Organized Religion Is it as evil as people make it out to be?

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

By: fusion-of-horizons Doesn’t this church look like some kind of Eldar building fromWarhammer 40k? Bonus points if you have any idea what I’m talking about here!     

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:

  1. “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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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!

 

Fear: 5 Ways It Trips Us Up How trusting God can trump our trepidations

Fear is a strong.  There aren’t many things that can motivate us more.

Sadly, advertisers and news organizations know this.  They present products and news to us in ways that play to our fears, manipulating us to behave and believe in the ways they want us to.

But there is another way brothers and sisters!  It’s not an easy way and I certainly haven’t totally figured it out.  But fear can be trumped by trust for the follower of Jesus.

Trust > Fear

5 Ways Fear Trips Us Up

But despite this truth — that trust is greater than fear — our fears can really get in the way of us following Jesus well in the real world.  I’m sure there are dozens of ways this can play itself out, but below I’ve listed 5 that I experience or readily see in places I frequent.

  1. Fear can block love — 1 John 4.18 says that “perfect love drives out fear.”  But the flipside of this aphorism is true too, namely that in the absence of love, fear thrives.  In a recent post of mine on Facebook (and on this blog) this has really come to light for me.  (In the next few lines I’m going to make some assumptions, I apologize in advance.)  In my opinion, due to the highly vitriolic and unhelpful ways in which certain corners of the print, broadcast, and internet media have reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, many Americans are exhibiting lots of signs of irrational fears about Syrian refugees.  These fears create an environment in which people call the people running for their lives from the violent conflict in Syria all kinds of horrible things.  In some instances Americans have very directly wished death on these refugees.  But I wonder how things would have been different had we all started with love instead?  Would we have been as apt to listen to erroneous and one-side reports about this refugee crises?  Would we have been as willing to name-call and demonize the refugees and those who are seeking to show them compassion?
  2. Fear can feed our biases — There’s a funny song from a musical called Avenue Q called “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist” (consider this your content warning!).  And while it’s very likely true that we’re all a little bit racist, perhaps the gentler way of saying the same thing is that we all make decisions in our lives based on explicit and implicit biases.  This is very often a good thing.  Biases can be benign and can be based on past experience, thus creating shortcuts for our thinking in the present.  However, if left unchecked, our biases can also create great amounts of tension, hatred, and even out-right racism in our lives.  And when we add fear to the mix, this concoction becomes even more volatile!
  3. Fear can prevent us from serving — Service is central for a follower of Jesus.  In fact, Jesus himself said that he came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10.45).  And those of us who follow him are to imitate him (Philippians 2.5), including his desire to serve.  However, fear can block us from serving others.  We can worry and become anxious that those we serve are somehow a threat to us, even when there’s no evidence to support these feelings.  And sometimes it can escalate even further, with our fears convincing us that certain people don’t deserve our service for one reason or another.  Check this out though: in Luke 1.74 the priest Zechariah sings a prophetic song about the impact that Jesus was going to have — through Jesus, God has “enabled us to serve him without fear.”  As crazy as it might sound with our human ears and sensibilities, serving others as God leads is worth whatever risks may be involved.  Obeying God should trump all things for a follower of Jesus, including (and especially) our fears!
  4. Fear causes us to become slaves — When we are in the grips of real fear, there’s not much else that we can do except focus on that fear.  Here’s a silly example, that I’m using with permission, to highlight this idea — my wife’s fear of bugs and spiders.  When she sees one, especially if it’s a cricket or a spider, all the rest of the world starts to melt away.  She locks in on that creepy crawly and forgets all about everything else (including that 5am is not a good time to shout bloody murder!).  I’m convinced that our fears can do the same thing to us as followers of Jesus.  If we are fearful of people who live on the other side of town, for example, then we can become a slave to this fear, allowing it to dominate our thinking and our actions.  So instead of loving all people and incarnating the good news of Jesus and his kingdom among them, we look down on them, judge them, and avoid them at all costs.  This is not how things should be for us as followers of Jesus!  Here’s how Paul put it in Romans 8.15: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.””  In other words, our ability to call on God as sons and daughters of the Most High can and should destroy all our debilitating fears that threaten to enslave us!
  5. Fear can prevent us from sharing the gospel — In Philippians 1.14 Paul writes the following: “And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.”  What he is getting at is that the example of how God was using him while he was in prison was inspirational to others, even allowing them proclaim the gospel without fear.  Unfortunately, we don’t always look to examples like Paul’s and we allow fear to prevent us from sharing and embodying the good news among our friends, families, and neighbors.  And this isn’t just some minor thing that we can put off until later.  No!  Being bearers of the good news is our central calling as followers of Jesus!  In Matthew 28 Jesus told his disciples that they were to make disciples of all people and that same Great Commission applies to us today!  Brothers and sisters, we mustn’t let our fears prevent us from fulfilling our purpose as followers of Jesus!  Instead, we must trust God, looking to inspirational examples as needed and allowing him to push our fear away with his love.

