Spiritual But Not Religious

Series: Now Is The Time

 “Spiritual But Not Religious”

 Message @ Jericho Ridge Community Church – Sunday, January 29, 2012

Text: Acts 17:16-34 // Series: “Now Is the Time”


This past summer during my sabbatical, I enrolled in a course with a friend at Carey College in Vancouver entitled “Vital Spirituality”.  The course was taught by Dianna Butler Bass, who’s new book releases on February 14 and is entitled “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening”.  The book is part sociology, part prophetic critique of the institutional church, and part apologetics for a post-Christian era.  Her basic thesis is that every major organized religious group in North America is declining in numbers, with the exception of those who are growing through immigration.  As an Episcopalian herself, she asserts that the mainline end of the theological spectrum is experiencing what sociologists now call “Liberal drain” This is where a person decides that they are no longer part of an organized denominational expression of the church but they still believe in God so what are they?  Well, sociologists and ethnographers now say that these people are “Spiritual But Not Religious”.  And the acronym SBNR is popping up all over the place- if we hadn’t scrapped the long-form census, it might be a category.  The closest Statistics Canada gets to it is something called “Has Religious Affiliations But Does Not attend Religious Services” (personally, I think SBNR is a bit more accurate and frankly easier to say).  So, there is much, much hand-wringing in the Evangelical world over the SRNR’s…  Some of it is because “Spiritual” smacks of “spiritualism”, an internally derived religious experience, and so, rightly so, there is nervousness about how this is defined and lived out.  I want you to watch with me a clip from a recent Oprah show.  Oh, you thought she was off the air – you were soooo wrong!  She has an interview show on Sunday mornings called “Super Soul Sunday” where she converses with people of various faith perspectives on topics of spirituality and culture.  Watch this interview which is entitled “Can you Spiritual But Not Religious?” [VIDEO]


So the question I have is this: “How do you respond to a person who says I am spiritual but not religious?”  Do we have any anchor points in the Scripture and in Christian tradition that can guide us into this conversation where we might come to perhaps some different conclusions than Rev. Ed Bacon did when that was aired in Dec?  The answer is ‘yes, we do’ and we find them in the book of Acts, chapter 17.   


This January and February we are continuing in our series entitled “Now is the Time” which is a study of the second half of the book of Acts.  And we’re looking specifically at the conversational encounters or story telling opportunities and strategies that one of the sharpest philosophical and literary minds of the first century, the Apostle Paul, had as he embarked on a mission to see the life-changing message of Jesus take root and grow in the early years of the Christian movement.  One of the things I love so much about this series is the parallel that exists between what we see in this part of Acts and our own culture here in BC and suburban Vancouver at the dawn of 2012.  For example, at this time in history, pluralism or a belief that all roads lead to heaven, is the dominant spiritual architecture.  There is this powerful and personal fusion of individual belief, state religious observances, regional deistic practices, pagan idolatry syncretism and all kinds of weird stuff that would make Oprah blush!  But friends, pluralism will most likely be the dominant conversation and the spiritual operating system of the 21st Century just like it was in the first few centuries. So in that sense, the latter part of the book of Acts should not be unfamiliar territory for us.  Remember, one of our goals in this series is to help equip you with the skills and confidence necessary to have conversations around issues of belief with a wonderful diversity of people. 


And we see just that with Paul.  We left him last week in the city of Philippi, in Acts 16, just released from jail and answering that powerful question “what must I do to be saved?”.  After sharing the gospel, Paul and Silas travel on from Philippi through Apollonia to the synagogue, the organized religious expression for Jewish people and God-fearing Greeks in Thessalonica.  That doesn’t go so well and he is run out of town.  So then it’s on to a town called Berea whose people were noble people and who the text says (17:11) searched the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul was teaching was true.  And here’s the interesting thing to me…  Paul here is talking to people who are familiar with this white board (the religious one).  They are conversant with religious texts such as the Old Testament.  Their language, methodology, their source of authority, all of that is here. 


BUT, in Acts 17:16, Paul is displaced into a new city, the city of Athens, and he encounters a whole new crew – a city of people who are spiritual but not religious, in the traditional sense of the word.  They are much more conversant with this board over here.  With words like experience, connection, nature, transcendence, awe, wonder, prayer and others.  And so he begins to wander the city, while he is waiting for his travelling companions.  We pick up his story in Acts 17:16-17.      


So let’s pause it here for a moment.  There’s a lot to take away from these two introductory verses.  First of all, we notice that Paul is upset.  He is distressed.  He is deeply troubled.  Why?  He’s looking around him and seeing spirituality everywhere in the city, but he is upset because people are missing the very reason for which they have been created: a vitalized and personal connection with the living God.  They are chasing after every other kind of spiritual experience imaginable and Paul recognizing that the consequences of unbelief matter, is stirred and moved to action.  When was the last time you or I was deeply distressed knowing that someone around us was walking away from God?  Some of us have gotten a little bit too used to apathy and it ceases to trouble us anymore that people in Langley & Surrey rush around after everything but God.  I am asking God to stir our hearts again collectively in 2012, to stir my heart to action. 


