Religion and church get a bum rap. They have become dirty words, something socially acceptable to talk down.
Exhibit A: Let’s look at the meme to the right. It came across my FaceBook, shared and “liked” many times by others.
In the top line, note how “religion” and “church” are obstacles. They stand in the way of you doing what you really want to be doing (fishing) instead of being in church. The message is clear:
Fishing is fun, but religion and church are BORING.
Just go fishing. You’ll connect with God there, and have a lot more fun. What you need is relationship, not religion or church, or so the picture would have us believe.
Like most deceptive memes, there’s just enough truth here to sugarcoat the underlying falsehood. So let’s start with the truth in the meme. Many people – myself included – do connect with God through nature. While I don’t fish, I love to hike with my camera at the ready. No bird, rock, tree or flower can escape my 30x zoom lens. Like the Psalmist, I regularly see the hand of God in what the LORD has created:
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftmanship” (Psalm 19:1).
When walking with my camera, I am drawn to think about God. I talk to the LORD, and often I sense God’s presence in return, a sense of peace, of God’s love, of companionship with the divine. So far, so good.
Where the meme loses me and I start to say – “Now, wait just a minute here!” – is the false dichotomy, as if you can choose either a relationship with God fueled by nature or religion/church. Truth be known, we need not choose between the two. Both hold many comforts for the disciple of Christ.
Let’s start with the word “religion.” Contrary to the negative connotation given by the meme and by the title of Christian rapper Jefferson Bethke’s well-intentioned but half-truthish viral video, the word “religion” as used in Scripture is positive. Two prominent uses are found in 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27. There, the instruction by Paul and James is not to jettison religion but to live out a form of religion that is genuine and caring. How can this be done? Both agree that how we treat others – the members of our family, the widows, the orphans – is to model positive and genuine religion. Interestingly, the word “religion” in both passages is understood socially. The true and honorable practice of religion means confirming the value of our professed relationship with God by treating those around us with love and concern. Though he doesn’t use the term “religion,” John ratifies this sentiment:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20, NIV).
Beyond the Scriptural understanding of religion is one more philosophical. The second definition of “religion” in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “a system of religious beliefs or practices.” The words “belief” and “practice” are in the same constellation as the term “worldview.” Religion is the God-shaped “glasses” through which a believer views reality. C.S. Lewis once remarked: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To infer that religion is somehow opposed to relationship is like saying we should never use our eyes so that we can develop a keener sense of hearing. Religion (symbolized by the eye) helps us interpret reality God’s way. Relationship (symbolized by the ear) gives us a sense of meaning as we talk with God and develop intimacy with our Creator. Just like we function better with both eyes and ears – when it comes to God – we need both religion and relationship.
A second word in the first part of the meme that is given a negative spin is “church.” I’d be the first to admit that there are plenty of churches that aren’t worthy of the title. Ingrown, judgmental, legalistic, these clusters of Christians give churches in general a bad name. Prison chaplain Lennie Spitale laments that many who find Christ and grow in their faith inside prison fall away once released. Though they try to go to church on the outside, too many Christians leave the impression that they have their act together. The ex-prisoner feels awkward and uncomfortable, often reconnecting instead with former friends with whom they fall back into destructive habits and patterns (Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out [B & H Publishing, 2002, Kindle edition], 28).
But I learned a lesson about potatoes that applies to churches. As a teen, my boss at the supermarket asked me to sort through a shopping cart filled with 10 lb. bags of potatoes. The bags were smelling ripe, so I ripped them open and dumped the potatoes out on the table. Usually, out of 20 or 25 good-sized potatoes, it was only 1 or 2 that were rotten. These I threw away, while the rest got bagged up for re-sale. So it is with churches. Some Christians in churches seem rotten, so much that we’d like to throw them away like I did with those putrid potatoes. But most believers are just fine, imperfect people like you and me who – by God’s grace – are coming to look more and more like Jesus. Will we throw away the whole bag of potatoes for the sake of a few smelly ones?
Church is not just an option for the believer. It’s a necessity. The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to keep coming together for worship and mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:25). Likewise, John Wesley (1703-91) identified 5 crucial “means of grace” that help us grow in our faith. These are prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and “Christian conference.” By “Christian conference” he meant every way that believers come together. This involves weekly worship on Sundays but also includes being part of a small group where we can take care of each others’ needs, pray for each other, laugh together and – when necessary – warn a brother or sister when we see something creeping into their lives that risks drawing them away from God.
The community of faith has been so positive, so life-giving and joyful for me across the years that it’s rare for my mind to wander during worship to somewhere else I’d rather be. Instead, on the occasional Sunday morning when job duties and airline travel schedules keep me away from church, my mind often wanders there, with questions like:
-I wonder what songs they’re singing?
-I hope the pastor’s sermon series continues well today.
-Do you think that Joe’s job search we’ve been praying for has turned anything up?
-Today’s the day that the Smith’s baby gets baptized. They must be excited!
Relationship, religion, church – what powerful words! I’m glad that when it comes to us and God, we need not choose between them. They each have their place in our Christian vocabulary. By the strength of our example, energized by the Holy Spirit, let us make each of these words attractive and winsome in the eyes of our culture.
Image credit (potatoes): thekitchencousins.com