Is modern western Christianity too unspiritual?


Do you feel close to God? Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? Have you ever had a meaningful experience of God that has impacted you deeply?

I have to confess I must answer “no” to each of those questions. My faith is much more based on facts and ideas and knowledge.

But everyone is different. Some Christians do have spiritual experiences and encounters with God that change their lives, while others don’t.

Our experience of God, or lack of it, are important factors in our faith. And in how others perceive us. Let’s explore this idea a little.

Spiritual experiences & spiritual practices

God’s deep love

The tragic deaths of several family members, a history of abuse, violence and drugs, and time in prison, left Lisa “full of guilt, anger, pain, sorrow and frustration ….. broken and empty”. A chance meeting with a Christian woman led to her seek prayer for her past. The effect was dramatic.

“God set my heart on fire and his love, patience, kindness, grace and mercy poured into my life repairing all the damage that fear, guilt and being chained to my past behaviour had caused.”

Conversations with God

Anna experienced God through clear instructions, visions and the gift of healing. This led to her meeting and following Jesus despite not intending to. Later, disappointment with God, life and marriage has led her to move away from Christian faith.

Her life is now full of uncertainty and maybes: “Maybe there is something divine out there, drawing me ever closer”. But, she says: “I still speak to God. God still speaks to me.”

Waves of bliss

Tony was meditating one day when he experienced “‘waves of Bliss'”‘ coming over me. They were really intense and felt like it was coming from outside of me and I remember a voice, repeating ‘All is One’, ‘All is One’ being repeated over and over again. I remember feeling a sense of oneness with everything and things seemed clear, and absolutely beautiful.”

Tony’s account makes no mention of God or religious belief. He reports the experience was positive but apparently it only happened once: “It was a very meaningful experience, very liberating and beautiful, I felt inspired, strong, full of life and in awe and I miss it.”


Annika says “sometimes when things get rough, I just like to disconnect from everything and meditate. I meditate as a form to connect with the universe and also as a form to put my intentions out there, so it knows what I want and what I don’t want in life.”

Again, there is no mention of God or religious belief, nor of a blissful experience. Her meditation seems more of a practical habit, but nevertheless life-enhancing. She reports that via meditation “I’ve received things that I have been wanting, like more clarity in life and a better relationship with a loved one. I’ve also found joy in simple things in life again.”


Are all these experiences genuine contact with the divine? Or can they be explained psychologically?

If they are merely psychological, then it certainly isn’t abnormal psychology. Such experiences are too widespread, happen to people right across the psychological spectrum, and tend to have positive results in peoples lives.

But if they are genuine, they present a problem for religious believers at the same time as reinforcing their faith in the divine. For these experiences don’t seem to conform to any particular religious dogma.

Who has these experiences?

As these reports show, you don’t have to be religious to have these experiences or use some spiritual practices. Most world religions emphasise spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation and worship, and some adherents have deep spiritual experiences. But many non-religious also practice prayer or meditation and some have overwhelming spiritual experiences.

It turns out that a sizable proportion (anywhere from about 5% to 30%) of people in many countries (mostly in the western world) identify as “spiritual but not religious” or similar. Some believe in a God or higher power, some don’t. Many feel disenchanted with religion in general or the church in particular, and prefer the freedom of spirituality to the constraint of dogma.

Religion and spirituality

The focus of most religions is a set of beliefs and practices which a whole community assents to and practices together. Spirituality on the other hand is more individual and experiential, and generally focuses on a sense of personal peace and purpose.

Religious believers of course can be both religious and spiritual, but many are not.

Christianity has a long history of spiritual practices, or example:

  • the Desert fathers, the Monastics and mystics like Lady Julian of Norwich,
  • practices such as fasting, silence, meditation, ritual and liturgy, Bible memorisation, asceticism and simplicity, as well as prayer, Bible reading and worship,
  • the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit, and emphasised by the Pentecostals.

However it seems that today, many Protestant churches have taken a “safer” path of services built around doctrinal teaching controlled by the clergy. Somehow the Holy Spirit, individual spiritual disciplines, the use of spiritual gifts and personal experience too often take a back seat.

In praise of diversity

Christians have many different experiences of, and perspectives on, their faith.

For some, faith is intellectual, in their heads; they love to discuss doctrine and learn about the original Greek. But for others faith is very experiential, in their hearts; they feel God close to them and love to worship him.

Some love ritual and a sense of awe about God that can be found in big cathedrals, while others much prefer to meet in small friendship groups.

Some just attend church out of habit, not expecting much, but nevertheless thinking it is better they be there.

The sad thing is ….

Sadly, we too often separate into denominations of “our kind of people”. All the doctrinal Christians get together in churches which emphasise preaching, and their worship can be sterile and perfunctory. Meanwhile the worshipers meet in a charismatic church, experience the Holy Spirit, but the teaching is often problematic.

We need each other! Paul’s analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12) teaches us that.

I am very much a “head” sort of Christian. I rarely have any sense of God’s presence and “worship” is generally not meaningful to me. yet when I spent 6 years in a full-on Pentecostal church I learnt more than anywhere else, although I sometimes felt quite uncomfortable. But feeling uncomfortable shouldn’t stop us from observing, fellowshipping with and learning from Christians who are different to us.

In the end, it is the Holy Spirit who guides, empowers and equips us. If we don’t explicitly call on him for these things, our lives and our churches may be unremarkable and ineffective.

So our churches could benefit from incorporating spiritual practices and openness to the Spirit into services and groups. Singing, prayer, silence, reflection are not just preliminaries to the sermon, but possibly the most important part of the church service. After all, knowledge, even Bible knowledge, is of limited value if it remains theory and divorced from the Spirit of God.