But notice carefully what kind of action Paul takes.  Notice the absence of thundering accusations or volatile public guilt-heaping.  Notice where Paul directs his emotion.  It’s not towards shouting at people or political projects of protests.  The text says he spent his time reasoning with people.  Which means there was proclamation with room for discussion and dialogue.  It’s very Socratic of Paul, actually, which makes sense because this is the city of Socrates so of course he is going to use that method to reach and converse with people there!  Look also at where Paul spends his time.  He begins, as he has a custom and habit of doing, in the synagogue, but he is also daily in the public square.  His behavior and presentation of the gospel is constrained by wisdom and respect but he is active in building bridges outside the religious institution, a theme which we will see again later on.  Paul doesn’t hang out with only religious people because they might be more receptive to his message.  He actively engages in public discourse like at Starbucks with people.  And event eventually, these conversations begin to widen Paul’s circle of interaction until he is involved in some significant intellectual repartee in Acts 17:18-21 [Two slides].


Here again we see the picture of a city, a people enamoured with spiritual conversations.  And the two groups that Paul gets into dialogue with represent prominent world-views that existed not only in their day, but in our time as well.  The Epicureans were a group believed that God was distant, uninvolved in the universe as we know it and was therefore irrelevant.  They believed, then, in quasi-morality and a kind of golden rule.  But they were best known for their pursuit of pleasure because in the end, their worldview led them to believe that if God is absent, it’s about living my best life now and nothing more.  The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheistic.  They believed in God as a kind of world-soul that called them to be in harmony with nature.  They believed in rational thinking and individual determinism as the highest form of self-expression. Stoic spirituality can be heard in the lines of the poem Invictus which showed up in the recent movie of the same name.  The original poem by W. E. Henley reads “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”

So Paul begins to debate respectfully with these two opposing worldviews and presents Jesus and the resurrection and they say “we are not sure about this”.  So they take him off to the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, as it was known, to share his story.  It was the autonomous highest court in the area and it was the place that made decisions around issues of religion, spirituality and morality.  As you listen to Paul’s speech here, I want you to ask yourself what transferrable principles you could take away from his presentation so that your own conversations with spiritual but not religious people could be more effective and holistic.  I’ll be reading from 17:24-34.


This speech is a masterful piece of conversation.  Paul begins his critique with a statement of fact – that he people of Athens are highly superstitious or very spiritual.  You are into a lot of religious stuff, Paul says.  So much so, that they have put up a statue to an Unknown God, to cover their bases, just in case they forgot someone.  You see, just like many cultures of the world today, the Athenians were deeply interested in placating the gods.  And their way of doing this was to put up statues or altars so that just in case that particular god got angry and came on a rampage to their city, the god would see the altar and say “oh, they must worship me here.”  Well, I guess I’ll just leave them alone.  Can you imagine the fear that you would live in day to day not knowing if you were on the right track spiritually?  Having to invest inordinate amounts of time and money “just in case”?  It’s a daunting project but again, Paul doesn’t yell at them, he sees this as a jumping off point for further dialogue about who God is.  So we have two existing idea clusters, “Religion is..” and “Spirituality is…”.  Let’s introduce a third one into the conversation: “God Is…”

  • The all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth (17:24)

This is a wonderful point of contact for dialogue with people of divisive religious backgrounds. I can remember going over to our neighbours who are in their own words, non-practicing Sikhs, for a Sikh house blessing ceremony.  So I covered by head because their holy book was present, and I sat down on the floor and began to talk with my neighbours uncles who were all farmers.  And we began to talk about ecology and farming and soon the conversation turned to why we would care for the environment.  And we spent a good length of time talking around places of agreement that since God had created the world, He wants us to care for it.  And it was a fertile conversation because we shared that aspect of our worldview with each other and built bridges of trust and conversation. 

Paul goes on to state that God is…

  • The provider of everything we need (17:25)

Athenians rushed around providing things for these gods, building temples and altars and brining offerings and Paul asks them “if god is really God, then does He really need all this stuff from you?”

Paul invites them to consider that God’s purpose in creating the world and all of humanity is that He is

  • Interested in us searching for and finding Him (17:27)

The word he uses here is as if there’s a little bit of light in a room filled with darkness and we’re groping around, trying to find something solid and of substance to cling to.  The Scriptures remind us often that God’s desire is for you and me and everyone to search for and to find Him, “though He is not far from any one of us”, Paul says.  Perhaps that’s where you are at here today.  You are on a spiritual journey of exploration and investigation, wondering if this whole Jesus and God thing is smoke and mirrors or it there is something you can cling to here.  I challenge you to talk to people you know, come see Pastor Keith or I after we conclude here today.  Stop groping around aimlessly – we would love to pray with you and you can leave here with a sense of assurance and certainly as you begin a new phase of your relationship with God. 


