money was set aside to be used based on program development. The result was more money for a youth program that was yet to be created with other program areas offering to cut their budgets to create options for young people. That marked spiritual growth and discernment. It’s an example of how the business of church can be rooted in a deep, practical spiritual ground.

Similarly, most churches are looking for people to fill in spots for supposed “ministries” that are really operated as “functions.” People are needed to read during the Sunday service, to serve communion, to greet and usher, and so forth. If these were actual ministries, they would be accompanied with spiritual formation programs that provided participants with opportunities for their spiritual growth. What if greeters and ushers spent time prayerfully reflecting on the role of hospitality in their religious tradition? Could ushers explore what it means to welcome people to a sacred space and the importance of recognizing the Divine in each person who enters? This role in ministry, if indeed a ministry, calls for time to study scripture, to learn to overcome prejudices, to become a transformative group of people in the midst of the community. The same is true for those who read a sacred text. What does it mean to them to be proclaimers of good news? What can readers do to limit ego so that wisdom can be heard? These are important spiritual lessons.

The problem isn’t that spirituality and religion are different things. The problem is that religion doesn’t take time to ground the ordinary work of the church in the spiritual dimension of life. The spiritual dimension allows us to aspire to something more than the task at hand. Through the spiritual dimension, we have the opportunity to be inspired to experience our day to day lives and activities in transformed ways.

In a few weeks, my new book, Contemporary Churches: The Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, will be released. In this book, I explore how congregations can engage in transforming themselves to become vibrant spiritual communities. For those who value church involvement, the book provides an opportunity to see something new in what’s very familiar — and to be inspired.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Religion and Spirituality: How Different Are They?

  1. Roger Wolsey says:

    At its best, all religions, including Christianity, intentionally seek to foster and nurture people’s spiritual lives. Following Jesus’ Way, teachings, and example is frankly too dang hard to do solo – and His way involves doing it with others – religion. Here’s “Why I’m Spiritual *and* Religious.”
    -Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

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