“Well, I would consider myself spiritual but not religious.” When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who said something like that? Many of us who have been part of the Canadian church for a while have probably at least thought almost the same thing at some point…I know that I have. While the language that is used may feel familiar, and could actually be a great starting point for conversation, it is important for us to listen carefully to the meaning they attach to that phrase and not make too many assumptions. The rising trend of people who indicate “no religion” or “no religious affiliation” in Canada is catching the attention of the media. This discussion can remind those of us who are followers of Jesus to take a step back and reflect on what is happening. How well do we understand the hopes, dreams and personal beliefs of people around us who self-identify as spiritual but not religious?

Who are the religious nones? We don’t know a great deal about this group, in terms of what their response to survey or polling questions means relative to their life experience. Are they actually a group or does this represent many different perspectives and experiences? Are some devout Christians who do not feel inspired by the idea of religion as a system of rules or an institution responding this way on surveys? This may be true for some Christians, but it does not seem to be a large group. Social scientists who have tried to sort out the “no religion” response relative to other indicators of belief, including church participation, do not identify those who are most faithful in Christian practices as significant contributors to this trend. Immigration is a huge factor for population growth in Canada, however in Philip Connor’s book Immigrant Faith he notes that while 17% of Canadian immigrants indicate that they have no religious affiliation, 25% of non-immigrants in Canada have no religious affiliation. The large growth in religious nones seems to be coming from individuals and their families who shift to being affiliated only marginally to a congregation or faith tradition and those who are on the margins eventually dropping significant connections to a religious identity. For some there may have been a conflict or disagreement that causes them to create distance in their relationship to the church, but for those who have listened very intentionally to religious nones, it seems that there is a growing bias towards selecting from a buffet of spiritual identity rather than identifying with a “group” that provides specific direction for belief and practice. 

What then shall we do? Two options to consider: listen carefully and be willing to engage in conversation. For some of us who have been deeply embedded in church circles, this can be like a cross-cultural experience. We have to listen carefully and take cues from the people around us. If we are respectful, we may be able to shift the assumptions in the conversation. This can generate curiosity when we do not fall into the stereotypes our conversation partners may have. We have many examples of conversations where Jesus engaged fully with people who had very different visions of spirituality. Teaching of the early church emphasized authentic faith, gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:9-17) which should contribute to good conversation.

It is in this space that we need to encourage people who start new ministries or churches to engage in their local community. What is needed is “Research & Development” to explore how the gospel can be helpful in exploring what it means to be spiritual but not religious. We are in a season of learning. We need to be involved in the local community to develop healthy relationships and listen carefully to learn from the people around us.