My own take on all this is that you can’t really have the one without the other.
You hear a lot these days about people being less than happy with religion. They say that they are spiritual, not religious, or that they want more Jesus, less religion. Novelist Anne Rice drew a lot of attention a couple of weeks ago by saying that she was quitting Christianity, but still believes in Christ. Her lament, if you consider it closely, is against people who use religion as a means of hurting or oppressing others, which doesn’t match up with the ideals of Jesus. For more on Rice, see also Brian McLaren’s thoughtful response.
While Rice is perhaps reacting to the recent controversies in Roman Catholicism, there are others who come from the Protestant evangelical world who are likewise so frustrated with what sometimes passes for Christianity that even they no longer want to be called Christians. Author and podcaster Nick Fielder is one such person.
I don’t think most people really want to be “one of those religious nuts.” When you pair away those who grab the headlines with some alarming stunt or statement, or the inevitable super-achiever at church (which even yours truly admits to being at times), there are a vast number of people who are dedicated to taking their faith and quietly finding some way to articulate it, share it, and have it hold them up. They want to tap into the way others have practiced religion for years, centuries, or millennia.
Although those who reject formalized religion nevertheless seem to yearn for it, they're still having much trouble getting things to gel. In many areas across America, when you find a group of people that call themselves a church, you’ll also find much change and movement. Whether they have lost touch and are losing members, or doing something exciting and gaining members, there’s a struggle to find a sense of settledness about who they are and where they belong—even if that feeling of belonging means being rebellious against convention, the essence of the Christian call.
So it’s no wonder that many people come to the point where they want to say that they believe in God, have strong values, pray, or study the Bible even in a group, but don’t want to be associated with the label “Christian.”
My own take on all this is that you can’t really have the one without the other. You can’t really be spiritual unless you have a little skill at being religious. Likewise, you can’t be very good at religion unless you’re a little spiritual. So the challenge for most of us right now seems to be, simply, how to just do it.