Spiritual but not religious
I remember watching a Christian film made for teens when I was in high school. The teenage protagonist was a “too cool for church” kind of guy. So when he meets a youth pastor, he says, “I’m not very religious.” The youth pastor says, “Well, neither am I.” The teen is shocked. What? How is this guy a pastor if he’s not religious?
I, too, was shocked, especially when the film went on to show teens in church praying, worshipping, and living righteous lives but still refusing to call this “religion.”
Now, I think the purpose of that scene was to wash over the negative perceptions of religion. Some might imagine crusades, angry protestors, or hypocritical pastors. Some might think of hateful Christians like Angela from The Office, or other fictional characters whose religion makes them distasteful. By saying he wasn’t religious, the pastor in the movie was, I think, saying, “I’m not unlikeable. I’m not hateful. I’m cool. I’m accepting and nonjudgmental.”
I imagine this may also be the origin of phrases like, “I’m spiritual but not religious” and, “It’s not a religion–it’s a relationship.”
Even one of my favorite Christian artists, Lauren Daigle, singes a song called “Losing My Religion,” which is about her letting go of a fake and heartless devotion and embracing a genuine relationship with God.
I love this song, and I understand the sentiment. Even Jesus spoke against the religious leaders whose actions didn’t match their beliefs. They were known for being nit-picky about the law without truly seeking the heart of God. James is especially hard on these kinds of people, saying, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (1:26). In James, the “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27).
Relationship Requires Religion
These warnings are against false religion, however, and not religion itself. According to Strong’s Greek Concordance, the word James used was thréskeia, which is used to mean: “…worship as expressed in ritual acts…”
The word “ritual” may throw some people off, especially someone who likes to feel their way through life and not be tied down by what might be considered pious. But I would argue that every relationship includes some ritual, even if that means making sure they talk every day. A healthy married couple might eat dinner together every night, go on regular dates, or buy or make gifts for each other. These rituals may not be scheduled, but they happen, and the couple must set aside time for that.
The rituals aren’t as important as the relationship, and they mean absolutely nothing without love and authenticity, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
A healthy relationship with God is like that, but much, much harder. It’s easy to remember your husband when he’s in your house every day. It’s harder to remember to pray to an invisible deity.
That’s why we need religion–intentional rituals that point us to God daily. These can take the form of prayer, fasting, communion, praise, journaling, or walking outside. They not only become meaningful moments of remembrance, but also face-to-face intimacy with God.
But James also says that religion–pure, faultless religion–is a religion that acts. It is generous and serving. We’re not here to be individuals spiritually connected to God in an isolated relationship. We’re here to do what God said to do–to build disciples.
It’s impossible to be spiritual but not religious, unless you only believe something but never act on it. This is, perhaps, what James was warning us about. We can’t just believe something and not act on it. That is useless religion.
It’s impossible to have a relationship with God without also being religious. Religion isn’t just a set of rules–it’s a practice that brings us closer to God.
Maybe you don’t wear Bible verses on your t-shirt or wear a cross necklace or go to a church with stained-glass windows. Maybe your rituals look a little different. But if the Word of God has changed your life in a meaningful way, then you are religious.
Religion is not private
I think some people tend to shy away from things like “organized religion.” Maybe the idea of being part of an organization feels inauthentic? But God is the founder of the church. God wants us to be in community, and God wants us to be unified.
I had a pastor once who said, “Religion is personal but not private.” It is personal because it must come from your heart, but it is not something you do on your own. We’re not meant to create our own individual religions with our own individual moralities. Yes, the church is divided now, but there is unity in many of our creeds and core beliefs.
Can we embrace our religion without embarrassment?
A fellow student once asked me if I was very religious. He wasn’t a Christian and was curious about my faith. Ever since he asked me that, I have wondered what he meant.
Was he asking if I was pious? A bigot? Judgemental?
Or was he just asking if I took my faith seriously?
I said I was, but I’m pretty sure I backed it up with something to show that I was “cool.” But now I think that maybe all that does is give something lukewarm to someone craving something refreshingly different.
I want to be proud of my religion and not afraid of being different. I want to be able to say, “Yes! I believe God is the most important thing in my life, and so I live out my faith through rituals that bring me closer to God. I serve others because God loves me and has called me to make disciples.”
Can we be excited about that?
Can we say the word “religion” without our cheeks getting red?
I believe we can only do this when we realize how important it is.