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American Congregations in an Era of “Spiritual but not Religious”

“Spirituality” is a word which defines our era. A fascination with spirituality which is often contrasted with “religion” is a striking feature of our times and is presumed to be open to everyone.1

There is no gainsaying that membership and participation in American congregations is on the decline. Sadly, this has been the case particularly among the mainline Christian denominations—Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Catholics etc., since the 1970s. An important contributing factor to this decline, is the increase in the number of persons who consider themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” “none-religious”, or “nones”. These persons, majority of whom are Millennials and the Generation X, hold dubious perceptions of religious institutions and dissociate themselves from organized religion. One-fifth of persons in the of US, and one-third of those aged 30 years and below, according to a Pew Research report, are religiously unaffiliated. A crucial reason for the increase in religious non-affiliation, is the belief that one can be “spiritual but not religious”. This short article interrogates the notion that religious affiliation is of little or no importance to spiritual life. Further, it asserts that religious congregations continue to be very vital for spiritual formation and living. As a starting point, we must problematize the concept of spirituality.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality, as a concept, is neither colorless nor free-standing. It shaped among other things by time, place, space and culture. Defining “spirituality” therefore, raises two important questions. First, whose spirituality is being defined? and second, who is defining it? The first question is about context—cultural, historical, religious and generational. Every culture and every generation profess and practice spirituality in different ways. Nonetheless, the definition of dominant groups and cultures have often gained more prominence over others. Western, particularly Christian, notions and descriptions of spirituality for instance have, for generations, enjoyed pre-eminence and have been imposed on other cultures. The second question speaks to the study of spirituality, particularly, the differences in understanding and perceptions between academic disciplines on one hand, and between academicians and practitioners on the other.

It is fair to say that the current use of “spirituality” in the United States and Europe has heavily been influenced by Graeco- Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Jewish philosophical and theological thought. The first use of the word spiritualitas in Christian writings is traced to a fifth century letter often attributed to Jerome (c. 342-420). The Latin term used here, shares the same meaning as Paul’s use of pneumatikos (Greek) in reference to a life “led by” or “lived by the Spirit”. The “spiritual” person, according to him is one who has a “new birth”, is filled with the Holy Spirit.2 Such a person acts in obedience to the commands of God through the spirit, lives a life of grace by submitting himself or herself to God, and maintains a relationship with God. 3 This person is distinguished from “the natural” or “carnal” one by his or her detachment from worldly pursuits, selflessness and love for others. Monasticism and other forms of ascetic lifestyles were attempts at living out these spiritual precepts.

Western spirituality in large measure, focuses on the rational and psychological aspects of life in contrast to the material and sensual. This is evidenced by scholasticism that dominated many medieval universities in Europe. Scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, William of Ockham and Thomas Aquinas placed much emphasis on dialectical reasoning and rigorous conceptual analysis in general. Starting from about the thirteenth century the meaning of spirituality evolved from the largely philosophical to include sociological and psychological dimensions. Socially, as Waaijman argues, it came to mean the territory of the clergy: “The ecclesiastical against the temporary possessions, the ecclesiastical against the secular authority, the clerical class against the secular class.”4 It also denoted the realms of the inner life: “The purity of motives, affections, intentions, inner dispositions, the psychology of the spiritual life, the analysis of the feelings.”5

Understood this way, spirituality privileges any relationship with the “divine spirit” over what is natural or mundane. Whoever or whatever is spiritual then is not ordinary but “set apart” and holy. This is in contrast with the conception and experience of spirituality in many non-Western and indigenous religious communities. In these cultures, such as among many West African traditional communities, “divine spirit” implies not a single, but multiple spirits. As one renowned African scholar of Religion and Philosophy puts it; “the spiritual world of African peoples is very densely populated with spiritual beings, spirits and the living dead”.6 Within these three categories, he identifies divinities and God’s associates, myriads of spirits and the spirits of those who have died, which he calls the “living dead”. A person’s spirituality or life may be influenced by several of these spirits at the same time.

In African indigenous religions divinities, spirits and ancestors are considered real players in the spiritual cosmos. They influence human life either for good or for evil. Deities and ancestors play a major role in determining what is right or otherwise. The deities are considered the intermediaries between God and humankind and are worshipped in shrines which have their representations, priests and priestesses. These divinities are often localized and serve towns and villages, tribes, lineages, households or even individuals. Some of these, it is believed, control such things as, the earth, streams and tributaries, forests etc.

Spiritual but not Religious?

