Led By The Spirit: Spiritual And Religious

Romans 8:14-17     Pentecost     June 9, 2019


The Spirit leads us to be baptized into a set of religious practices. 

Through these practices, God creates faith and nurtures and nourishes us in a way of life: of being led by the Spirit.


On survey forms, do you know what is the fastest-growing religious category?  It’s “None.”  No religious affiliation.  Here’s where we are, in the mission field.  The number of people on church membership rolls is shrinking.  At the same time, in our culture, there is an increasing interest in “spirituality.”  more and more people declare themselves to be “Spiritual But Not Religious” – or “SBNR” for short.

Why do more people declare themselves to be “spiritual,” but fewer and fewer people think a church congregation is a community in which they can live the spiritual journey?  (This is especially true among those who are younger than 30 years old.)  Some SBNRs have been hurt in church congregations, and are afraid to be hurt again.  (That’s why we have those sentences in the front of our Sunday morning bulletins.)  More often, than that, though, many people who declare themselves to be “Spiritual But Not Religious” have simply been part of church congregations in which there is not much vibrancy of spirituality!  And so, many SBNR folks think we’re all boring.  Many aren’t even interested in finding out more about us.  That’s why posting something in the Gazette religion page won’t bring SBNR people into a church building.  “Welcome” signs out in front of the building won’t do it either, or signs with worship times posted on them, or signs that say clever things like: “What’s Missing in Ch-rch?  U Are!”  The problem is not that they don’t know where we are.  The problem is that they’re not interested in us!

One researcher, in an important and excellent book titled Belief Without Borders,[1] gives some definition to what our mission opportunity and challenge is.  Linda Mercadante writes that most SBNRs hunger for community that features deep common values and beliefs, responsibility for each other, shared and enduring bonds, and a loyalty to the larger whole rather than just to the self.  Well, that sounds just like what a church congregation should be, right?  But, as Mercadante continues, many SBNRs hunger for community that supports them emotionally, is tolerant and welcoming, and allows for diversity – but many who are “spiritual but not religious” perceive religious communities to be narrow-minded, judgmental, and characterized by group-think and manipulation.[2]

When congregations are shrinking, it’s often because many folks who are members are not tolerant and welcoming, allowing for diversity.  Is that true for our shrinking congregation?

Do newcomers to our shrinking congregation perceive our religious community to be narrow-minded, judgmental, and characterized by group-think and manipulation?  (I like to think that the words on our bulletin cover describe us.  I hope so!)

In fact (to make this as complex as it actually is), are you “Spiritual But Not Religious?”  According to the research, that is true of many folks who are in church pews regularly!  Even for many who are in church pews regularly, the church is an institution that makes and enforces rules.  Even for many who are in church pews regularly, any appeal to “authority” in church means dogmatism, judgmentalism, and exclusion.

So, that’s our mission field, in our culture.  What is the path forward, towards  congregational revitalization, “led by the Spirit,” to use St. Paul’s phrase in this morning’s second reading?

Let me offer definitions of two words – “spirituality,” and “religion” – to help us offer invitations into what we do as a congregation.  First: “Spirituality” means experiencing the movement of God the Holy Spirit.  And: “Religion” is a set of practices that help us become aware of that movement!

The path towards congregational revitalization is to invite others who trust us into this way of life; this set of practices: of being led by the Spirit.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul describes this, in the verses we read from Romans: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry ‘Abba!  Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  That means that everyone and anyone who shows up here is welcome, because she has been led by the Spirit of God.  The Spirit has created her interest!  No one who shows up can be excluded because of his sexuality or gender, for instance, because any inkling of faith, any interest in seeking God, any spirituality is created by God the Holy Spirit.  Who are we to turn away anyone who has been drawn by God?

Do you notice that Paul describes a Spirit-created intimacy with God?  When we cry ‘Abba!  Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.  In other words, we cannot even form the words to cry out to God; we cannot even know anything about who God is, without the Spirit first moving within us to create faith.  And “Abba” is from the Greek term for how Jesus understood his relationship with the Father.  It’s a term of intimacy.  “Abba” translates into “Daddy!”

How can we allow the Spirit to lead us into such intimacy with God?  That’s where religion comes in!  Religion is the set of practices through which God creates faith, the set of practices through which we become alert and aware of God’s presence and movement in day-to-day life.

That is why Daniel Owens this morning, and all others who affirm their baptisms into a set of religious practices hear these questions:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:

            to live among God’s faithful people,

            to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

            to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

            to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

            and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

Daniel (and all of us!) were baptized into this set of practices – worship, and study and prayer and servanthood – not for the sake of these practices themselves, but so the Spirit can form you and me, through them, to live in God’s grace and forgiveness, in salvation, trusting God.  Why?  So that, led by the Spirit, we can respond, for the sake of the world!

What does your response look like?  God the Holy Spirit forms you and me in these counter-cultural Christian practices and virtues: Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Patience.  Kindness.  Generosity.  Gentleness.  Hospitality to strangers.  Inclusion.  Perseverance in prayer.  Self-control.  Compassion.  Humility.  Meekness (which means courageous resistance against the impulse to respond to violence with violence).  Forgiveness.  Thankfulness.  Offering blessings rather than curses.  Sharing in others’ joys and sufferings.  Associating with the lowly.  Loving and feeding your enemies.  Responding to evil with goodness.[3]

Is it easy to live according to these practices as citizens of God’s reign?  No, it isn’t!  (For instance, we had a very interesting conversation this past Tuesday, during “Pub and Grub Theology”: I asked, “When have you been challenged to live by the fruit of the Spirit during conversations with another person you disagree with, politically?”)

Is it even possible to follow the Spirit’s counter-cultural lead on our own?  Don’t we need each other’s’ support, and encouragement, and accountability?

Here is the good news in all of this.  We receive the ability to respond, to be led by the Spirit, by the Spirit, who is working in us before we even know it!  Continually, we stumble and fall.  And so, every time we gather for the practice of worship, we return to our baptisms: confessing because we fall short, receiving forgiveness because God’s love is unending.  Each time we engage in the practice of worship, we receive God’s presence in the bread and wine.  In the practice of worship, the Spirit forms us in God’s Word, in Scripture and preaching.  In the practice of study, the Spirit forms us in God’s Word of compassion and joy!  In the practice of community, the Spirit works through others who are on their own journeys, and who guide us in the life of faith.  As the Spirit motivates us to respond to all of this, through the practice of servanthood, the Spirit forms us in God’s compassion, and we come to practice hospitality and openness and invitation towards those who are different from us.

It’s a life-long journey, isn’t it, in community, led by the Spirit?  It’s spiritual and religious!

In the process, God transforms our lives!

It’s exciting stuff!

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Linda A. Mercadante, Belief Without Borders (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] I wish I could cite the pages where Mercadante writes this, but I forgot to cite it in my notes!

[3] See Galatians 5: 22-23; Romans 12:2, 9-21; Colossians 3:12-17

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!