Spirituality: Untapped Mission Field or Giant Red Herring?

Religion sometimes gets a bad rep these days. From Trump-supporting evangelicalism in the United States, to the Taliban, to Northern Ireland, to the stereotypes of Victorian moralism, an increasingly small number of people want to be labelled with the word ‘religious’ or even that of ‘Christian’.

Yet as the labels ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’ have declined in social prestige, so ‘spiritual’ has become more prominent. Prior to the 1960s and the Beatles trip to India (anyone old enough to remember that?) the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ were largely connected with certain elements of Roman Catholic devotion, and the Gospel songs of former American slaves. From the 1960s onward, however, the term morphed into something far wider and socially important. ‘Spiritual but not religious’ became one of the main forms of Western religiosity, the individualist counterpart to the moribund ‘institutional religion’ of yesteryear.

Despite it being such a widely used term, however, no one quite knows what to make of spirituality, an ambiguity that gives rise to wildly different interpretations of its nature, and its relevance for Christian Mission.

In Mission in Contemporary Scotland I summarise these different views on spirituality in this way:

On the one hand, a number of writers follow a ‘social narcissism’ critique of spirituality. For these commentators, ‘spiritualities offer succour and relief to an alienated and dehumanised congregation of individualised consumers’. Spirituality is not only an aspect of materialist consumerism, but is also one of the means by which Western, capitalist democracies insulate themselves from reform and rebellion. According to Bauman, spirituality creates ‘perfect consumers’, who rather than challenging the existing social and political system retreat into themselves, and the quietist darkness of mystery. On the other hand, writers such as McKian have cautioned that we should not seek to explain spirituality away by seeing it only as a symptom of diseased capitalism, and that to ignore the supernatural or transcendent elements in popular spirituality is to misinterpret them. Similarly, Drane has argued that despite some of its aberrations, the Church ignores popular spirituality at its peril, for it is now part of the lived reality of many of our neighbours.

What we think about the issue of spirituality is crucial. If it really is the case that there is a wellspring of spiritual openness out there in our neighbours then we in the Scottish Church must adapt ourselves to meet their spiritual needs. If, however, spirituality is simply a symptom of self-satisfied consumerism, then while we might still want to dialogue with contemporary spirituality in some way, there is a risk of accommodating it too much, and corrupting the Gospel in the process.

In the book, I try to chart a middle course between these various extremes, accepting the prevalence and importance of contemporary spirituality, but questioning whether all spiritual yearnings lead in a Christian direction. 

But what do you think? Have you found examples of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people coming to Christ, or are you mistrustful of spirituality? Should the Church adapt its worship and practice to entice spiritual seekers, or should we hold fast to what we have inherited, and invite our neighbours to encounter not spirituality but the Holy Spirit?

3 thoughts on “Spirituality: Untapped Mission Field or Giant Red Herring?

  1. Part of the challenge and one of the issues for the Church is that those who are “spiritual but not religious” if attracted to us at all, are often attracted to the impact of large, traditional buildings which have more of an aura about them. Dealing with the upkeep of these, as well as a move away from the importance of buildings, and a quite different emphasis on the ways & purpose of the Church gathering means that what might once have been a point of contact between “spiritual but not religious” folk & ourselves is another worldview clash.

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  2. Reblogged this on innerwoven and commented:
    Having just completed Dr. Fraser’s marvellous book, “Mission in Contemporary Scotland,” I am pleased to share a short piece of particular interest to me. In general terms, because I have a master’s degree in spiritual formation, or Christian spirituality to be precise. More specifically, because “spirituality” is one of the means by which I hope to reach out in my new Scottish mission environment. Fraser has been most helpful in the many questions we all have related to the Church, her identity and mission. And, for me, that identity and mission here in Edinburgh.

    Enjoy, and, if you like a well-balanced, thoughtful, lovingly orthodox view into imago Dei/missio Dei, procure his book. You’ll be glad you did!

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  3. IMHO boomers mark the end of a generation where many attended a church because it was a familial custom and the church leaders became tied to business practices and political correctness to keep the regulars/contributors content in their “club”. The following generations have a media influenced background which mitigates the family influence, but in some instances, the “church” still relies on antiquated business models. In all of this, (from pre-boomers to next gens) the central foundation of Jesus and His love has been replaced with apathy and the diaspora of the “religious” and “spiritual” from the land or corporeal worship

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