“Spiritual but not religious”7, as I indicated earlier, has become a cliché, particularly among millennials and scholars who study them. Implicit in this expression is the notion that spirituality and religion are two different things; and a person can choose one or the other. Further, one does not need religion to be spiritual. This flies in the face of the long- standing notion that spirituality is derived through religious belief and practice. The critical question is, what does the expression truly mean to those who claim it? From their rhetoric, they seem to reject the beliefs, practices and institutions of all religions. However, some researches on these issues paint a more complicated picture.

A survey based on the responses of 15.3% of US adults conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, for instance, reveals that the religiously unaffiliated are an assortment of different groups — atheists, agnostics, and those who have no affiliation to any specific religion. Interestingly, however, the report finds out that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. It states:

Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

Additionally, the report points out that many of unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. This may be because majority of them thought religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics. Based on these, one can surmise that the majority of nones are not against religion per se but are disinterested in religious associations and congregations for different reasons. This portends both bad and good news for American religions. Negatively, as the report shows, the decline in membership of America congregations will continue in proportion to the increase in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated. Nonetheless, on the positive side, congregations can attract more interest and even affiliation from nones if they are transformed and in turn creatively transform society. It is essential at this point to state the nature and importance of congregations.

Congregations Matter for Spiritual Life

A congregation as Mark Chaves defines it is “a social institution in which individuals who are not all religious specialists gather in proximity to one another, frequently and at regular scheduled interval, for activities and events with explicitly religious content and purpose, and in which there is continuity over time in the individuals who gather, the location of the gathering and the events at each gathering.”8

Congregations are very important as both religious and social institutions. In America, they are: (a) essential to the religious health the nation for it is in congregations that religious commitment is nurtured,9 and (b) the bedrock of the American religious system.10 You cannot understand religious expression in America without studying congregations; (c) they are vital to the history of this country.11 (d) Local assemblies of denominations are (e) landmarks for communities and neighborhoods and (f) agencies for charity, social transformation. In addition to these features which show mainly the culture of congregations, there are other features which reflect their agency. By “congregational agency” I mean the efforts made through programs and activities to address social injustices, poverty and need, racial/ethnic/sexual prejudices and inequalities etc.

Nancy Ammerman in her study of American congregations, indicates that they (a) build traditions through worship and learning together, (b) build communities through food, fun, fellowship, (c) build networks as partners and producers, (d) extend community through serving the needy and saving souls, (e) do good together through networks of work in the world, and (f) nurture traditions through stories and practices.12 The above indicators affirm that congregations are of great importance in American social and religious life. Among other things, they provide the space and community within which elements of spirituality — doctrine, ethical principles, worship, etc. are learned. It is the crucible within which character is formed and shaped; the community within which compassion, collegiality, collective responsibility built. Congregations therefore continue to be very essential in spiritual formation and living. Thus, may both the affiliated and unaffiliated be convinced that congregations still matter!


1. Phillip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Brief History (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, Publishing Ltd, 2013) 3.

2. See Romans 8: 14 and Galatians 5:25.

3. 1 Corinthians 2: 13–16.

4. Waaijman, Kees. Spirituality, Forms, Foundations, Methods (Leuven; Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2002), 361.

5. Waaijman, 361.

6. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1989), 74.

7. The specific expression was used in one scholarly, anthropological paper back in 1960. Since then, its’ appeared in many sociological researches and writings.

8. Mark Chaves. Congregations in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1.

9. Nancy Ammerman, et. al eds., Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).

10. Stephen Warner, “The Place of the Congregation in the American Religious Configuration” in J.P. Wind and J.W. Lewis eds., American Congregations, Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

11. To tell the history of America, one will have to speak about the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Baptists of Rhode Island, the Anglicans of Virginia, Quakers of Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics of Maryland, Methodists and Disciples of the Frontier, Mormons seeking religious liberty in Utah, newly freed Blacks forming independent denominations and congregations after the Civil War.

12. Nancy Ammerman. Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and their Partners (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

By Rev. Moses Biney
The Rev. Dr. Moses O. Biney is Assistant Professor of Religion and Society, and Research Director for the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion at New York Theological Seminary. He is also the Interim Pastor for Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Biney is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned both the Th. M. and the Ph. D in Social Ethics. He has served on the faculty of the University of Ghana and as an adjunct professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Dr. Biney’s research and teaching interests include the religions of Africa and the African Diaspora, religion and transnationalism, religion and culture, and congregational studies. He is the author of From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaian Immigrants in New York.