A few years ago, I quit church. I left my role as a pastor, and started a new career leading workshops and counseling people. I continued my journey of faith, but found that a lot of things were shifting. During that time, I encountered many people with similar experiences in their spiritual lives. They were disillusioned by, and sometimes turning away from, the church.

In my earlier years as a pastor, when I’d encounter people like this, it would frustrate and disappoint me. I would view the exodus from their church as an exodus from their faith. No longer.

People who are unhappy with their churches get that way for many different reasons, and there is no single reason why people are leaving church. Maybe they no longer believe
the Christian faith (or at least, the Christian faith as they have been taught). Maybe they no longer believe in God (or at least, the concept of God that they have been taught).

Or maybe they do.

I run into many people who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” They believe in God, or at least are open to spiritual things, but they don’t want to be connected to a particular religion, or religious institution. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Entire books have been written about people who are spiritual but not religious.

What’s the difference between Religion and Spirituality?

Spiritual author Joan Chittister writes that: “Religion is what we believe and why we believe it. It is about the tradition, the institution, the system. … Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart. It lifts religion up from the level of the theoretical or the mechanical to the personal. It pursues in depth the mystical dimensions of life that religion purports to promote.”

In other words, spirituality is about the internal connection a person has with God (or “the divine”). Religion is about the organized system of beliefs, practices, and rules - connected to some local human community - that seeks to foster the spiritual life.

I know many people who have left church (their connection to “religion”) because they felt that it was not fostering their spiritual life. It was hindering rather than helping. They wondered about some of the beliefs espoused by the church, struggling to make sense of certain teachings in the Bible. They concluded that they couldn’t swallow the dogma attached to what they assumed was “Christianity,” and so they left.

Others were burned by what they experienced from people in the church. They couldn’t deal with the hypocrisy, or with the judgmental and loveless mindset they encountered. Robert Fuller writes in his book “Spiritual But Not Religious” about people who “have perceived church leaders as more concerned with building an organization than promoting spirituality.”

All of that is true … all of these things are happening … all of these problems are there in churches all over. They exist with adherents of any and all religions. In fact, you might say that religions in general have a tendency to get in the way of the very thing they are trying to promote.

And yet…

Here is what I experienced in my years of exile from church: there were things I missed, and it was really hard to keep my spiritual life strong. I know I’m not alone. People have talked and written about this for centuries, and the accumulated wisdom has consistently been this: rootless, privatized spirituality is really hard to maintain. And what remains rarely has the power to sustain - let alone transform - our lives into something meaningful, joyful, and peaceful. We need support.

A different kind of church

Several years ago I was invited to come to Chicago to work with a small, new church that was experimenting with a new way of experiencing and living out their “religion.” Jacob’s Well Church seeks to be a new kind of spiritual community. One that welcomes and explores questions and doubts - seeing them as pathways to new discovery and authentic faith - rather than as the enemy of true faith. They are a community that seeks to study the Bible with diligence and discernment, realizing that it is often confusing, needs to be understood in its historical context, and that great care needs to be taken in determining how its teaching applies to our lives today.

It’s not a big church, and it’s not for everybody. But I found that it’s been a really good place for me and my family. I have a feeling it would be a great place for a lot of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. It just might be a great place for you … or someone that you know.

by Mark Brouwer, pastor at Jacob's Well Church