Today’s Christians are immersed in a world of rapidly changing social values and ultimate beliefs. Each day we face a sea of cultural confusion about human nature, social order, morality, and the meaning of life.
Many Christians fear their faith, or that of their children, will not survive.
But there’s no need to be afraid. God has provided us with the wisdom we need in engaging our culture as found in his Word.
This guide is designed to bring you
- Clarity to see in simple terms the basic and deceptive ideas that drive 21st century culture’s progressive values and beliefs
- Confidence to see how and why the gospel of Jesus Christ, believed and professed by the church for 2000 years, is still the only truth that will transform people and give true life
What does it mean to be spiritual today?
Not long ago being spiritual was equated with being religiously devout. In the generally Christianized West, it meant a personal sense of connection to God. This was usually demonstrated by religious observance, such as attending church, participation in worship, prayer, baptism, communion, etc.
In this sense, the terms “spiritual” and “religious” were synonyms.
However, research over the last 50 years has shown a steady decline in religious (specifically Christian) affiliation. In fact, the fastest growing religious segment in Western culture today are those who identify as “no religious affiliation”.
Some see this development as the triumph of 20th century secularism. They believe that the secularization of the West will eventually produce a society of irreligious atheists.
What this decline in affiliation has actually produced is a culture of individualism, where people feel free to leave the structure and authority of organized religion behind.
Instead of a mass movement to atheism, in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s words, “the Western march toward secularity…has been interwoven from the start with [a] drive toward personal religion.”
As Christian influence continues to wane in the West, the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation, especially among millennials and Gen Z, are those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).
With its heavy emphasis on individualism, it’s difficult to clearly define what SBNRs believe. But a growing body of research reveals some common characteristics. Here are four of the most predominant.
1. A rejection of Western Christianity
SBNRs share a critique and rejection of Western Christianity, and especially institutionalized or authoritative church structure. Instances of corruption (for example, sex abuse scandals, televangelist scams, etc.) are the most easily associated reasons for rejecting formalized religion.
But this is only a small part of the picture. Research shows that an even more crucial aspect relates to theology.
“Two-thirds of former Catholics, and half of former Protestants ‘say they have left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings’”, notes Dr. Linda A. Mercadante from her research interviews with SBNRs.
The common teachings rejected by SBNRs form something of a “straw-man” caricature of Christianity, including but not limited to
- claims of exclusive truth
- a wrathful and/or interventionist God
- a static and permanent afterlife in either heaven or hell
- a view of humans as “born bad” (i.e. the sin nature)
This helps show that spirituality today isn’t simply driven by a greater sense of individualism.
It’s also based on a fundamental shift in ultimate beliefs.
2. A belief in and pursuit of transcendence
SBNRs believe that the world is more than meets the eye. They believe there’s something beyond the mere material world. Galen Watts, a PhD candidate at Queens University who has extensively studied and interviewed millennial SBNRs states,
Among the millennials I’ve interviewed, “spirituality” is generally contrasted with “materiality”. It therefore gestures towards that which we require to live, but which we cannot perceive or measure.
For SBNRs, this means that spirituality is something outside of the perceivable experiences of everyday life in this world. It’s something they don’t associate this with traditional religion (i.e. Christianity), with its apparent focus on authoritative doctrine and formal church participation.
SBNRs are searching for something more “immanent”, more “core-to-the-self”, something which can be felt, entered into, and verified by inner personal experience.
3. Treating the self as sacred
This search for transcendence through inner personal experience has produced what some scholars call a “self-spirituality”. Self-spirituality is based on the belief that people are essentially spiritual.
Therefore, a true encounter with the inner, spiritual self is considered a true encounter with the divine. In essence, SBNRs believe that we share our being with God.
As a result, self-spirituality means looking inside ourselves “in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge” since the “true self” is somehow united to the divine.
4. The quest for authenticity
Associating the “true self” with the divine means that for SBNRs, authenticity is one of the highest goals of the spiritual quest. The “authentic self” provides spiritual guidance and can be trusted as a source for spiritual truth.
This is often reflected in axioms like “follow your heart” or “be true to yourself.”
As a result, SBNRs see any attempt by others to suppress or discourage such self-expression as a form of spiritual oppression.
Conclusion on what it means to be spiritual
It’s critically important that Christians don’t mistake our culture’s seeming openness to spirituality as an openness to Christ. The growing belief that people are spiritual by nature must always be checked against what the Bible reveals to be humanity’s true spiritual condition apart from Christ.
The Bible teaches plainly that we are
- sinful by nature (Romans 5:12),
- spiritually dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1),
- under God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3),
- given over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:28ff),
- darkened in our understanding and,
- excluded from life with God (Ephesians 4:18).
As a result, any spiritual path directing our gaze inward for the light of truth will only keep us in spiritual darkness.
This is because the only light of truth about God and our spiritual condition before him is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Read more: Why is Living by Faith so Difficult?
 Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 13.
 Linda A. Mercadante, Belief Without Boarders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 229.
 Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices”, [Accessed online at pewforum.org, on Nov. 20, 2019].
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