Every time I hear a Christian say, “We aren’t religious, we just have a relationship with Jesus.” I’m nauseated by the self-contradiction.
We hear this trite statement usually spoken in buildings that are not required to pay property tax because they are deemed by the government to be religious buildings. And those non-property taxed buildings are usually paid for with tax-exempt gift because the organization has filed a 501c3 deeming them a religious organization. Or maybe the idea wasn’t said in a religious building, but read in a book. Odds are the book’s publisher categorized that book as “Religion/Christian life” or sold it in the religion section of Amazon.com. And the person saying these words probably receives generous tax breaks because they are deemed to be clergy, i.e. a religious leader.
It’s like the story of the two younger fish swimming along happily when an older fish swims by and asks, “How’s the water today boys?”
And the younger fish say, “What’s water?”
I get why we make the idealistic and naïve statement about having the option to choose Jesus over religion. It’s the same rationale why I don’t eat pizza crust or watch preseason football games or regular season NBA games. We all want to skip the bad parts to get to the good parts, sometimes for good reason.
One Sunday morning the preacher from my childhood church frantically approached my father with a church bulletin in hand. The image of the church’s building on the front of the bulletin had been defaced by someone’s pencil. I don’t think a doodled bulletin should shock any preacher, but after the building on the front of the bulletin burnt down just weeks before, the preacher had a right to be a bit on edge. Suspicion of arson waft in the air, but no one had been found guilty at that point.
When the preacher saw a bulletin that had been altered to show the building on fire, he thought he would get his Sherlock Holmes on to see if this was a clue. My father is a psychologist, but he’s not a CSI psychologist, though that didn’t deter the preacher turned detective from asking if my father could determine who had drawn the flames and smoke on the bulletin.
“The picture was drawn by a young boy. Probably around ten years old. Left handed.” My father said.
“Really? You can tell all that from the picture?” The investigative preacher said.
“No. I can’t tell that from the picture. I can tell you that because I saw my left-handed, ten year old son Luke drawing it.”
My first church had been burnt, not by a left handed ten year old boy, but by someone the church was trying to help get back on his feet. The preacher of my next church served time in prison for molesting church kids. Six months into my first full-time job all the elders who hired me resigned after a non-sexual incident involving a child from church and one of the elders. People get burnt in churches all the time.
It’s no wonder people play the linguistic gymnastics of relationship over religion. Sometimes it’s easier to like the Christ, but not the Christians. The relationships versus religion move tries to give us connection with God without having to deal with being connected to the junk that comes from people.
If the “relationship not religion” move actually worked, then you wouldn’t have to worry about sex scandals, the Crusades, the Left Behind Movies or the weird family drama in 1 Corinthians 5. You can pretend like those who used your sacred text as a support of slavery and inequality aren’t connected to you. You can laugh off the money hungry televangelist. You don’t have treat those Christians who picket funerals like that shady uncle you make sure to keep your children away from at family reunions.
If only we could hide from this mess…
We aren’t the first Christians to try to hide from people who sully the name Christian. But luckily God doesn’t run from the mess.
God enters the mess.
God entered the mess when the world was formless and void.
God entered the mess when the word became flesh.
God enters the mess when he placed his spirit inside of each of us.
Love doesn’t run. Love enters into messes because love is patient and messy.
The church that we started five years ago doesn’t own a building, but we have a twenty-four foot trailer we unload every Sunday. For the first two years we met at a middle school, where a schools custodians was supposed to unlock the doors two hours before service and setup chairs in the middle school cafe-torium (It’s like a movie tavern if you just replace good food and movies with cafeteria food and middle school plays). The school had different custodians and I had a list of my favorites. My least favorite was the guy who showed up thirty minutes late to unlock the building on Easter Sunday, yet somehow had the gall to tell me it wasn’t his fault for being tardy. Not that I’m still bitter about that one. He also was my least favorite custodian because when he did show up, the chairs he was supposed to lineup in rows were never straight. The tile floor created straight lines, which were a helpful guide to line up the chairs. Yet somehow his chairs couldn’t pass a field sobriety test.
Which meant every Sunday when my least favorite custodian was working, I was redoing his job so the chairs would look acceptable. Which earned me the mockery of our church. They found my obsession to straight lines as humorous.
I’m not OCD, I just want everything to be right. No messes. I’m not as a bad as one of our elders, whenever she administers the ashes on Ash Wednesday her line was backed up twice as long as the other lines, but everyone who went through her line looked like they had ashes drawn upon them with a stencil. She also claims not to be obsessive; she just likes things done correctly.
The problem is life will not always be lined up strait. There will be those Christians who don’t lineup correctly. There will be those Christians with whom you share the bread and the wine that are doing harm to the name of Jesus. You might as well be patient with those people, because inevitably at one point or another “those people” will probably be you.
Lucky for us, God is religious about his relationship with us even when its messy.
Luke Norsworthy @LukeNorsworthy is a church planter/pastor who also hosts a great podcast you can find here.