I want you to think with me about three words – sometimes they are used interchangeably, but there are distinctions, I believe.
The words are: Spiritual. Religious. Christian.
Now, all three can be used to describe a person who is a Bible-believing Christ-follower. But, there are spiritual people who are not even religious, in other words, they don’t have a formal faith practice. There are different types of spirits – not all of them good. There are religious people who don’t know God or even claim to follow a god. In Mark 7:13, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of the day and charged them with “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do. (NKJV)”
I believe that the Bible teaches that religion can be an enemy of Christianity. The life and ministry of Jesus can tell us plenty about that.
I wanted to mention those distinctions as I address a recent Gallup survey. According to the organization’s website:
Nearly half of Americans (47%) describe themselves as religious, another 33% say they are spiritual but not religious, and 2% volunteer they are “both.” Although the vast majority of U.S. adults have one of these orientations toward the nonphysical world, the 18% who say they are neither religious nor spiritual is twice the proportion Gallup measured when it first asked this question in 1999. Over the same period, the percentage identifying as religious has declined by seven percentage points.
Just an aside: earlier Gallup data indicates in 2022, less than half of respondents to a survey said that religion was “very important” to them. Also, in 2022, 21% indicated that they had “no religion.” 34% described themselves as Protestant, 11% as “non-specific” Christian, and 23% were self-described Catholics.
And, 70% had not attended a church or synagogue in the seven days prior to the survey.
Back to the recent survey: the summary report states:
Americans of all age groups are less likely today to say they are religious than people in the same age groups did in 1999, with declines ranging from five to 13 percentage points.
All age groups also show increases in the percentages saying they are neither religious nor spiritual. Larger proportions of Americans in older age groups identify as spiritual today than did so in 1999, while there has been little change in spiritual identification among those younger than 50.
The summary of the recent Gallup survey about religiosity or spirituality contained this conclusion:
It is well-established that Americans are less religious than in the past. Still, the vast majority of Americans describe themselves as being either religious or spiritual. Some people who were formerly religious may have found nonreligious forms of spirituality to address their nonphysical needs, while others may have turned away from any type of spiritual or religious practice entirely. Being nonreligious and nonspiritual is most common among young adults; however, only about one in four young adults describe themselves this way. This suggests that in the future a diminished but still large majority of U.S. adults will have some religious or spiritual connection in their lives.
While that may be true based on the data, it’s important to draw the distinction between those three words: spiritual, religious, and Christian. Spirituality without the gospel cannot save you. Neither can religion. A Christian, a true Christ-follower, certainly has a spiritual life, because we have been born again by the spirit of God. We are called and empowered by the Spirit. There are, however, all sorts of spirituality out there – and because there are a variety of spirits that are out there, spirituality can be a poor counterfeit for a relationship with God.
It has been said that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. When you speak in terms of “world religions,” certainly Christianity is named among them. When we speak of “religious freedom,” or “freedom of religion” under the Constitution, that certainly includes the practice of Christianity. To be religious, though, is not necessarily to be Christian. The so-called “religious” leaders of Jesus’ day were certainly not His followers; in fact, their hearts were hardened against them.
It is certainly permissible for Christians to consider themselves “religious,” but we recognize that our passion and our practice come from our devotion to our Savior. It is personal: Jesus died for me – and He’s alive today. The word, “religion,” would also be an apt description of a number of philosophies and practices today – secular humanism is certainly a “religion,” so is cultural Marxism. Godless movements have set up idols that drive their devotion. We have to be so careful that we are not participating in idolatry to put something, anything, anyone above the service to and love for our God.