I’m not “spiritual.” I don’t think the most important thing in life is my own “relationship with Jesus.” Heck, I’m simply not good enough, smart enough, or wise enough to figure out much of anything on my own. I need the Bible. I need the teachings of the church. I need the wisdom of church fathers. I can’t reinvent the wheel or create my own biblical interpretation.
I’m writing in defense of religion in response to my friend Carl Medearis, who wrote a provocatively titled blog on CNN called “Why evangelicals should stop evangelizing.” To be clear, he isn’t arguing that Christians should stop talking about Jesus. In fact, when it comes to talking about Jesus, Carl has more courage in his little finger than most people will exhibit in a hundred lifetimes (how many Hezbollah leaders have you tried to pray with?) What he means, instead, is that we shouldn’t be trying to convert people to the religion called Christianity but instead to ask them to follow Jesus.
His complaint is common (and compelling):
For one group of people, the words “evangelist” and “missionary” bring to mind pious heroes performing good deeds that are unattainable for the average Christian. For another group, those same words represent just about everything that’s wrong with the world.
I understand the confusion.
Based on my experiences of living and traveling around the world, I know that religion is often an identity marker that determines people’s access to jobs, resources, civil liberties and political power.
When I lived in Lebanon I saw firsthand how destructive an obsession with religious identity could be. Because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, modern Lebanese history is rife with coups, invasions, civil wars and government shutdowns.
When I used to think of myself as a missionary, I was obsessed with converting Muslims (or anybody for that matter) to what I thought of as “Christianity.” I had a set of doctrinal litmus tests that the potential convert had to pass before I would consider them “in” or one of “us.”
Funny thing is, Jesus never said, “Go into the world and convert people to Christianity.” What he said was, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Encouraging anyone and everyone to become an apprentice of Jesus, without manipulation, is a more open, dynamic and relational way of helping people who want to become more like Jesus — regardless of their religious identity.
A nice concept, but there’s a catch. If Jesus is to be Lord, the ramifications for our lives are profound. Indeed, they should be all-consuming — impacting how we live in our homes, how we conduct our professions, how we worship, and — indeed — where we worship.
Does each person start with a blank slate in these matters? Do we work it all out on our own — guided by the Bible and our “relationship” with Christ? Is “it works for me” the right answer when faced with questions of faith, belief, and action? Do we even have the capacity to work through even a fraction of the “how should I live” questions raised by genuine faith in Jesus?
Of course not. And — thankfully, through centuries of God’s grace, we don’t have to. Wiser men have worked through the deep questions of faith, have examined the boundaries and limits of doctrine, and have created institutions that have weathered the storms of war, famine, doubt, and division.
Take the Catholic Church, for example. The media is fond of listing its manifest sins, but we can also drive across this nation and see its hospitals, its social services, and its universities — all standing as an enduring testament of the power of Christ’s call upon His church. I would say the same about many Protestant denominations but sadly as they have become more atomized and individualistic, their own great institutions have faltered and fallen, leaving behind a roiling mass of individuals who are constantly laboring to replace enduring institutions with their own spontaneous creations, and lurching from trend to trend until they too often throw their hands up in despair.
What is one reason why Mormons are thriving? In large part because they are religious, part of a church that shares common convictions, shares sacrifices, and imparts beliefs generation by generation.
Have Christian religions been an instrument of evil during history? At times. But that is because our religious institutions are full of people, and while you may escape a religion, you will never, ever escape your own humanity. Is the world better off because of the Catholic Church? Without question. Is it better off because of you? Or because of me? That’s debatable. Yet why do we exalt ourselves and our own foibles, desires, and quirks over the churches that have endured for 2,000 years?
I’m a Christian. I’m religious. I belong to a church. I don’t trust in my own wisdom enough to take any other path.