Something’s Missing #1

The setting was a restaurant in downtown Chicago, and I was having dinner with a childhood friend.  We were 22 years old, and had both recently graduated from college.  We spent most of the evening reminiscing, laughing at the funny moments that had shaped us up to this moment.

At some point the conversation turned to the future, and we began to imagine together what might lie ahead.  That is when the topic of faith and religion came up.  Though we had both been raised in religious homes, we had rarely talked about it throughout the years.  Church attendance had always been expected of us, but that never translated into a deep embrace of religion for either of us. Now, for the first time, we were exploring what role faith and religion might play in our post college years.

I shared first.  Though faith was not a central facet of my identity at the time, it was not something I was running from either.  I told my friend that when it came to faith in my post college years, I was going to search for a middle of the road expression.  On one hand I felt comfortable with the idea of spirituality, and wanted to maintain a connection to that dimension.  On the other hand, I was turned off by what I perceived to be religious fanatics, and I certainly didn’t want my life to resemble theirs.  So I would search for a happy medium.  I would strive to recognize and celebrate the reality of God, and then hope to live morally enough to avoid the condemnation I had heard so much about growing up.

My friend shared next, and he had a very different perspective than mine.  He had always been the more practical one, and his thinking on faith reflected his pragmatic nature.  His concerns had far less to do with doctrine, beliefs, or which religious affiliation was the right one.  Instead, he focused on the quality of life he was searching for.

One of the phrases he loved and used often was what he called “the pursuit of being fully alive.”  I think this was one of the reasons I liked him so much.  He consistently pushed the limits of life, looking for one adrenaline blast after another.  Whether it was sneaking out of our homes in the middle of the night, cutting classes at school, or asking out the most sought after girl in class, he was always ready for a risk if an adventure was possibly waiting on the other side.

But until that moment, I had never heard him express how he integrated that desire for adventure with his religious upbringing.  It became quite obvious that in his mind they didn’t and couldn’t integrate.

He neatly summarized his worldview when he said, “I want to be someone that is fully alive.  I want to taste and drink all that life has in store for me.  That is why I have neither the time nor the desire for faith or religion.”

His last statement was what surprised me the most.  “Neither the time nor the desire for faith or religion?  How can you say that?  You have grown up around it.  That is all you have ever known.  Shouldn’t that play some role in how you are going to live?”  I wasn’t completely sure if it was him I was asking for or me.

He replied, “I don’t know.  It’s not that I hate religion or church.  It just feels like something is missing. Religion is all about do’s and don’ts.  It concentrates on conforming and restricting behaviors.  It’s about keeping your nose clean.  I’m sure that all works great for some people.  But I want to be fully alive.  And I fear that religion will end up killing my spirit.”


That conversation ended up being a watershed moment for my spiritual development.  Though I had not yet used the words for the internal struggle that he was using now, I had to admit that I had some of the same concerns.  Though I believed in God, it seemed that those who followed him did not have an experience that could be described as being “fully alive.”  If someone was looking for an experience of adventure, intrigue, meaning, and freedom, I wasn’t confident they would find it in the institution of church.

My friend and I ended up going in completely opposite directions.  The thoughts he shared with me would be the same ones that would guide his path from that point forward.  To this day he still moves from one experience to the next, looking for the elusive feeling of being “fully alive.” He still stays away from anything that seems like organized religion. I on the other hand, took a very different path.  I realized there was no middle ground that was going to be acceptable to me, and that I had to be all in or all out.

Here is the reason why I share this anecdote.  This conversation with my friend is the first that I vividly remember that brought together a convergence of different factors: he grew up in church, he believed in God, he longed for a life of meaning and purpose, yet he didn’t want anything to do with organized religion in his adult life.

I have had hundreds of conversations with people like my friend since.

Here is what eventually became clear to me.  In our day and age, the people who are most antagonistic towards Christianity (or ‘organized religion’ in general) are not the ones who have no exposure.  It is the ones who have been exposed to it in either an incomplete or even fractured form.  I don’t sense the same type of antagonism when I interact with people who were unchurched growing up.  They have questions about God, and maybe don’t share my beliefs, but they are not nearly as frustrated or antagonistic.

However, take someone that grew up in a church going family whose lives don’t match their beliefs, and that changes.  Or takes someone that grew up around a church that was, well… fill in the blank (hypocritical, legalistic, judgmental, power hungry, abusive, obsessed with money, etc.), and you are going to find someone that is usually antagonistic towards Christianity and/or organized religion.

This is the first broad population of people that has influenced the way I think about the pursuit of faith and an understanding of authentic Christianity.  It is the large group of men and women who grew up around church, yet walked away feeling something was missing.

That leads to the question(s) I would like to interact with you about.  Do you see this?  Do you know of people who grew up around church and still believe in God, or are spiritual, but no longer want anything to do with organized religion?  (Or maybe that is even your experience?)

