Organized religion, especially the “institutional” church in the West, has gotten a lot of flack in recent years. Is this popular negative assessment fair? What can we learn about organized religion from the life of Jesus?
Organized Religion and It’s Perception
It seems rather obvious that people are less and less into organized religion these days. Church attendance is down and continues to decrease, so much so that some church buildings are being converted into night clubs, small businesses, and residences.
And when surveyed, people are increasingly saying that they’re spiritual but not religious. Usually what people seem to mean by this is that they want to believe in a higher power or a generically loving Jesus, but not be connected to the big “C” Church with all of its baggage.
Perhaps THE voice for this movement is Jefferson Bethke, the star of a viral YouTube video entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Spoken Word.” Here it is:
His piece of poetry was so popular that he ended up getting a book deal out of it (here’s the link to the book: Jesus > Religion).
Why is this the case? Why do so many people want to be spiritual but also want to distance themselves from organized religion?
Here are a few ideas that come to my mind:
- Organized religion represents closed-mindedness and bigotry for many, especially younger people.
- Many people were hurt directly or indirectly by organized religion. Maybe there was abuse, neglect, or misuse of power. And perhaps people’s parents forced religion on them.
- Maybe some people don’t like the feeling that religion brings with it obligations to obey things while being spiritual is more nebulous.
- Being spiritual seems more open and inclusive than organized religion is typically represented.
- And being spiritual is much less political in nature than being associated with organized religion tends to be.
I’m sure that there are dozens of other reasons (let me know some in the comments below!), but the point is this: many people are not pleased with organized religion these days.
Jesus and Organized Religion
And another reason that many people give for their disdain for organized religion goes something like this: Jesus was more about the heart and spirituality than all that religious stuff!
But is this sentiment true? What do the authors of the Gospels reveal to us about Jesus’ connection to organized religion?
This morning I was doing my devotional time and I began reading John 5. I didn’t get very far before something stood out to me. Here it is (John 5.1):
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.
This verse is easily passed over when reading the exciting narratives of John 4 and 5. But it highlights something interesting: Jesus was involved in organized religion.
Jesus left his home-base and traveled by foot or caravan to Jerusalem. Why? Did he like the mall in Jerusalem? Nope! He went up to Israel’s capital in order to participate in a Jewish festival.
To repeat: Jesus was involved in organized religion.
So the mentality that Jesus hated organized religion and was only about spirituality is simply wrong, the text doesn’t support this idea.
However, we should note that when Jesus engaged in organized religion, he did so in ways that brought glory to God and furthered his mission, the Missio Dei.
Often, when we engage in organized religion we do so out of obligation or tradition. And even when we have good intentions, we often simply support the status quo of the religious group we’re part of instead of pursuing Jesus and his mission at all costs.
In the story in John 5, Jesus went up to celebrate the festivals. But as he was in Jerusalem he kept his eyes open — and in so doing he met someone in need and helped him out.
At another time Jesus preached at a synagogue, another example of Jesus engaging in organized religion (Luke 4). But, again, Jesus did so in ways that furthered God’s glory and mission, this time encouraging the people to share the good news with the downcast (which wasn’t a popular message).
And there are many, many other examples of how Jesus engaged in organized religion.
In fact, this was such a common part of Jesus’ ministry, that his earliest followers did the same. Check out this passage from the first part of Acts 2.46:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.
The earliest followers of Jesus were involved in organized religion too, meeting in the temple courts. Later, in Acts 3.1, we see Peter and John following Jesus again, going to the temple but keeping their eyes open to further God’s glory and mission by helping someone out.
And, lastly in this section, Paul almost always started ministry in a new area by preaching in the synagogue or whatever other organized gathering of Jews he could find. And when he did so, he always found ways to point to the love and grace of Jesus. In other words, Paul was involved in organized religion as well.
So What Does This Mean for Us Today?
So Jesus and his earliest followers didn’t shy away from organized religion. Why, then, should we? Wouldn’t it be better for us to follow their leads (especially that of Jesus) by engaging in organized religion but always with an eye toward bringing God glory and furthering his kingdom?
Here are a few initial thoughts about how we can move forward today:
- “Because” is not a good reason. We need a better reason to be engaged in organized religion than “because.” It’ not enough that we feel like we should or someone we love wants us to. And “that’s the way we’ve always done things” isnot enough either.
- Actually ENGAGE in organized religion. Just like Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and so many others, we should participate in organized religion on purpose. As we do so, are there people for us to love? Are there unhelpful tradition for us to challenge? Are there opportunities to share and embody the good news?
- Make religion about connection. From the beginning of God’s calling us to gather to worship him together, he did so in order that we would connect with him and with one another. In fact, from eternity past and into eternity future, the Triune God has always been about connection, engaging in the divine and mysterious dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we gather to worship him together, we join in that dance, thus connecting with God and with one another.
What do you think? What value is there to be found in organized religion? And how do we avoid its potential pitfalls? Let me know in the comments below!