So what’s the solution to all of this fear?  We must begin with love, keep our biases in check, serve others no matter what, not allow ourselves to be enslaved, and proclaim the good news.

But how?

Trust Jesus.  Simple to write; difficult to live!

Trust > Fear

 

What do you think?  What are some other ways that fear trips us up as followers of Jesus?  How can we combat our fears?

Peace: Wholeness and Shalom A Spirit-Synced Way of Life

 

Peace: Wholeness and Shalom

What is peace?

I think our minds normally drift toward the semantic domain of safety when we try to answer this question.  Peace is the freedom from conflict.  Peace is security.  Peace is an absence of strife, we think to ourselves.

But is it?  It doesn’t seem that peace is only a want of quarreling.

I think at other times when we try to identify peace we might think of it as a glib salutation before we leave the presence of a friend.  “Peace out!  I’ll see you later,” we may say.

Another way we often define peace is with various notions that orbit the idea of tranquility (like the picture at the top of this blog!).  So peace would be something like a nice, calm quiet space or period of time.

As followers of Jesus we sometimes define peace in a quirky way.  We say things like “I have a peace about dating John” or “I don’t have a peace about quitting my job.”  So, in these contexts, it appears that “peace” means something like an agreeable inner-spirit (“peace of mind” so to speak).

But when we read Galatians 5 and the Apostle Paul says that a Spirit-synced way of life results in peace, does he have our modern notions of peace in mind?  Or does he think of something else?

Most surely the Apostle Paul, aka Rabbi Saul, had in mind Hebrew notions of peace.  Unfortunately, the Hebrew idea of peace is wrapped up in one beautiful word — shalom — that’s nearly impossible to translate well into English.

Here are a few sample ideas relating to shalom that are floating around out there:

  • Rabbi Joseph (c. 280-350  B.C.), a major figure in the Talmud (a commentary of a commentary on the Hebrew Bible) said this is Gittin 59b: “the whole of the Law is also for the purpose of promoting shalom, as it is written, Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are shalom [Proverbs 3.17].”
  • Aviezer Ravitzky, a professor at Hebrew University, writes the following about what shalom meant in the rabbinic writings (namely, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash): “In the rabbinic texts, shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category–it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war.  It is still, to be sure, depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, but in a great many sayings it appears in a normative context: The pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures.  The majority of passages on the subject of peace are concerned with family or communal life, that is, with internal peace among people, and only a minority are concerned with relations between Israel and other peoples. between nations and states…The Sages [i.e., ancient rabbis] went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta-value, the summit of other values…Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah…”  (20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, “Peace” by Ravitzky, pg. 686)
  • Lastly, former president of Calvin College, Cornelius Plantinga, wrote the following about shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, pg. 10)

I hope it is clear that the word that Rabbi Saul (the Apostle Paul) was using in Galatians 5 had the Hebrew word shalom standing behind it.  And this word, shalom, is a word rich with meaning.  Shalom, and therefore “peace” in Galatians 5, means universal flourishing, wholeness, and things being the way they ought to be.

 

Shalom, but How?

How do we find shalom then, as followers of Jesus?

Do we do it by taking courses on conflict resolution?  Well, that will only get us so far.

Do we engage in peace walks and non-violent demonstrations?  Sure, when the issues being brought to light are in line with God’s justice as seen in the Bible; but this won’t create the shalom we’re looking for.

