Lisa and I bore fruitless until late in life,
Wondering were we physically broken
Or spiritually barren?
A pastor, son, and grandson of pastors,
I felt I was losing faith.

In prayer one day, as luck would have it,
I heard the voice of God,
As clear as crystal and large as Imax,
“I am real,” he convicted,
“You don’t understand.”

When she announced her expectations
Most were fearful
I was speechless;
What further pain?

Nine months later, he was born.
We named him Jon, the greatest man,
I always thought, for though anointed,
He always pointed, to David,
His rival and best friend.

When he’s your only
Child and future, how it pains,
His rants and raves, his rejection
Of priestly line to leave his home
And live on streets.

He grows his hair,
Like Beatles or Marley,
Eats naught but natural,
And wears organic.
At least he doesn’t do drugs.

Was it our God he forsook
To rail against the government?
Or rather does he pave the way
For deeper spirituality,
More intimate theology?

Our greater fears have given birth,
He finds himself imprisoned
By those he tried to help.
In Horrid’s dungeon words he shouts,
Forgoes that shush to save his life.

If he ignores the powers that be,
I fear he may lose his head.


Fifteen years ago, I was dining alone in New York City when I overheard a Christian woman ask a friend for dating advice. She had met two men on eHarmony. One said he goes to church and the other said he was “spiritual but not religious.” I thought his line was clever.

Clever turns of phrase thrill me. I collect them the way my sister-in-law collects stamps: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog (Mark Twain), and, The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder (G. K. Chesterton). I pasted Spiritual but Not Religious into my scrapbook.

I had thought that eHarmony guy was ingenious, but I found he was just quoting a book title published in 2000, Spiritual but Not Religious. Since then, I’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times. It even has its own hashtag, #SBNR, or its sibling, “spiritual but not affiliated,” #SBNA.

Both acronyms express our modern-day frustration with “organized religion.” Too many believers have suffered from churches more interested filing pews than caring for the people in those pews, or from plans that focus on programs over pastoring.

I’m sympathetic with my “spiritual but not religious” friends, but I wonder (Chesterton would be proud) if we’re being duped by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

A New Way of Thinking

I have friends who worked in large automotive companies whose cumbersome administration stifled their creativity. I worked for a smaller company, but it’s bureaucracy still bugged me. I feel bad for the victims of impersonal processing of any organization, religious or corporate.

But my biggest life problems have nothing to do with the bureaucratic nonsense I’ve suffered. Our biggest problems come from deceitful beliefs. I collect clever phrases because they structure new ways of thinking:

  • I read Augustine’s, Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. I have hope amidst my restlessness because a true rest is possible.
  • In a sermon on the Wedding at Cana, Tim Keller concludes, Jesus went through life sipping the cup of sorrow so that we can go through life sipping the cup of future joys. I see that picture and I feel worship and delight.
  • My friend Gary Barkalow once wroteWe have been set apart, not set aside. All past rejections from organizations (corporate or religious) evaporate like morning mist. God is in charge; he laughs at puny human attempts to marginalize his children.

But notice what these clever turns of phrase do to me: they “organize” my thoughts. When we reject the officious structures of religious institutions, we discard the most toothless of tigers.

The Only Organization that Really Can Harm

Look at the sneaky belief beneath “spiritual but not religious.” Those words are organized religion in themselves, a thought-structure of the vilest duplicity. Their pithiness shapes our thoughts, organizing our hearts to believe we can do Christianity alone.

They say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

Religious structures will be with us until Christ returns. For some reason, God chooses to work through imperfect people. But it’s not the committee meetings that will harm us. It’s the cultural creep of secular thinking whose wit appears as an angel of light.

Our submission to “spiritual but not religious” is the ultimate submission to organized religion: religious thoughts shaped by the secular world bent on dismembering the body of Christ. The only way we can love our neighbor in the pew is through a spiritual change which moves us to sit down next to them.

When minds are molded by a nonspiritual world, perhaps the hashtag should read, #RBNS:

Religious but Not Spiritual.


P. S. True spirituality reveals itself in relationships. It begins with a relationship with God. And he moves is inwardly–in our spirits–to love those we wouldn’t naturally love. It begins with knowing a Being who wants intimacy and communication with you.

To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (Is that all there is?), and read, Hearing God in Conversation.

Last summer I met with a pastor who serves a church near a large campus. As the university grew in prestige, it attracted thousands of international students, many of whom had little exposure to Christianity. So the church began to reach out to them with language classes, tutoring, and members who “adopt” students into their homes.

The church also changed their Sunday morning worship service. They threw out anything that doesn’t support outreach. Their Vision Statement reads: Each and every element of our Sunday worship service must revolve around the ultimate purpose of the Church: which is mission. Nothing in their worship service is sacred:

  • Worship songs
  • Prayers of Confession and Assurance
  • Sermon topics
  • Whether to use a Call to Worship, Apostles’ Creed, or a Benediction

I think they are wrong. Mission is part of our purpose, but the ultimate purpose of the Church is worship. And our passion for service is our biggest barrier to unadulterated worship.

Jonathan Edwards said, “It is true that by doing great things, something is worshipped, but it is not God.” When we turn our hearts from worship to deeds, we forge the idol of mission.

Deeds and Misdeeds

The history of faith is the battle of idols. The first of Ten Commandments prohibited idols, and it is the most repeated command in all of Scripture. If it needed to be repeated hundreds of times for millions of believers, should we expect ourselves to be immune?

Old Testament idols were obvious because they were physical images adopted from the surrounding culture. By the time we get to the New Testament, Israel has completely rejected Baals and Ashtaroth. Instead, they worshiped their own deeds. But these are still idols.

  • Many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And I will declare to them, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:22-23)
  • Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you are done, you make them twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves. (Matt. 23:15)

We are called to deeds (faith without works is dead), but mission itself is not the ultimate mission of the church. Worship is. Anything else is idolatry, just as it was for the Pharisees.

The “Why” of the Father’s Pruning

We worship whatever most brings us life, be it career, family, or service. That’s why the Father prunes branches which bear fruit: we too easily gaze down our branches and declare, “What glorious leaves and what magnificent grapes.” Pruning sets our sights back on the vine for life.

Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” It is the ultimate invitation from God: a connection and interpenetration with him of heart, mind, soul, and life. It is intimate theology.

The cattle on a thousand hills belong to God; he doesn’t need our sacrifice, yet he invites us to worship. Likewise, he doesn’t need our service, yet he invites us into partnership with him, to be co-laborers with him in worship and mission.

In the counterintuitive alchemy of spiritual life, if we aim for fruit we get barrenness, and if we aim for intimate worship, our very lives become the crushed grapes and broken bread which nourish the world.


P. S. There is a purpose in God’s salvation, for us to worship; but that involves a real relationship with God. We don’t worship a being who is distant but one who is close, who wants intimacy, who wants communication with you.

To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (What are we saved for?), and please consider buying, Hearing God in Conversation.