What is it that was missing in those churches?  What needed to be different?  And perhaps most importantly, what is it that they/you are now looking for?

7 responses to “Something’s Missing #1”

  1. Daniel,
    In my experience, personally, and interacting with “people in the church” who would call themselves believers, there is a lot of apathy IF; those people have not taken a personal active role in their own spiritual maturity ie:Real apprenticeship with Jesus.
    Being part of a church for all of my life I can understand a lack of enthusiasm with just continually going to church and participating in the next program or initiative,IF one is not continuing to be a disciple.
    Daniel, I have been involved in church working for a church for decades, and organized religion, worship, or other church activities are only satisfying and fulfilling if they are an expression of the Spirit of God in me. Otherwise religious activity is pointless and therefore uninspiring.
    When a person realizes the need for forgiveness and gets introduced to the God of the Universe as their Heavenly Father, IF that beginning of a relationship never developes into a passion to become intimately involved with God and ultimately to take on the image of Christ, why bother with Church or religion?
    Yeah I am not surprised at all with dispassionate people who have always been a part of “church” losing interest in religion. That being said I would be so bold as to question whether or not those people have the relationship with God that they believe they have. I think there are a lot of church attenders who are “faithful” attenders and even givers and participants in the church initiatives who might just be shocked when God says “Who are you ? I’m not sure you and I really know each other.”

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I’ve read your piece on “Something’s Missing #1,” and wanted to share with you that I am one of those people who is currently pressing her way THROUGH “organized religion.” I am an ordained minister, running an outreach ministry, ministering to a people who have been wounded terribly by the church, and as a woman in ministry, deal with my own woundings daily inflicted upon me by what we have come to know as “church.” While I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, the direction of how I minister has been majorly impacted by my feelings for organized religion.

    When I see Jesus, I see God ministering to the disenfranchised in a very loving manner, with a level of patience and inclusiveness that “organized religion” does not exhibit. I see a freedom in Jesus’ ministry that breathes life into ones mind, body AND spirit that the church of “organized religion” does not seem to do, nor desire to do. I see in Jesus a ministry that POWERFULLY exhibits, “different is NOT deficient” and the church of “organized religion” does not seem to understand how to embrace such a philosophy.

    What is missing, in my opinion is “Jesus.” Not the Jesus of our own self-righteousness, but the “Jesus” of Nazareth, that said that we had to come as a child and that the last would be first.

    I could talk for hours on this subject, the pain, the journey towards forgiveness and my ultimate freedom from the shackles of “organized religion.” I do still show up in a church from time to time, I do still preach and teach within the church walls, however, I am not limited to just operating and serving within those walls. I understand “myself” as “being” the church, and that there really is a “priesthood” of ALL believers, not just a select few. Part of my ministry is to train those believers and facilitate their “becoming” in Jesus’ name.

    Praising God for your ministry, your growth as you continue to seek!

    Living life “fully” alive,
    Mind Body & Spirit,

    1. Angela, thanks for recording your thoughts. I really like your quote, “When I see Jesus, I see God ministering to the disenfranchised in a very loving manner, with a level of patience and inclusiveness that “organized religion” does not exhibit. I see a freedom in Jesus’ ministry that breathes life into ones mind, body AND spirit…”

  3. While growing up, I had only peripheral experiences with a mainline church. After college, I decided to investigate this “faith” thing further. A year and a half later, I had a very profound prayer experience, which launched me on my walk with Jesus.

    In the 12 years since then, I’ve learned that I can’t just “do church.” No amount of attending on Sunday, Bible study group, or volunteering is enough. I got to a point that it felt empty and just a list of things I had to do. One day, I shared this with a friend and she prayed with me. During the prayer, a phrase came to mind “let it go”, as if God was saying: if you want Me to move, if you want to experience Me, then you need to let go and let Me work. That prayer session was followed up by a very tangible answer to prayer that very much wasn’t in my control. I was quite moved by the experience – being reminded of how I can count on God – and I think it was a turning point for me in my faith journey.

    After that I started to listen more. I started more of an on-going conversation with God – asking Him questions, going to Him with my struggles and my fears, inviting Him into my life and listening (worth saying twice!). As I’ve done this, the church services, Bible studies and volunteering have seemed to be super-charged.
    I’ve stepped out in faith more. I’ve taken on more leadership. I’ve seen God do cool stuff in me and others. And it seems like an adventure: slightly scary, but really fun, lots to do, new things to see & experience and cool people to go on the journey with.

    Thanks for the post. This was actually really cool topic to stop and think about a bit – and very encouraging to remember how God has moved!

    1. Thank you for the reply Kimberly. I think you articulate well the difference between the ‘organization’ of church and the adventure of a relationship with God

  4. […] 1: Spiritual but not religious.  You can read my description of this group here.  I am in this conversation often, and I usually like to interject a twist into the conversation. […]

  5. How can you be fully alive without faith or religion? You’re fully asleep, not fully alive.

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