I often describe "spiritual but not religious" as the fastest-growing denomination in the United States. Many people who used to attend a house of worship or were raised in a particular faith are going off on their own, searching for God in sunsets and beaches, in yoga classes, meditation centers, technology apps, discussion groups and even shelters and soup kitchens where they volunteer their time.
This is not a small group. According to a 2009 Newsweek poll, 30 percent of Americans identify as "spiritual but not religious" to some degree. And among the millennial generation -- those in their 20s -- the percentage climbs as high as 70 percent.
Now, some of these folks still identify with the faith into which they were born, and some go to religious services occasionally, but not regularly. Others do not attend any type of religious services. This phrase has different meanings for different people.
Many clergy really wish such folks would quit being loners and develop their spirituality in a worshipping community. They -- like one recent commentator on my radio show, Interfaith Voices -- believe that those who go it alone are basically self-centered. And maybe some are. But I think most of them have simply been turned off by religious institutions, usually by their own houses of worship. And this is certainly true of the droves leaving the Catholic church.
Many find the weekly services boring and the theology rigid. In many places, discussion is not encouraged and dissent is not possible. Polls show, for example, that many young people are turned off when a preacher expresses anti-gay attitudes. Too many houses of worship fail to provide programs that speak to the seekers; they just keep doing what they've always done. They sing the same old hymns, offer tired sermons and provide few activities that might support a contemporary search for meaning.
Add to this the fact that this generation has grown up comfortably with experimentation of all kinds, incorporating a little bit of this and that, exploring the Web constantly for new thoughts and ideas, and you have the perfect recipe for spiritual experimentation.
So the problem -- if there is one -- is not with the seekers, but the leaders of houses of worship. Why not welcome the search, encourage the questions and offer some new theological approaches? And why not invite some of these "spiritual but not religious" folks to join a communal effort that asks: How and where can we find God in the 21st century? Then sunsets and beaches and yoga will be just part of the God picture.
And when it comes to the Catholic church, some of those millennials might just wander back.