‘I’m Spiritual, but Not Religious’

By Randall Breland

If you are keeping up with the reboot of the Star Wars franchise, one of the fan–favorite characters is Chirrut Îmwe, the blind monk in “Rogue One.” Despite his blindness, he is deeply spiritual and in tune with “the Force.” During a battle against Empire soldiers, Chirrut chants, “The Force is with me; I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me; I’m one with the Force.” By chanting, he channels courage, steps into the fight, and defeats a dozen or so soldiers. The scene is both mesmerizing and a reasonably accurate depiction of 21st–century American spirituality.

The growth of American spirituality as a substitute for the Christian faith is rapid. More and more people are rejecting the truths about God and Jesus presented by the Bible and are replacing them with an undefined, vague spirituality. Many who embrace this new spiritualism argue they are “spiritual” people but “not religious.”

This American spirituality is growing most quickly in the youngest generations. Among younger Millennials (those born between 1990 and 1996), 36% identify as religiously unaffiliated. Generation Z is a moniker given to those born between 1995 and 2010. While 78% of this youngest generation believes in God or a higher power, only half attend religious services on a regular basis, and a mere 8% cite a religious leader as a role model. These stats point to one haunting truth: “The younger the generation, the more post–Christian it is.” They are interested in spiritual things but flee from religious matters.

Four observations about American spirituality

How do we engage the spiritual–but–not–religious? Let’s begin with four observations about this growing American spirituality.

1. Young Americans are unfamiliar with Christianity

Most young Americans do not know the basic stories of the Bible or the essential beliefs of Christianity. Americans today find attending church to hold little value and are just not interested in it. If you grew up in a family that regularly attended church and you or your parents have regularly read the Bible, your experience is not normal.

In fact, a negative view of Christians and the Bible is growing. When young people are asked to describe Christianity, they use terms such as anti–homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old–fashioned, out of touch, insensitive, and confusing. When Americans were asked what they think about the Bible and Christian belief, responses demonstrated their confusion: less than half believe the Bible is fully accurate, 77% believe they must contribute to their salvation, and 74% don’t think every sin deserves damnation. Young generations are skeptical about the Bible and confused about Christianity.

2. Young Americans are hyper-connected and lonely

The internet and digital devices are transforming the culture at a rapid pace. This hyper-connected age is giving rise to a generation of young people that is simultaneously connected and disconnected. Generation Z has abundant access to all kinds of information and people all over the planet. Information, knowledge, and news are widespread and instantly available.

Despite being connected to information and people, this hyper-connected generation also is disconnected from human relationships. With the rise of social media, the nature of human relationships is rapidly changing, as well. As reported by “The Atlantic” magazine, an increasing number of teenagers are reporting severe cases of loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Another article, published in “Science” magazine, argues that cell phone usage decreases one’s ability to read basic social cues. In other words, the more time you spend on your phone, the harder it becomes for you to relate with someone one–on–one in physical, real–life, space. There is a disconnect between their hyper-connected phones and their longing for real human relationships.

3. Young Americans have a growing interest in the transcendent

Despite an overall anti–religious sentiment, there remains a deep interest in spiritual things. While fewer adults participate in prayer, Bible study, or religious education, 40% of those who indicate no religious affiliation feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing. This number is on the rise and represents a growing hunger for spiritual things.

The popularity of TV shows like “Stranger Things” and “Long Island Medium” demonstrate the fascination with all things mysterious and spiritual, especially the paranormal. In previous generations, there was a closed mind to spiritual things among non–Christians. Today, things are much different. Young non–religious Americans are looking for a spiritual connection with something beyond.

4. Young Americans are embracing a non–Christian, desire–focused morality

American culture is obsessed with self–fulfillment and self–satisfaction. In this new American spirituality, God is not needed, leaving each person to identify and meet their deepest desires themselves. Personal desire and its fulfillment is the new morality and the new source of confidence. Young people are eager to have any and every desire fulfilled by any means possible. The only moral guardrail is: “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” In other words, each person can write their own morality and truth.

This obsession has replaced true Christian spirituality with a therapeutic spirituality that teaches that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” A focus on one’s happiness and fulfillment is the new gospel of American spirituality.

