Why spiritual people avoid church

This article was originally published in the Church Times.

I often give talks to people sociologists refer to as “nones” or “spiritual but not religious”. We meet at summer festivals or evening groups. And the reaction to a mention of “Christianity” or “Jesus” is striking. It’s as if I’d released a toxin. People spontaneously react as if in self-defence.

I’ve conclude that, for many, Christianity has ceased to stand for life in all its fulness and, instead, stands for subtle forms of manipulation. It’s a simplification but there’s nonetheless truth in the sense that evangelicals mostly want to convert you, and liberals mostly want you to worry about civil society and injustice with them.

These goals are of course, in part, good. You are certainly a sinner and you almost certainly possess far too much. But what’s gone missing is wider vision. The concerns are thoroughly this-worldly, focused on either numerical growth or material redistribution, and they have become ends in themselves. What Jesus meant when he said his kingdom is not of this world, and is to be found within, is largely forgotten. In short, the church lacks radical alternatives and spiritual depth.

It’s an intuition backed up by research. In Exit Interviews, a book recording the stories of people who leave church, William Hendricks reports on disillusionment with formal Christianity. He finds that it’s not because modern people don’t want to belong, as is often suggested, but is because belonging comes to feel like dumbing down. The early promise of a pathway to transformative spiritual perception morphs into churchy preoccupations and/or manic overwork.

Many of the initiatives currently promoted by the church give the game away, too. They purportedly seek to nurture spiritual lives but they’re shaped by the anxiety about the church’s steady decline. Prayer events are really prods to talk to others about Jesus. New monastic initiatives often become schools in mission. From the outside, they convey the sense that the church has “palpable designs” on you, to quote T.S. Eliot. It wants to cajole not cherish.

An air of bad faith gathers, and the toxicity of barely concealed institutional panic and pressure. This is the subliminal message that people pick up. No matter how brilliant a personal experience of the church might be, from a glorious sung evensong to a touching funeral service, the worried soul of the institution speaks longer and louder.

A way of examining the problem is to think about it in terms of spiritual growth. In recent times, a relatively settled description of the path people might follow has emerged.

There’s, first, an early period during which the developmental journey is focused mostly on the outer world. God is experienced as an external authority; belonging is mediated by sharing in a church’s set of rituals, beliefs and social activities; discipleship is stressed and has to do with commitment and productivity, judged in terms of service and mission.

But in order to continue to grow, there must follow a transitional stage. Commonly known as the “dark night of the soul”, it’s when all the external certainties shake and shudder. It is an often devastating experience, and necessarily provokes crises of faith.

However, in time, it can come to be reinterpreted as a process of inner transformation. The authority that was relocated without comes to be found within, and a new sense of the divine beds down. The faith that forms is more robust and more flexible than before, partly because cognitive convictions have given way to a felt awareness. Growth ceases to be about productivity and is, now, known as depth.

Such models cast light on the church’s current predicament since they also show that churches tend to get stuck in the external phase. How could it be otherwise for the Church of England when, until only a few years ago, it enjoyed a seemingly unshakeable this-worldly future and is now fighting for its voice and place? And there are two key upshots.

First, individuals who come to church and have passed through the transition phase stop experiencing church-going as nurturing. The social project or overhead projector no longer feel “spiritual enough” and even as if they are distractions from further growth. Preoccupations with the authority of the Bible or the preservation of the tradition become stultifying.

Secondly, individuals who do not come to church, though might, indirectly sense the lack, too. They live in a world in which, nowadays, there are many alternative sources of developed spiritual insight. They can hear Buddhist teachers who have undergone extensive trainings and psychologically-informed public intellectuals. The nones tacitly conclude the church doesn’t have much to offer their expanding inner lives and they are right. They become spiritual but not religious.

I suspect that this impasse will not change fast. But the model of spiritual growth suggests a way forward. The church must regain its wisdom on inner life. Personally, I’ve found tremendous resources in psychotherapy, a practice of sustained silence, and spiritual direction. And it must also bear, not resist, the troubling experience of its own spiritual transition. As Jesus also taught, and he meant it: it’s through death that we find new life.