When I tell other Adventists that I am more spiritual than religious, I sometimes feel like a walking cliché. When I read Lillian Daniel’s article, Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me, this feeling only amplified. But while Daniel complains that people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” only seem to find God in sunsets and mountains, I disagree. To me, being spiritual rather than religious means that my relationship with God is primarily strengthened from things and people outside of traditional religious practices like regular church attendance.
I was born and raised Adventist, so attending church every Sabbath has always been my norm. But I didn’t always know why I practiced this. Church was nothing more than a place to spend time with some of my closest childhood friends. I was the youngest one in my circle of friends, so I was the last to leave for college, and by the time I was a junior in high school, I was alone.
Up until that moment, I believed myself to have a strong spiritual connection to God. But I realized I was defining my Godly relationship according to the strength of my relationship with my church friends. When they all graduated high school and moved out of town, I lost the link that had connected me to God and the church. Without them, I had no incentive to attend church and no real relationship with God, which forced me to question if the church was vital to my spiritual journey. And when I looked around at what was going on within the church, I was unconvinced.
The church was a highly hypocritical institution that preached about things like loving and accepting everyone, giving to those in need, and trusting in God — because this is what Jesus did. Yet I saw and heard groups of women congregating in the back pews gossiping about each other; I saw those with the most to give cling to their wallets and look away; I saw people leave the church angry at God for the plans that he was ruining. At the end of the day, the church succeeded in telling me who Jesus was and who I should be, but failed to follow its own advice. In a room full of people, I had difficulty finding someone genuine, and by the end of my junior year, I still hadn’t found God. But the moment I stepped outside the doors of the church, everything seemed to change.
For my senior year of high school, I went on a student exchange program to the Czech Republic, leaving behind the academy I had attended and moving in with a host family I did not know. At first, I experienced an extreme sense of loneliness. It was in this vulnerability that I began to rebuild my relationship with God.
Desperately craving a familiar friend, I began to read my Bible on a regular basis — something I had never done out of my own free will. I started to pray, especially on days when the homesickness was worst, and I was comforted by the knowledge that I finally had an old friend with me. As the year progressed and I began making friends, I was amazed by the genuine kindness of strangers who welcomed me into their social circles and homes. Regardless of the fact that all my new friends were either agnostic or atheist, their compassion spoke more to me of God’s love than anything else I had seen in church, and my relationship with Christ grew exponentially. Eventually my exchange year came to an end and in 2012 I graduated high school and moved back to the States to start college.
Just weeks after returning home, I moved to northern California to attend the University of California, Davis. While there, I went to church with other Adventists that I met, but being an outsider to a group of people who had grown up together, I was instantly reminded of how exclusive and uninviting churches could be. Because it wasn’t a source of spiritual support and my relationship with God did not seem to benefit, my church attendance became much more sporadic.
After my sophomore year of college, my parents encouraged me to take a year off to travel and experience the complex world that God created. Older, a little bit wiser, and a whole lot more adventurous, I jumped at the opportunity.
As opposed to my time in Europe, this venture was an experience that left no time for loneliness or homesickness, but somehow resulted in the same spiritual growth. As annoyed as Daniel would be, I did find God in the divine beauty of the Balinese mountains and New Zealand sunsets. But, more importantly, I saw Him in the people I met. He was always taking care of me, whether it was through the compassionate bus driver in Colombia who gave me a free ride, or the expat in Vietnam who took care of my meal when I found myself without cash or functioning credit cards, or the fellow travelers who always welcomed another new friend.
After traveling, I returned home and transferred to La Sierra University for reasons unrelated to my rekindled relationship with God, but I still find myself unattached to the church. While I make a conscious effort to grow a healthy relationship with God, I don’t feel the need to attend church on a weekly basis to do so. This is not to say that I expect the church to be perfect, or that I criticize it for its flaws, although I may have done so in the past. To me, being more spiritual than religious simply means that I prefer to spend my time doing things where I actually feel God’s presence as opposed to the things that Adventists say I should. And for me, that just happens to be outside the walls of the church.
Juliette Lee is a senior at La Sierra University majoring in English: Writing, and is pursuing her teaching credentials.
Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Andrei Ghergar
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