From Spiritual But Not Religious to what is religion?

There once was a time, when I heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious” all over the place. I hear that much less so now. Religion in my little corner of New England seems to be fading from the public discussion in a way, which I find both interesting and strangely compelling.

It’s hard to spot, but I think we might be approaching a time when that oft repeated phrase “spiritual but not religious” is becoming “what is religion?” Spiritual But Not Religious is not gone as this Sept. 6 survey from the Pew institute makes clear.

Some people may see the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans,” from the study.

“What is religion?”

Pew pegs the current crop of spiritual folks at 27 percent, up 8 percent over 5 years ago.

Many of you have already read your fair share of stories about Spiritual But Not Religious. There’s not much new here, beyond the fact the rates keep climbing.

I’d like to point you to this interesting little piece of Google trivia. Pop over to Google trends and you’ll find, since the fall, a sharp rise in the number of people searching for “what is religion.

A new book from Jean M. Twenge helps shed some light on this change: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

“So, teens and tech?”

The book looks at young people born after 1990. The book offers something rare in these sorts of books: an entire chapter filled with data about the spiritual lives of teens today. The upshot is that more and more young people are not growing up in a religious homes, meaning they are pretty unlikely to do that return pilgrimage to church many older churchgoers long for. You know that thinking: “The kids will come back after college/when they start families/when they have kids.”

Not too surprising, but what is interesting are the changes the book sees happening in the spiritual lives of young people. The book argues that young people are doing not just less religion, but less spiritual things that were once associated with religion and are the hallmarks of the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd. These are things like: decrease in prayer, belief in God, and in the afterlife.

I won’t go much further into the book now, but it is worth your time and worth picking up. The data is good and interesting and would make for a great chapter to read on a Christian Education retreat weekend.

Here’s a list of some ideas.

  1. Conversion. In a world increasingly not marked by religious thinking, how do you know when you have entered the religious mindset? Consider the idea of challenge?
  2. Salvation. What does salvation mean for society? We tend to focus on justice, but what other avenues might need to be explored? Might resistance better fit the time?
  3. Redemption. Older folks tend to talk about legacy, but perhaps some new language and thinking is required here as well. Might promise be a better word?

“What is conversion?”

Here’s my final thought: generational studies provide a great snapshot for how to understand the people in the world, because they force the church to consider people beyond those in the pews. If the book’s portrayal is accurate, then we in the established church are in for far more change than we have already experienced. I’m prayerfully hopeful that together we will have a new and inspiring answer for “what is religion.”

My new answer: religion is a way of making meaning in the world that rises above an individual’s experience and collectively points to something both good and true.

Said another way: religion is the challenge of resisting our faults in the promise of living into a better world.

So, what’s yours? What does religion mean to you?

Jeremiah RoodRev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, and two small black cats.  Visit him online at  Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics, those dealing with developmental concerns and the effects of aging. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues and working in a local public library.

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