Friday, July 12, 2019

Replacing Religion

     …Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.    
-Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)

I read an article this week called “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals.” The article was pretty much just what it sounds like it is: it’s an “investigation” of “a growing number of young people…who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing, and crystals.” That’s not really anything earth-shaking, of course: it’s been apparent for quite some time that many young adults do look outside the church for their spirituality. The article references the 2017 Pew survey that shows Millennials (defined roughly as people born between 1981 and 1996) increasingly identifying as “unaffiliated” when given a choice of (Christian) religious groups to choose from. (But might only giving a choice of Christian groups skew the results?) 
     The article quotes a young woman who teaches “breathwork,” a combination of breathing exercises and affirmation, as saying that she knows it’s “weird.” She goes on to say, “But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.” It’s not hard to see why it makes her feel better. The affirmations she and other practitioners receive during the class include I love myself, I am beautiful, I am powerful, I am a bright light, and I am ready to be seen.  Who doesn’t need more affirmation in our world? Who doesn’t need to be told sometimes that they’re worth something, that they’re of value, that they matter? Honestly, if the church can’t do that for each other, then we deserve to have people go elsewhere.
     Of course, religion is more than feeling better. I can’t help but think that some adults who have turned their backs on the church — or never given the church a chance — do so because they have a therapeutic view toward religion. It’s supposed to make them feel better. So as the article points out, they “cook up their own spiritual or religious stew…their way,” as a “progressive Christian reverend” at the University of Southern California puts it in the article. “You’re seeing an aggregation of disaffiliation,” he goes on to say, “people coming up with their own meaning-making and their own personal spiritualities.”
     Some days I’d like that better too, to be honest.
     Thing is, though — and it looks like this needs to be said — I’m a Christian, and thus a part of the church, because I believe in Jesus. I believe in trying to live the way he taught, and I believe that he died for the sins of the world, that he literally rose from the dead three days later to defeat sin and death once and for all, and that he’s coming back to inaugurate a new creation, redeemed and restored from all the damage that’s been done to it. I believe in the God that Jesus reveals to us, who’s behind all of it. And I believe that he has filled those who believe in him with his Spirit and that our reason for being in the world is to shine his light of love and grace through all of our words and actions.
     That all means that sometimes what I see in myself won’t measure up to his teachings or his sacrificial love. It means I’ll notice some things in my life that are hurting my witness to his love and grace in the world. Because I believe in Jesus, and not just in feeling better, sometimes I’ll need to do uncomfortable things like repent, change, ask forgiveness, give in to someone else, or be patient in suffering. I don’t get the privilege of “coming up with my own meaning-making.” My recipe for “spiritual stew” is not all that palatable, it turns out, so I need to eat what God puts on the menu. And if my personal spirituality isn’t created by and energized by the Spirit of God, then it’s pointless, powerless, and hopeless.
     Because I believe in Jesus, I don’t get to “disaffiliate” from his followers, either. Even though sometimes I might want to. He loves them, and so should I. He sacrificed for them, and so should I. He called us all together to be his hands and feet and mouth and heart in our world, and so I have to play my part in that to the best of my ability. 
     If the church is what we should be to each other, we’ll help each other. We’ll help each other to feel better sometimes, but just feeling better isn’t the point of being part of the church, either.
     None of what’s in that article surprises or even upsets me. Why should I find it surprising that people who have ejected faith from their lives — or never had it — would try to piece together something transcendent?
     What bothers me — and the fact that it bothers me isn’t the problem — is that some who are still part of the church in name have in practice replaced their faith in Jesus with a quest for feeling better.
     Why else would people “belong” to churches they’re not really a part of? I know, I know: being in church doesn’t make you a Christian. Neither does being in a hospital make you a surgeon, and yet when I want to find a surgeon I’m not going to a Cubs game. There are legitimate reasons to be absent when the church is together, but too many of us think that any reason is legitimate. We’ve long said in church that twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work — so why do we just keep saying it while nodding knowingly? By definition, most of us aren’t part of that twenty percent. Why don’t we have people lining up to teach our kids, help with VBS, work in our ministries? Why aren’t we in each others’ homes? With each other in the hospital? Celebrating each others’ happy occasions together? Praying together?
     Isn’t it because we’ve bought into the idea that church is only valuable to the degree that it gives me something? Beyond that, it’s take it or leave it. Mostly, my schedule will tell me to leave it.
     It’s worse than that, though. Why do we so easily silence our faith in favor of our politics? You know why: because we think this political candidate or platform will make us feel better quicker than Jesus will.
     Why do we get angry when we don’t hear the songs we like sung in church? Or when a sermon rattles our cages? Or when the leaders make a decision we don’t like, or fail to do or say what we think they should?
     It’s because we think the church exists to make us feel better. 
     Those folks trying to cobble together their own “spirituality” to help them deal just honestly don’t know the difference. We should know better.
     Our Scriptures tell us that Jesus “gave himself up for the church.” And, what…we can’t give up a couple hours a week? A little energy? A few prayers? A moment or two to cry with or laugh with one of those people for whom Christ gave himself up?
     I get it: nothing about your church is perfect. It’s not even close. Then again, neither are you. 
     You know what, though? The Bible tells us that Christ had a purpose for giving himself for the church, and part of that purpose is “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” We’re imperfect people, and together we make up an imperfect church, but Jesus is working on us even now. And, spoiler alert, at the end we all wind up looking pretty good. 
     Let that make you feel better.

     Until then, feeling better isn’t the point. Let’s be the church. Lots of people need us to be.  

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