Spiritual, Religious, Media, and Music

Even those of us operating in the ecclesial/liturgical sphere who have little or no interest in demographics have certainly had to note the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon. The statistically remarkable growth of the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies in that category (it’s tripled in the past 25 years) certainly must grab our attention.

As the population of this category grows, so does an awareness of the need for greater and more rigorous study of it. The terms it uses are often slippery or elusive, and early studies relied heavily on self-identification. Some studies have put out largely surface numbers, with little drilling down into various characteristics of the population residing underneath those numbers.

A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is one example of a study that has begun to analyze this demographic a bit more deeply, and analyze its various aspects more thoroughly. The PRRI study was also cited heavily in Commonweal magazine’s “Happy Are the Spiritual” by Paul Moses. He notes that there needs to be further study of the specific Roman Catholic facet of this phenomenon, including the fact that nearly a third of Catholics identify themselves as religious (participating regularly in church and its rituals) but not spiritual (feeling connected to something greater or beyond themselves).

The PRRI study made particular note of the role that media plays in the experiences of the spiritual but not religious group. Significantly higher percentages of people who identify as spiritual will name or describe an experience of inspiration, or being moved by, a book, or television, or film. When music in particular is the focus, the number soars, with roughly 7 in 10 saying they were inspired by listening to a song or piece of music. The Paul Moses article notes the media/music trends as well.

I was thinking of all this when I went to see “Hamilton” for the first time this past weekend. It made me recall some of my friends and colleagues who thought the popularity of the musical was an indication that the society as a whole was ripe for engagement with a cogently-structured narrative propelled along by poetry and music. This, for sure they said, was an avenue for evangelization. While I don’t discount that engagement with the arts (including music) via various media has been and can be an important venue for evangelization, for those of us who work in the liturgical realm, including its music, some caution in proceeding may be wise.

The PRRI study speaks of people being inspired by listening to a song or other piece of music. To put it bluntly (if a bit over-simply), they were inspired while being passive consumers. I don’t deny the ability to engage or participate while passively experiencing music. However, I’m not sure that the claim could be made that those who are readily inspired by passive listening are ready to translate that into their own active and expressive making of music. Anyone with even a cursory acquaintance of the church’s teaching on and vision for music in its rites and faith knows that it includes a healthy portion of active expression. The tension in the passive/active and consuming/expressing diads is not inconsiderable, and must be looked at seriously when pursuing music and the other arts/media as means for evangelization.

The study also seems to suggest that the instances of inspiration occurred via individual, and not corporate, experience. In our surrounding culture, solitary/individual listening is increasingly the norm, as corporate attendance at music events from the concert hall to the sports stadium declines. The rise of individual listening also facilitates the ability to listen only to what gratifies one’s individual tastes. Again, in the realm of liturgical music, even when we have done our best to provide an array of liturgies categorized by musical style, the gratification of multiple individual tastes in order to inspire is likely a futile endeavor.

Another issue that arises, from the consumer side of the music statistic, is that of quality. It is highly unlikely that the inspiration derived from a song or piece of music came from listening to a recording of a volunteer parish cantor, or even of someone with an undergraduate music degree playing Bach on an instrument that only gets tuned (at best) twice a year. We are accustomed to hearing the best, or hearing those who can afford the studio engineering that turns a more meager talent into something that sounds like the best.

The studies still tend not to take matters like “where” and “with whom” into account when compiling their statistics. I have a hunch that “place” also factors in here. The recent upsurge in attendance at Anglican Evensong has been receiving substantial notice, but here again a longer-term and deeper look needs to be taken. Most of the reports focus on Evensong that is occurring in the grand spaces of the Anglican tradition, with choirs that can readily sing the Elizabethan or late twentieth-century music that makes up a substantive part of the Evensong choral repertoire. Though reports will mention that “smaller churches” have also seen an increase in this phenomenon, it would be helpful to have a more quantitative analysis of that term. It would also be interesting to see (as in a video) how many of the resurgent attendees are actually joining in the singing of the hymns and so on, and how visually interesting or appealing the church structures themselves might be.

The combination of passivity, consuming, quality, and place has combined to help the phenomenon of the “destination church” emerge. There are two or three Roman Catholic destinations in Chicago, alongside the Protestant or non-denominational mega-churches we normally associate with this trend.

I know this scrutiny is a bit bleak. But it would be a mistake to think that music is music is music (or that art is art is art) when it comes to evangelization. The surrounding culture makes us eager for the quick and the easy: “Spiritual people like music. We have music at Mass!” To best utilize media and the arts as venues for evangelization, it is best to do so the same way we encounter and appreciate them: with eyes and ears, and minds and hearts, wide open.


  1. Alan, many thanks for calling our attention to the PRRI study, and also for your thoughts and calls for further reflection.

    One little nugget from the study that is a little disconcerting: while about 1/3 (32%) of Catholics self-describe as both religious and spiritual, a virtually equal number (31%) are religious but not spiritual. Just think about that for a moment: while they have some sort of attachment to the church, the attachment apparently has little to no spiritual content. I would love to hear the stories and anecdotes of folks who fall into this category, just to understand their situation.

    I think it is best if we are both religious and spiritual; for me, with my admittedly conventional thinking, this equates to having both a discipleship dimension (the religious) and a personal relationship with the risen Jesus (the spiritual).

    I happen to think the fraying of the bonds of formal attachment to a church or a denomination (i.e. the category of spiritual but not religious) is not good for people, and not good for our society. But this study causes me to reflect as well on the inverse: perhaps there is also a growing crisis of spiritual aridity, presumably besetting those who are religious but not spiritual, or neither religious nor spiritual. I wonder if widespread aridity underlies the dissatisfaction one often hears about liturgical music and other aspects of worship: if it doesn’t inspire (by which I mean: if it doesn’t provide water to quench the thirst of our spiritual aridity), we go away feeling that we weren’t given what we needed.

  2. ” Just think about that for a moment: while they have some sort of attachment to the church, the attachment apparently has little to no spiritual content.”

    Not necessarily. There are people who self-identify that way as a commentary against “spiritual but not religious”.

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