The heading of this post is the first perception of my list of nine perceptions of the church from people outside of the church. It comes from the idea that spirituality is seen as being outside of religion and Christianity. If you situate yourself within the church, try for a moment imagining being someone outside of the church who has never been Christianised yet has an appreciation of spirituality.
One person outside of the church that I interviewed articulated a key issue for locating spirituality and religion (Christianity) like this:
…religion is about belief, and spirituality is about qualities, spiritual qualities like love and compassion and generosity… tolerance, forgiveness, those are spiritual qualities. So if, if religious beliefs are the only things we focus on without the development of these qualities, then you get… negative things, you get all kind of fundamentalists pushing of the beliefs which is quite uncompassionate sometimes because they haven’t got those qualities.
Within the church to be Christian is considered to be spiritual, or, more specifically, to have a Christian spirituality. The perception of the people I interviewed outside of the church was contrary to this in-house church view. They think of spirituality as being outside of religion or Christianity, in other words the church is not a spiritual place.
However, many of the ways these people define spirituality actually matches some characteristics of Christian spirituality, such as:
- a response to being in a certain place, which could be having a connection or orientation towards nature
- being in situations where something moves you such as human-made buildings (churches)
- having an inner inclination or intuition towards love and peace
- having an interest in self discovery and development.
For example, another beyond church person explained how he has changed over the past five to ten years because his spirituality has made him:
…more at peace with myself, more becoming at peace with myself, and that I think is through the… Buddhist connection, through the… enjoyment I get out of going to the temple.
It would not be unusual to hear a Christian person describe a similar experience of peace to that of this person’s, but replacing “Buddhist connection” with “Christian connection”, and “temple” with “church”.
Spirituality and personal experience
Spirituality, as defined by the people I interviewed:
- often relied on some kind of inexplicable personal experience
- it aided positive transformation in life
- it enhanced human interaction, and
- it was a help in personal crisis.
For example, another person talked of an experience as a young person, and what she now connects to her spirituality:
I think I could have been suicidal at that age, except that I instinctively knew to turn to nature, that nature is healing… my [Buddhism] teacher says… that you should go into nature and that will… help us with our suffering… and I just instinctively knew that.
What are spiritual qualities?
Spiritual qualities were explained by the people I interviewed outside the church as:
Whereas religion, church and Christianity were seen as having a focus on belief rather than spiritual qualities.
Christian belief not a spiritual quality?
This focus on belief was seen as a negative uncompassionate fundamentalist pushing of beliefs.
There was evidence that some of the people I interviewed constructed their sense of spirituality around what they knew about at the time of their first experience or realisation of something spiritual, so if they had known about a positive Christian spirituality at their initial time of discovery they may have used the church to explore their spirituality.
The church is not a spiritual place
Even though people might think that spirituality is outside of religion and Christianity, there appear to be many similarities between how these people define spirituality and Christian spirituality, such as the values of love, compassion and generosity, which both the people I interviewed and Christianity embrace.
However, the people I interviewed have not been exposed to positive examples of Christian spirituality in any significant way that allowed them to see value or reason in the uniquely Christian elements, such as the ideal of social, physical and spiritual transformation occurring because of the existence of the church in society (in the Bible this is what Jesus refers to as the present and future outworking of the “kingdom of God“).
For this perception (that the church is not a spiritual place) to be challenged or changed, the people I interviewed and others like them, will need to have positive exposure to Christian spirituality. The onus of this is on people like me.
How’s your imagining going?
If you are an in-house church person, can you imagine people outside the church, who have never been part of the church, who have an appreciation of spiritual things, seeing the church as not being a spiritual place? Can you imagine that? Does imagining this cause any feelings of empathy, or something else?
Image: This is me at Lantau Island, in Hong Kong, taken by Antics Ngai, 2011.