Do we work endless hours efforting to bring about wholeness and flourishing for others?  There aren’t many things that would be more noble to pursue, but we’ll fail.  Guaranteed.

Do we pool all our resources in order to seek the shalom of our communities?  Sure!  But, unfortunately, we’re all people and invariably we’ll miss some people, we’ll seek shalom for some in unhelpful ways, etc.

So, we’re doomed in our efforts to find shalom then, right?

Wrong.

There’s a way.  In Galatians 5 Rabbi Saul spells it out pretty clearly: walk by the Spirit (16), be led by the Spirit (18), and stay in step with the Spirit (25).  Why is this idea of the Spirit’s leading important?  Because we’re human!

Rabbi Saul says it better than I ever could:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. (Galatians 5.16-17a)

Do you see it?  If we try to do things in our own power, in the flesh, then what we’ll accomplish will be contrary to the Spirit.  And if our goal is follow Jesus, that is, to live a Spirit-synced way of life, then we certainly don’t want to accomplish things that go against what the Spirit desires!

So, instead, we must walk by the Spirit!

How?  Here are a few pointers to get us started:

  1. Read the Bible — More specifically, discover the ways that the Spirit works, speaks, moves, and guides by reading the Bible.  A great place to start would be the book of Acts.  In fact, a great practice would be to write in a journal all the things that you see the Spirit doing in the book of Acts.  When you are finished, look them over.  What do you notice?  What did you expect to see but didn’t find there?  And, most importantly, how can the truths of how the Spirit operates in the Bible impact your life and the life of your family, your Christian community, and your church?  Then, and here’s the hardest part, begin listening for the Spirit yourself, and when you think you hear him, work through the next three steps, and then obey!  Note: it’s easy to read what we want into the Bible.  So what we learn from the Scriptures should be viewed very highly, but we should also run it through #s 2, 3, and 4 below for the purpose of having checks and balances.
  2. Worship and Pray — A prime way to walk with the Spirit is to experience him through worship and prayer.  And by worship I mean two things primarily: 1) The life-as-worship idea in which you offer all that you do, from scrubbing toilets to creating works of art, as worship to God; and 2) Gathered worship in which you learn, sing, pray, and congregate with other followers of Jesus.  And the notion of prayer here is not complicated!  All I mean is that you converse with God, meaning that you talk to him and that you give him space to answer you back.  (Is it just me or do most American Christians do a poor job of allowing God to get a word in edgewise?)  And it has been my experience (and the experience of followers of Jesus for 2000 years!) that you will experience the Spirit through worship and prayer.  And when you do, it’s always important to make sure that your experience of the Spirit is sifted through the sieve of the Scriptures (#1 above), Christian community, and Church history (#s 3 and 4 below)!
  3. Christian Community — There’s a theological truth that I don’t really think we all believe.  Here it is: everyone who has been saved by grace through faith in Jesus is filled with the Spirit.  Why do I say we don’t really believe this?  Well, because we so rarely interact with one another in a way that indicates that we believe we are indwelt by the Spirit!  Many of us would prefer a just-Jesus-and-me Christianity to what we learn in the New Testament about following Jesus.  Jesus never meant us to do this thing alone!  We were meant for community.  And by community I don’t mean sitting in rows next to one another while listening to people sing and speak at the front of the room (though, of course, there’s great value in gathered worship!  See #2 above.)  Instead, what I mean is a smaller group of followers of Jesus with whom you can be on mission, with whom you can be vulnerable, and with whom you can experience love (giving and receiving).  In so doing, you will very likely hear from the Spirit of God in ways you never could have imagined on your own!  Of course, run whatever you learn through #s 1, 2, and 4 before going all in!
  4. Church History — This sounds boring, I know.  But it’s not!  If we want to walk by the Spirit, we must look back at the history of the Church and see how the Spirit moved in the past.  Now, to be sure, the Spirit of God can do new things.  That’s one of his hallmarks!  But he also works in patterns, or so it seems to our simple human brains.  As we look back into the annals of the Church, we’ll begin to pick up on how it seems that the Spirit leads.  Then we can be on the look out for him leading us in similar ways.  So pick up some biographies of Christians from the past whom you respect and read them.  Find the writings of Church people from the past.  And, just like with the others, this one needs to be tempered against #s 1, 2, and 3.