And if we did this in our churches, individual Christians would have a model to take into our own lives and relate to God more deeply and call on the Spirit more earnestly.

Do we want to relate to our culture?

So many people in western post-christian cultures are “done” with church and religion. There are many reasons for this, but for some, it is because the church offers too little for their spirits. Yet many still seek spirituality in their lives and still respect Jesus.

If churches and individual christians honestly developed a more meaningful spirituality, we would have so much more to offer the “spiritual but not religious”, and would likely reduce the numbers leaving the church.

Instead of our faith seeming harsh and condemnatory (as it does to so many), God would be seen as more loving, welcoming and satisfying.

Instead of Christians appearing arrogant and having all the answers, we’d be humbler, pointing to the God who is beyond our understanding.

Instead of sometimes seeming to not care for this world because we believe we’re heading somewhere else, we’d be more in touch with the world, each other and ourselves, and the God who made us all.

I believe modern western Christianity is definitely too unspiritual!

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  1. ‘Spirituality’ seems both ill-defined and random.

    If there was a sure method of achieving it then I think more people would attain it.

    I suppose it means ‘oneness with God’ ? Perhaps, how would you define it ?

    It seems to happen to a small number of people through different processes and apparently indicates you are either lucky or not !

  2. I decided not to try to define spirituality because it can have different meanings and aspects. Christian spirituality via prayer, meditation, fasting, etc, is, I think, different in content and style to non-religious spirituality via yoga, meditation, self examination, etc. Both are practices or disciplines, and both are different to the sort of overwhelming experiences that some religious and non-religious people experience. So I decided to not define but give examples and let that suffice.

    I think some Christian spirituality could be described as “oneness with God”, though perhaps closeness to God would encompass Christian experience better. Secular spirituality might be better described as self awareness, inner peace and oneness with the universe.

    It does seem as if the overwhelming experiences are random (as far as we can tell – maybe God has a plan). But the spiritual practices and disciplines are available to all.

  3. I did dabble with meditation at one time. On one occasion J experienced an inflow o f some sort of energy from an unknown source. My practise was unstructured and usually produced no discernible result.

    Are you aware of any good texts on the subject ? Do you practise meditation yourself ?

  4. That is interesting. What led you to “dabble with meditation”? Did you do it for very long?

    How do you understand your “inflow of some sort of energy”? Did it have much of an impact on you?

    I don’t have any texts to recommend to you. Christine Sine provides information and resources on a wide range of christian practices which would include meditation – not sure if that would interest you.

    I don’t practice meditation, but I pray each day which has some similarities psychologically, and I occasionally do a guided reflection, which is a little similar.

  5. Not long enough I’m afraid, but I think it would be good for me if I start again.

    Trouble is that there are a number of techniques and which one is right for an individual is not easy to determine.

    What led me to try it is the desire for more ‘mental energy’, ie ability to concentrate on what I want to do without being distracted by the outside world.

    The inflow of energy is hard to describe. I felt a high degree of emotion of some sort without being able to describe what it was. It wasn’t joy or love or any single emotion, maybe a mixture. I think it made me more sympathetic to others and more relaxed in general.

    The main technique I used was muscle tensioning and relaxation.

  6. That’s really interesting to hear, thanks. Do you think it achieved your goal of more mental energy?

    Did your “inflow of energy” lead you to think you were being blessed by a God, or did you think it was merely a psychological outcome (helpful nevertheless)?

  7. Yes, I believe meditation helps to clear the mind and allows one to focus attention on important matters and reduce negative thoughts.

    As to the ‘energy inflows’, it ‘s hard to come to a conclusion about that.

    It was a strong emotional reaction. I had my eyes closed but felt tears running down my face but I couldn’t explain why. A psychologist may have an answer, but perhaps it was more spiritual. As I said, I think my outlook has improved but it may not have been because of that event.

  8. You are welcome and thanks for the interesting topic.

    I hope I didn’t ‘secularise’ it too much, I’m probably not the audience you are looking for!

  9. You know what they say – any audience is a good audience! 🙂

    Your comments were right on topic. I was saying that sometimes the secular world is more “spiritual” than the Christian world, and you were sort of demonstrating that. Thanks.

  10. If meditation was a pathway to spirituality, then maybe Buddhist monks are the most spiritual people in the world.

    Have you read anything of their philosophy or practises of meditation that would be of use?

  11. Yes, it depends on the definition of spirituality. If it relates to God, then not the Buddhists, but if it relates to one’s inner self, then definitely the Buddhists.

    I have only read a little about Buddhism, enough to respect the Buddha, but minimal about meditation. My (limited) understanding is that it is commonly based on breathing and is aimed at producing both calmness of mind and being liberated from defilment and craving. I suspect it is thus different from secular meditation, which (I think) focuses a little more on self and purpose. Christian meditation is different again because it has a focus on God or on a scripture.

  12. One final thought is that interpretation of the effects of meditation that you have described depends on one’s preconceived beliefs. Eg if meditation bring on some sort of emotional response, a Buddhist might interpret that as being in contact with one’s ‘inner self’, a Christian may think that they are in contact with God and an atheist may belief its a purely psychological response.

    So does this really get us anywhere if meditation merely reinforces preconceived beliefs?

  13. I have two thoughts there.

    1. I don’t suppose most people meditate with the purpose of changing their minds, but of making progress in what they believe. So what you describe might be expected, and OK.

    2. If there’s a personal God as I believe, meditation provides a space for God to act and communicate, regardless of one’s beliefs. Likewise, if there’s no God, then meditation may reveal that there’s no-one “out there”.

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