I originally posted this piece on March 6, 2012. As I prepared once again to teach ecclesiology this semester, I reflected upon these themes and thought them pertinent in the present context.
Much has been made of the video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” by Jeff Bethke . Even Time has entered the conversation. The video has been watched countless times since it appeared in early January. Regardless of what one makes of Bethke’s words, one cannot question his ability to connect with young people. Bethke’s primary audience (those between the ages of 18-29) “avoids churches but still loves Jesus,” according to Time.
Bethke’s aim is good—to point others to Jesus. Moreover, he is right on target when it comes to what is often wrong with religion: hypocrisy mixed with heresy and a lack of holistic gospel witness. While affirming these important claims, I disagree with his opening statement that “Jesus came to abolish religion.” Jesus did not come to abolish religion, only bad religion. Jesus is about the kind of religion that cares for orphans and widows in their distress and not being defiled by the world (James 1:27).
Bethke makes clear that “I love the church. I love the Bible, and yes, I believe in sin.” So, he does not equate the church with religion, as he defines it; nor does he in any way compromise obedience to God’s word. In fact, just the opposite. I hope his primary audience hears him. Avoiding churches will not help them move beyond bad religion. But hopefully, those of us in church hear Bethke, too.
Avoiding churches but loving Jesus is like saying, “I love Jesus, but not my mother.” On the other hand, excluding people from the church is like saying, “I love Jesus, but not my children.” More on the latter point later. I will first talk about the importance of the church. The church is our spiritual mother and family. Whether we admit it or not, God uses other members of his family (the church) to lead us to Jesus to experience new birth. Everyone born of Christ is born into the church. The Bible itself came to us from the church, from the apostles inspired by God in their writings and down through the ages through faithful transmission. Moreover, the church is Christ’s spiritual bride consisting of all of God’s people (the bride is not a solitary believer). The church is Christ’s spiritual family—and every Christ follower’s family, too.
Some young people close to me who love Jesus have a hard time going home for the holidays because of problems with parents and/or siblings. They would rather be alone. They don’t want to have anything to do with their moms and dads and fear that they will become just like their parents if they ever return. Of course, there are abusive situations where youth should never go home (the same goes for churches). But in most situations, if we don’t face our parents, we will never face ourselves, for we are so very much like them. It was only when one of my young friends went home to face his family through the help of his home church family that he could face himself and find deep soul healing for his relational wounds.
People often become what they hate. Just like youth who hate their parents and later become them, so it is with religion. “We’re not like them. We’re better” eventually gives way to We’re not like them. We’re worse. Being autonomous “spiritual” individuals is not the answer, but being accountable. Accountability requires community, like a good AA group. If only more churches and families were like the AA, where there is open sharing of problems in relationship, not hit and run, or passive endurance of “Don’t talk. Don’t think. Don’t feel.”Thankfully, Bethke’s getting people to talk inside and outside the church. Now, it will be important for more people who love Jesus but who avoid churches to talk in church about their issues, so that there can be healing for all concerned. Along similar lines, it will also be important for more churches to make space for such sharing to occur. Without safety in community, there can be no authentic sharing. My friend mentioned above went home to a church that welcomed him back with open arms. Without their acceptance, he might not have made it. Not only did Jesus love him, but also his ecclesial mother and family loved him.
If we do not have a community that embraces and shapes us, and helps us heal, how are we then to be healed? For those who will not seek out a church but try to fix themselves, it’s like saying “I love AA, but hate my meetings.” For churches that shy away from creating safe space for authentic sharing in community, it’s like saying “I love my meetings, but hate AA.” Being called out by one another, revealing ourselves to one another, confessing our sins to one another, and praying for one another is how we are healed (See James 5:16).
We all want community, but often on our own terms with little or no risk to ourselves. We so easily define community that is not on our terms as bad religion. But having religion on our own terms is what messed us up in the first place. Religion on our own terms entails we won’t care for orphans and widows in their distress or keep ourselves unpolluted by the world. This is not simply a problem for those outside the church. In James’ case, he was talking to people inside the church: they were affirming the well-to-do and excluding those who from their vantage point did not measure up (James 2:1-7).
Jeff Bethke has effectively connected with an audience who “avoids churches but still loves Jesus.” I trust that Jeff will also continue to influence his audience by making clear to them that loving Jesus entails loving his family. It will also be important for him to make clear to Jesus’ family that they truly need to love this generation as Jesus loves. This will entail making space for this generation’s growing pains, prophetic challenges to those of us set in our ways rather than led into God’s ways, and attending to their unique Spirit-filled expressions of Christ’s holy love. When we as the church fail to love as Jesus loves, people often respond by saying, “I love Jesus, but not my mother.” No wonder so many young people avoid us. Is it any wonder that there is so much bad religion? There is so much bad religion in many circles because there is such little healing, and there is such little healing in many contexts because there is such little face to face interaction and heart to heart sharing.
Only as young people who have avoided churches face their families can they face themselves and find Christ’s healing. Otherwise, they will become the next group of Christ followers the generation following them will avoid. And for those of us in church, let’s make sure we’re not avoiding them, but rather connecting with them, listening to them, and sharing our hearts and lives with them face to face. Let’s make sure we’re not fathers and mothers who abandon these children, but rather those who care for them, and for orphans and widows in their distress.
This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.