To summarize this bit: There are four ways we can learn about how to be led by the Spirit…from the Bible, through our experiences of prayer and worship, through Christian community, and by looking at Church history.

These four things are not equal though.  What we find in God’s Word comes first.  The other three can vary in their order of importance from situation to situation and from person to person.  But what the Bible seems to say clearly about how the Spirit leads should always be given the highest respect!

 

Now to apply this to shalom: If we want to experience shalom in our lives, our families, and our communities, then we must live Spirit-synced ways of life and we must do so together.  The only way to do this is by seeking the Spirit out, seeing where he is going, and following him, all while using the advice above as best we can.

When we do these things, it is likely that we’ll experience the wholeness, the security, the rest, and the fulfillment that we’ve been longing for.

We’ll experience shalom!

 

What do you think?  What is peace and how is it a result of being synced with the Spirit?

The Fruit of the Spirit A Spirit-Synced Way of Life

There’s nothing quite like eating a great peace of fruit.  If it’s an apple — which it should be…apples are my favorites! — then its color is perfect and it has just right right amount of crunch and juiciness.  Mmm!

But very rarely do I consider that the fruit that I love to eat is the fruit of a lot of hard work and labor!

Think about it.  An apple comes from an orchard.  And an orchard must be cared for.

The trees need watering.  The weeds need pulling.  The dead leaves, limbs, and fruit need pruning.  The apples need picking.  And the final product needs selling, packing, and shipping.

That’s a lot of work!

Fruit of the Spirit

Well, I think a similar blind spot has been a part of my Christian development as well.  When I read the famous passage in Galatians 5.22-23 about the fruit of the Spirit, I tend to think about each aspect of the fruit as a final product.  Honestly, I rarely think about what goes into the production of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of a believer, whether in me or anyone else!

Maybe it’s the way that Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

I mean, they’re just so consumable individually spelled out like that, right?  They’re all there in a nice little row, one right after another.

And in my experience in the Church, whether teaching/preaching/leading or being the recipient of the same, this is the way the fruit of the Spirit is taught.

Let me be a bit more specific: When we think about it, we tend to think about the fruit of the Spirit as an opportunity to engage in character development.

Character Development vs. _____________?

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having one’s character developed as he or she follows Jesus.  I know mine needs some work!  I could be a bit more patient (that’s the understatement of the century, just ask my wife, parents, sister, friends, and coworkers!) and exhibit more self-control.

And according to the way I was taught to think about the fruit, my course of action when I realize I’m lacking in some aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is to work on that specific aspect.  So, when I realize that I’m not as kind as a I should be, I work on being kinder.  When I’m not as peaceful as I’d like to be, I exercise my peace muscles.

Unfortunately, this is akin to forgetting the processes behind the fruit at the supermarket.

And, friends, there is a major process behind the fruit of the Spirit — namely, walking with the Spirit!

A Spirit-Synced Way of Life

Paul spells this out rather explicitly in Galatians 5.16-18:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Before he gets to the fruit of the Spirit — the things which are brought to fruition because of a life lived synced up with the Spirit — Paul tells us what produces this fruit…walking by the Spirit or being led by the Spirit!

This phrase (walking by/being led by the Spirit) is great for a number of reasons:

  • It implies an active lifestyle of following Jesus as opposed to the popular passive/getting-fed mode that lots of Christians (myself included!) are tempted to fall into.
  • It reminds us that we need to be walked with — we can’t do this thing alone.  We need grace and guidance from the moment we’re first alive until the moment we die.  And God gladly will hold our little hands through that whole journey!
  • And it means that following Jesus isn’t about me, people like me, my church, my country, or my standards.  Nope.  It’s about being led by the Spirit!

So instead of focusing on each different aspect of the fruit, shouldn’t we focus on how walking with the Spirit brings each aspect to fruition?  In other words, shouldn’t we focus more on the process and a bit less on the results?

 

What do you think?  Do you tend to think about the fruit of the Spirit as an opportunity to engage in character development?  Or do you tend to think about the fruit of the Spirit as the result of Spirit-synced way of life?  Let me know in the comments below!