The church is not a spiritual place

31 July, 2014 — 9 Comments

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:

  • love
  • compassion
  • generosity
  • tolerance
  • forgiveness.

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.

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  • not a wild hera

    This is fascinating and terrifying, Mike. One of the primary things we church folks believe about ourselves and what we have to offer – that we are ‘spiritual’ – we are not communicating effectively to people beyond church.

    I wonder if many of us think we can only communicate one thing (if we try to communicate anything at all) to people in our circles who aren’t churchy. So we might pick something ‘moral’ like our beliefs on abortion or euthanasia, or we might pick focusing on ‘good works’ like youth groups or food banks, but we don’t choose ‘church helps with the spiritual journey’.

    So much to think about. Thanks for this.

    • Hi Thalia. Yeah, I reckon there’s never been a better time to be able to easily talk about spiritually – this is perhaps one of the gifts of a secularised society.
      I also wonder if perhaps for many Christians, being Christian isn’t actually spirituality for them, which is problematic.

  • Dave

    Hi Mike,
    Great post. However, looking back at your christian/non-christian survey, more non-christians agreed than disagreed that the church was a spiritual place. My perception is that it can be, but is not necessarily a spiritual place. It reminds me of a pew survey I read recently regarding religion and morality; religious people considered religion important for morality and non-religious the converse. I suspect that in the pluralistic cultural melee in which we live, those within the church see it, from their perspective, as a spiritual place, however, those outside see it a one of many possible spiritual places.
    The quote about religion being about belief is quite insightful. I suspect that most non-christians perceive that that is what the church is all about as it seems that it is belief that defines religious groups rather than spiritually; whereas spiritually can transcend all groups.

    • Hi Dave – good spotting with the survey from back in May. This was the one “perception” showing the most difference between the qualitative and quantitative data.

      The belief thing is a problem I think, I liken it to joining a gym, paying the fees, etc, but never actually working out. People outside the church look in and wonder why believe when you don’t actually have to do the things you believe, such as love one another, care for the poor and widows etc…

      When I talk to people outside the church about being a Christian, these days I refer to it as having a Christian spirituality partly because of the emerging normality of spirituality.

  • Loren

    Cmon unchurched, come on in and try it out….. We are spiritual. And it is good ;-)

  • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

    I reckon going to church and concluding its not a spiritual place is like going to the lions club and saying you didn’t see any lions.

    • I like your analogies. This perception, that the church is not a spiritual place, comes from people who haven’t ever been to church! That’s one of the interesting things about the results of my research – people have ideas based on what they think the church is like, not necessarily what they have experienced the church to be like, and this shapes their action – or lack of.

      • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

        Nobody is perfect in love – life is a long hard road. The thing is though that Mary Magdalene was desperate to see Jesus and that is what’s so beautiful about that story. I’m nearly finished reading “Mother of Malawi” the story of Annie Chikhwaza. What an amazing story!

        • I just looked that book up on – it does look an amazing story!