Losing My Religion
I’ve been reading reJesus by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost recently. I’d highly recommend it, but I wanted to throw out something they highlight and discuss it a bit. It’s summed up well in this quotation from Anglican missiologist John V. Taylor, “We need not go all the way with Karl Barth in defining all religion as unbelief. But…it is plain that man uses religion as a way of escaping from God. This is true of Christianity as of any other religious system.” To help with this discussion, religion here is defined as “a set of inherited rituals, rules, and structures devoid of a vital spirituality.” Or as they simply put it…Christianity minus Christ equals religion. (You may disagree with this definition of rreligion, but I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced rituals and traditions formed around faith that end up remaining after most of the faith is gone. So it at least works to define it this way for this discussion.)
I have never thought about religion as something that would become a barrier between people and God, but as I’ve been reflecting on this it makes a lot of sense. It’s not an intentional barrier, quite the opposite in fact. Those who have found genuine faith through a transforming encounter with Jesus want others to experience the same thing. They also want to set up ways of relating to others who have had the same transforming experience and committed to the same kind of life. So they begin to organize their life together and create ways for those who have not begun to follow Christ to be exposed to him. Over time, however, the structures established to assist the community life of a people of faith and the witness of those people to Jesus become ingrained as things that are important in and of themselves not for what they accomplish. When this happens people begin to relate to those structures rather than Christ. For instance…
- For how many people does being a Christian equal going to church? We may say we don’t believe that to be true, but we, collectively, are communicating to culture that it is the truth. We even invite people to go to church. This isn’t bad of course, but it can set up an encounter for the person with our church rather than with the living God. How are they supposed to know that what we want isn’t just for them to attend where we attend and participate in what we participate? People are converted to the church without ever realizing the call of Jesus is to more than attendance.
- What does it mean to be a disciple? In many churches it is the completion of a discipleship program, usually consisting almost entirely of growth in knowledge. These discipleship programs were developed to assist people in their growth, but they become religion and people confuse a curriculum with Jesus. All people have to do is some reading, they don’t have to come face to face with the call of their Savior.
- What about telling people to tithe? What begins as a call to be generous turns into an optional membership fee. People can give without thinking or asking God what they should give and be convinced that they are living Christianly. Interestingly most of the New Testament evidence for giving is of radical generosity (the woman who puts all she has into the treasury, Jesus’ call for the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, the people in the young church who sold their land and gave the money to their new family–the community of Christ followers). A tithe can allow people to fulfill a religious duty without relating to the Holy Spirit.
We tend to like religion because it is controllable, predictable, and measurable. We can control the content of a Sunday morning or what goes into a curriculum, we cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit. Religion is just safer. But it is not better. The greatest thing people who follow Jesus can do is seek to connect others to Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is this encounter that will change them. It is this encounter that will continue to change us.