(This is the first of 10 blogs about The Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church. Number 9 will publish tomorrow)
As I read about the Church, I am seeing two opposing experiences. In places other than the United States the Church is growing and flourishing, but here in the good old U.S.A. it appears to have fallen on hard times. While there are pockets of places where the church is growing by making new disciples and those disciples serving their communities with the Good News, the overall condition of the mainline churches, even those classified as “evangelical”, is that it is about to approach life support status. I do not say this to be cruel or mean; but to be honest because I love the church.
There are a myriad of reasons why this is happening but for this series of blogs, I am focusing on what I perceive as the Top 10 Reasons. This is my conclusion and opinion and am not expecting anyone to agree with me. But I am hopeful that it will cause each reader to reflect and see if there is something that needs tweaking in their life. We will do a countdown of sorts and today we are looking at #10: Choosing Religion Over Relationship. My mind and heart goes back to a passage found in Matthew 15:1-2 and let me share it from 2 different translations:
Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” (NLT)
After that, Pharisees and religion scholars came to Jesus all the way from Jerusalem, criticizing, “Why do your disciples play fast and loose with the rules?” (The Message)
For the Pharisees it was all about the age-old traditional rules. For these folks to be a part of God’s people it was all about keeping the Rules. These Rules had been around long enough for most people to be aware of them. In other words, it was all about the external appearances and nothing about the mind and heart. Rules were not just “important”, they were the ONLY thing considered “important” by the Pharisees.
Think about it. The Pharisees complained to Jesus that His disciples were picking grain on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-2). The Pharisees complained to His disciples that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and other various sinners (Mark 2:16). The Pharisees complained to Jesus that His disciples were making too much noise praising Him (Luke 19:36). Do you see a common pattern and a common word describing the Pharisees attitude? Complaining!
Over the past 42 years, I have been the object of someone complaining. At one appointment, someone complained that at the end of my prayers, I pronounced the word “ah-men” rather than “A-men”. At another appointment someone complained that I was the reason why someone was leading an aerobic’s class, thus I was allowing those “non-members” to use the church facilities. At another appointment someone complained that my motorcycle helmet (known in slang as a “shorty”, which is the type motorcycle police officers wear) looked like the Nazi helmets from World War 2 and that I needed to quit wearing it. Once I heard the complaint that I was wearing my clergy robe. Another time I heard the complaint that I was NOT wearing my clergy robe.
Religion loves to complain. And in the United States the church is losing credibility because we put more emphasis on the “religion”, meaning the rules and traditions, than the relationship God offers. Here are the dangers I see in religion.
1. Right Opinions matter more than righteousness
Religion is built around a set of doctrines which are mandatory if one wants to be a part of that religion. One time I attended a church in the community and at the front was a list of “things” one had to believe in order to be a Christian and a member of that church. I think there were 21 items on that list, and it was a list where one had to embrace all of them. There is no room for other ideas, opinions or even disagreement. Religion fears anything that resembles even vaguely something new. Essential to religion is the strict adherence to a set of beliefs, most of the time without understanding why one believes it or if it is even essential. Religion demands submission to right opinions, beliefs and doctrine. Religion is best identified by its desire for the status quo.
2. It identifies you as to what you are not
You are not Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Scientologist, therefore you must be Christian. It’s like going through a buffet line of ideas and selecting the one that makes sure you aren’t “one of those others”. Relationship is about what you could become. Religion is about who you are not.
3. Rules matter more than people
Conformity in appearance and beliefs is essential in religion. Conformity is developed through the rules, both written “laws” and unwritten traditions. It stifles the creativity and uniqueness that God puts in every person. Since rules matter the most, people who do not conform to the rules are pushed aside. This creates a judgmental attitude like that of the Pharisees and we all know how Jesus felt about the Pharisees.
4. It’s the safest place to hide from God
Now I want you the reader to know that I did not come up with this line. It was first penned by Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970. Father Rohr is correct. It is the safest place to hide from God because religion gives us the veneer of respectability. Respectability is a powerful way to ease one’s conscience and keep the awareness of one’s guilt of sin from getting too close to the mind and heart. If religion is guiding you, may I suggest you read and reflect on Matthew 25:42-46. If this doesn’t scare the religion right out of you, then you are firmly entrenched in religion.
5. It makes one impotent for the true work of the Kingdom of God
God is all about building relationship and through this relationship with Him, He takes us on a journey to be our true self, the one He created and the one He knows we can become with His presence, guidance, and power; and to help us overcome the dominion of sin in our life. Religion takes us captive and robs us of the Divine Spark and power that will bring the Kingdom back onto this His Creation. Religion makes us powerless by making us its captive. Maintaining the status quo strips us of the power needed to be involved in the things God is doing.
6. It makes the Enemy laugh at us, though he knows deep down that he fears us
The Enemy, YOUR Enemy, knows exactly what you can become through the relationship God offers, and it makes him pee in his pants when he sees you becoming that person God created. To take away his fear of you, he convinces you that religion is what it’s all about. He knows he can control a religious person, so he deceives us into some second best; and that is religion. Nothing makes the Enemy laugh more than when he sees people following and protecting religion. And nothing makes him more afraid than seeing someone who is committed to the relationship with Jesus.
Religion is a genuine imitation pearl. New it looks great, but over time, the beauty is gone and so is the joy. Religion is all about the appearance and nothing about the heart and power of this relationship with God There are a significant number of churches in our culture that are more interested in protecting their territory than they are about knowing where God is working, joining in where God is moving, and building relationships with the people He is trying to reach. Religion strips one of their promised glory; and you do have a promised glory in this Relationship.
If the church in the U.S. is going to reverse our current downward trends, it begins when we throw away religion and run to the One who is offering us a Relationship. Religion doesn’t need the cross, but we do. Religion doesn’t need the resurrection, but we do. When we surrender at the foot of the Cross and allow the power of the resurrection to work in us right here and right now, well, the Enemy is going to have to change his underwear because I know what he just did in them. #9 comes tomorrow.
Love God with all your heart. Love others the way God loves you. And make sure all the glory goes to Him.