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Recently a Quora participant posted this question: "What is the difference between spirituality, religion, and church? I have heard people say they are all the same (almost like a three in one) and others say they are very different ideas."
This is an excellent and important question.
As with many semantic concerns, there is both the "popular sense" and "popular usage" of terms, and there is the formal, technical, scholarly treatment of the same question.
It is my view that neither the popular nor the scholarly should be considered superior to the other. Both have their place and importance. I believe that there should arise an ever closer and broader common ground between scholarly rigors and popular grasp and usage.
The question you ask is especially important in our current time because a great many people have interest in and seriousness toward the spiritual dimensions of life (both personally and communally), but have come to have serious misgivings about what they perceive or understand to be "religion," and "church." Heard constantly "I'm spiritual, but I am not religious." If pressed, the average person who describes him or herself so often is incapable of explaining this declaration any further, but it becomes clear that the core impulse in the declaration is that "religion" is bad, but "spirituality" is good.
Personally I have found that the best tradition (from among the world religions) to help us look into this question is Buddhism, (even though all the major world religions have some version of the same thing). Buddhism seems most simple and clear on those what comprises balanced support for human, spiritual needs.
There is what is called in Buddhism the "Triple Gem," or "Triple Jewel." This beautiful image refers to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Rough translations for these terms are: Buddha, the highest, most perfect, most delightful, without beginning or end, a sweet destiny for us all and for all. The Dharma is the Truth, and the Sangha is the community of humble , surrendered aspirants. Every religion has something comparable, some version of these. In Christianity for example, these could be compared to Lord Jesus in the divine trinity (Buddha), Scripture (Dharma), and "the church" - not the building, its preacher, and the little crowd of folks I hang out with on Sundays, but "the church" as the family of believers who, like me, live, breathe, and have our being in Lord Jesus (Sangha).
Spiritual paths and communities of believers begin with what most "religions" recognize as the the divine breaking into human affairs; somehow the infinite and unbound manages to enter human affairs (limited though they are), a paradox (of the highest order). The person who serves as "the point of contact," the "manifestation" of the divine (like the Buddha or Jesus for example) introduces three things: 1. an accurate account of reality (the "truth"), 2. A 'spiritual path" (namely the steps you can take to liberate and realize yourself), and 3. An "example ("In me you can see your real potential").
In time (especially since these special people all "die" sooner or later) these things they brought for our benefit become institutionalized. This institutionalization becomes what is called a "religion." The beauty and wonderful fact that the gifts of Jesus, Lao Tzu, or Moses become institutionalized is that those millions or billions who weren't so lucky to be around and meet and listen to them can still have the benefits of what these people brought. Just because you are born 4500 years too late to meet Siddhartha Gautama, 20,000 miles away, why should you be punished? You didn't do anything wrong.
How is the beauty and infinite love of Lord Buddha or Lord Jesus preserved so that anyone anywhere anytime can be blessed by their gift? It is preserved through a religion. Remember religion is these three things: the Buddha (Jesus for example), the Dharma (the Bible for example), and the Sangha (the church for example).
But is there a problem with such institutionalization? Yes. Tragically yes. This is why so many religions are so hated by so many (often legitimately). Greed, selfishness, abuse of power, sloth, arrogance, complacency, and so many horrible, human habits can contaminate and defile a religion. This sin is great. We're not talking about a messy McDonalds, or a crooked real estate company. We are talking about contaminating and defacing the infinite compassionate one, the legacy of Jesus, the Buddha, or the many saints and founders who came to liberate us and open our way to decency.
Spirituality is a path, a process, a regimen designed to make you truly and enduringly better. Religions are the institutions that arise to make the rare moments of complete divine presence available to everyone, everywhere, and in all times. Church is the Christian Sanha (those who have surrendered their lives to the loving direction of the living, risen Lord Jesus).