The danger of lukewarm Christian spiritualism

All Christian believers need to approach American spirituality carefully. When Star Wars shows people are spiritual beings, it is correct. We are made to live in communion with some higher power. But we don’t get to choose that higher power or shape that higher power to our desires. Following our desires without reference to God’s desires for us is idolatry. If we want to seek spiritual things, we must start with the Bible and look to Jesus for clarity and salvation.

How do we respond to people who embrace this spirituality?

Four biblical truths to share with the spiritual-but-not-religious

1. Biblical truth is your best ally

Young Americans are unfamiliar with the Bible, but the Bible remains your most effective tool for sharing your faith. In fact, the Word of God is the only tool available to us. It is only the word of the gospel that can create and sustain faith: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Other verses teach that the Word of God can access, expose, explain, and direct the heart (Heb. 4:12; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17). First Peter 1:2–4 argues that the “knowledge of God” gives us everything we need for life. In other words, God’s Word is a sufficient guide in all matters, including helping you grow in and share your faith.

2. Christianity offers a relationship with a real Savior

In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Christianity is about attaching yourself to King Jesus, to His kingdom, to His followers, to His purposes, to His mission, and to His way of life.

This is why he says, “Come to me.” Christianity is not about keeping a set of rules. Christianity is about worshipping Jesus and obeying him. American Spiritualism offers an empty faith in the individual, the latest fad, or the newest spiritual guru. The spiritual longing that is so strong in younger generations is an opportunity to join them to the Creator and Savior of the universe. Point young spiritual people to a Jesus who is known worldwide and expose the emptiness of American spirituality that can only claim some inward feeling that there is something more.

God sent Jesus the Son of God to take on human flesh so that humanity will not have to grasp their way along in blind faith.

3. God has revealed himself in creation

It’s a good thing people are interested in the transcendent, because evidence for Christianity and God’s existence is all around us. Spiritual Americans, especially the younger Generation Z, are interested in and open to spiritual things. God’s Word tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). The breadth of the Grand Canyon or the beauty of the Rocky Mountains or the diversity of human culture all point toward the existence of a higher power. Creation elicits an inward longing for the divine.

The very fact that any of us label certain acts as “right” and other acts as “wrong” tells us that there is an objective moral standard (cf. Rom. 2:14–15). The point is this: Every person knows that God exists and knows there are moral standards that they must keep. The problem is that all humans “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Despite this general rejection of the truth, humanity as a whole has a deep longing for God. It is this longing that Paul talked about on Mars Hill in Acts 17 when he proclaimed to the Athenian people the unknown God (Acts 17:23). As we share our faith with others, we need to point to the beauty, mystery, and design of creation. Recent surveys indicate that roughly one in three non–religious Americans agree with general evidences and arguments for God’s existence. Because of their spiritual openness and longing, they are open to hearing about “the unknown God,” who we know to be the Lord Jesus Christ.

4. True joy is found in bearing the cross

The world tells you that your central purpose in life is to make yourself happy. And to do that, you’re encouraged to pursue all your desires with abandon. That is wrong and it will lead you down a path to misery. The central purpose in your life is not to fulfill your desires, but to obey Jesus.

Our goal in life is faithfulness to Christ. We want Him to say at the end of our lives, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet, the great news is that giving ourselves wholly to Jesus and His kingdom will bring us much more than happiness. It will bring us lasting joy. After He tells His disciples to take up their cross in Matthew 16:24, He goes on to tell them in Matthew 16:25, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This is a truth people need to hear.

Don’t let them be content with the Force

We need to take advantage of the deep longing and spirituality that is present in younger generations. They may refuse religion, but they are longing to know and have a relationship with the unknown God we know as Jesus Christ. Don’t let them be content with “the Force.” Jesus Christ, the creator and redeemer of the universe, invites them into a relationship of oneness with Him.

This post is taken from Standing for Truth: A Student’s Guide to Apologetics. Standing for Truth introduces students to arguments for the Bible’s reliability and God’s existence while providing outlines of how to engage the culture. Standing for Truth is published by Crossings Camps in Louisville, KY. Visit gocrossings.org to learn more about Crossings Gospel-intensive camps that are packed with unforgettable fun. 

Published February 25, 2019

Randall Breland