Now, if you have been following along in Acts, you may notice that Paul likes to quote things a lot.  Most often he is in a Jewish context, so he is quoting the Old Testament.  But here, Paul shifts gears and quotes something completely different.  There’s two quotes, actually, embedded in these verses.  The first one is by a Cretian poet Epimenidies, which references Zeus “Thou aren’t not dead, thou livest and abides forever; For in thee we live and move and have our being”.  And the second quote is the 5th line of the Paul’s fellow Cilician Aratus who’s poem says “all ways are full of Zeus and all meeting-laces of men; the sea and the harbours are full of him.  I every direction we all have to do with Zeus; for we are also his offspring.” (from Phainomena).  So the question we need to ask is what is Paul doing here?  Is he agreeing with theses dudes that Zeus of Greek mythology as God?  Not quite.  Paul is continuing to argue his theology of general revelation here, that God is…

  • Actively sustaining all of creation (17:28)

And by using their own poets and language and arguments that they can understand and already agree with, he is again seeking to build bridges.  This, I think, is highly instructive for religious people in particular as they learn to talk with people who are spiritual but NOT religious.  If you language architecture from this list, you may completely miss where you friends are at.  And so Paul takes the challenge of contextualization seriously.  He understands the culture in which God has called him to work.  He’s read the stuff his listeners are reading.  If Paul was alive today, he would be watching Oprah and reading Elkhart Toile and the Koran and the Dali Lama.  Because he would read it with discernment and with a view to seeking to understand the worldview of his listeners.  He does this with discernment, obviously, because contextualization should never degenerate into syncretism or relevance simply for the sake of being relevant.  But Paul understands you can agree with certain elements of culture and even other religions without compromising the gospel.  I love the way F.F. Bruce, a mid-20th century scholar says it.  “We may quote appropriate words from a well-known writer or speaker without committing ourselves to their total context or background of thought” (First Century Faith, IVP, 1977, page 45).  Stop being afraid – contextualization is not a capitulation to the lowest common denominator, it’s just good missiology.  I wish that evangelicals could stop the hand wringing and get on with the business of building bridges to people who are seeking after God!  Alright, I could go on forever here but you get the idea…  


Paul continues in verse 29, that since this is true, that God sustains us, there is a dual response that is called for.  The first part is recognition of God’s incredible mercy.  Paul reminds his listeners that God is…

  • Tolerant and Patient (17:30)

Remember, he is speaking to a group who is gripped with fear and living day by day with the idea that God is out to zap them for their evil deeds.  Paul says “you know, God has put up with a lot, but now He is deeply interested in repentance.  Turning away from evil and towards Him.  And there is a deeply compelling reason:  because not only is God the creator of the world, not only is the sustainer of all things, not only is He tolerant and patient, but God has also expended incredible personal cost to redeem the world from judgement by sending his own son Jesus, the man He appointed, verse 31 says, to die and to be raised from the dead.  Paul places as the lynchpin of his argument, the power of God.  “You want proof of these amazing claims?” Paul says.  IN Jesus, God’s eternal purpose finds fulfillment.  In Jesus, God demonstrates His love for the world.  In Jesus, God provides the answer for meaning if life, for having a clear conscience, for victory over weakness and death.  In Jesus, God displays and meets our need for peace, joy and love.  In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrates His power to save all who come to Him.  But Jesus is not just a moral example for us; He is also the second person of the trinity, the very Son of Almighty God who will one day come to judge the living and the dead.  And when He does this, God is…

  • Just in His judgement (17:31)

This answers the question of why it is insufficient or truncated to be spiritual but not religious, or even spiritual and religious.  Because ultimately, those aren’t the questions that God is asking when he comes to judge the world.  How I treated the planet doesn’t’ get me into heaven.  How I was tolerant towards others of diverse backgrounds isn’t the ultimate measure of my eternal destiny.  God back to Paul’s answer last week to the jailer’s simple question: “what must I do to be saved?” “If you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” says Romans.  The team is going to come, and we’re going to move into a time of response through worship in song.  The songs which Dustin and the team will lead us in move though the same themes that Acts 17 does…  And so as such, they are instructive for us when we are 

When Talking with SBNR People…

  1. Begin where they are at, not where you want them to be
  2. Cultural relevance is not capitulation to idolatry  
  3. Explore and celebrate common ground as you work to build bridges
  4. Be prepared for a wide variety of responses


You may want to add a few of your own observations and summary statements to this list so I’m going to flip up a new piece of paper over on the ‘religion is..’ whiteboard for you to write up your thoughts and ideas but the challenge is clear: dialogue with spiritual but not religious people requires a flexibility and reliance on the Holy Spirit that is deeper than a canned presentation.  And it’s not easy, as evidence by the response. 


One of the songs the team is going to sing invites us very clearly to “give my life to you” and perhaps today you want to do that either for the first time or as a point of re-affirmation.  The prayer team and I will be at the back as we sing and so I’d invite you to come and we’d be happy to dialogue with you.  Also, if you have something you want to celebrate or a person you know who is spiritual but not religious (which is likely all of us) that you want to pray for together with a trusted friend, I invite you to come.  Let’s pray together…    


How do you talk with people who are spiritual but not religious? How much contextualization is too much and what kind of responses should we expect? Join the conversation as Pastor Brad explores Paul's speech in Athens in Acts 17.

Speaker: Brad Sumner

January 29, 2012
Acts 17:16-34

Brad Sumner

Lead Pastor

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