Sharing Your Faith with Someone Who is “Spiritual But Not Religious”

This post may get me in trouble with a few folks. Well, so be it.

I make no apologies for my conviction that mysticism — at least, Christian mysticism — is meant to be a communal experience. For Christians, the spiritual life consists not only in loving God, but also in loving our neighbors as ourselves (and we even are instructed to love our enemies). The pagan philosopher Plotinus described mysticism as “the flight of the alone to the Alone” — which makes sense to Christians insofar as Jesus describing prayer as retreating to your inner room where you pray in secret.

But that’s not the entire story. For Christians, prayer also happens in community, for Jesus said “where two or three are gathered, I am there.”

Indeed, the community of faith is called the Body of Christ (and in more traditional language, the Mystical Body of Christ). Given that the Body of Christ encompasses the community of Christians (‘little-Christs’), responding to the love of God that eternally flows between the three persons of the Trinity, it’s obvious that for Christians the heart is mysticism is not only or merely the flight of the alone to the Alone, it is also (and I would say primarily) the flight of the community to the Trinity.

But we live in an age where more and more people are suspicious of religion, suspicious of the church, suspicious of any kind of religious organization or institution. “I’m spiritual but not religious” is the motto for our time.

How do we, as Christians — even contemplative Christians — relate to those who say “no thank you” to faith-in-community? How do invite them to consider that community just might be an essential ingredient in a truly blossoming spiritual life?

This is the question that Jacob Popčak recently posed to me as part of a seven minute interview for his morning radio show, The Son Rise Morning Show which airs in Cincinnati and is syndicated nationally as well.  Jacob had read my blog post Why Mystics Love the Church and thought it was interesting that many S.B.N.R. folks might be allergic to Catholicism but still feel drawn to the mystics. That certainly has been my experience. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me they love The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, except for chapter 9 — which is the chapter where I make the case that Christian mysticism belongs in community.

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I know many contemplatively-minded Christians (Catholic or otherwise) tend to resist talking about evangelization, simply because we’ve all been so frustrated by heavy-handed attempts to “witness for Jesus” that we tend to stay as far away from that kind of religious behavior as possible. So when I talk about evangelization aimed at S.B.N.R. folks, maybe that will rub a few loyal readers of this blog the wrong way. But I invite you to consider this: it is human nature to joyfully share with people we love what is meaningful to us, whether it’s a new book or movie we enjoy, values that matter to us, or an experience that has made a difference in our lives.

With this in mind, I think there is a legitimate place for sharing our faith with others — as long as we do it respectfully, without manipulation or pressure, and always in the context of a caring friendship or relationship. This is what I think gives evangelization such a bad name: it devolves into “Christian marketing” and like any other kind of sales pitch, in the hands of some it turns into a pressure tactic. No wonder so many thoughtful and caring Christians are so biased against it!

So when I talk about evangelization in this interview (or in any context), I am not advocating for a sales-pitch approach to sharing one’s faith. But on the other hand, I think to avoid the sales-pitch, we do not have to simply be evangelization-averse. I think there is a sweet spot in the middle, where we can be honest about how our faith gives us joy, without either pressuring our unchurched friends or avoiding the topic altogether.

Incidentally, if you are interested in this larger question of the role that Christian mysticism plays in evangelization, a Methodist theologian named Elaine Heath wrote a very interesting book called The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. It’s a wonderful book with some very interesting ideas about how to approach sharing our faith with others, in the light of the wisdom of the mystics.


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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.