“In the future, it seems, there will be only one ‘ism’—Individualism—and its rule will never end,” said Ross Douthat as he summarized the Pew Research study on the millennial generation—those born between the early 1980’s and 2000. The study revealed that millennials are generally distrusting and increasingly alienated from all major American societal institutions, including the church.
No evangelical Christian should be surprised at this data. We taught the millennials who grew up in our churches to be anti-institutional with slogans like, “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship,” “Jesus hates religion,” and “Religion says, ‘do’ but Christianity says, ‘done.’” No one can deny such assertions are good marketing strategy to skeptical millennials. Proponents of slogans like, “it’s a relationship not a religion” are attempting to rescue us from religious formalism and dead orthodoxy—a noble cause.
But what if the approach is simply delivering people over to an empty and superficial religious individualism?
Jesus doesn’t hate religion
The major problem with saying Jesus hates religion is that it is not true. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion as, “The belief in a god or in a group of gods: An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods: An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” That is pretty consistent with the way the word is used in the Scripture. It is a neutral word that can be used either positively or negatively.
In Acts 17, Luke writes, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22)—using the term in a neutral way. Later Paul asserts, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b) pointing them to genuine religion that is only found through faith and repentance in the risen Christ (Acts 17:31). Elsewhere Paul condemns “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23) and James says a man who has an unbridled tongue may be religious, but his “religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Nevertheless, in the next verse James avers that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
People who have an anti-institutional worldview want a Jesus who hates religion, but they need the real Jesus who established the church, “which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The existence of organized local churches with corporate worship, singing, praying, preaching, pastors, deacons, ordinances and discipline is the work of Jesus Christ. Local churches, “the household of God,” are gospel lighthouses in a dark world and serve as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Isolated individuals are not described as a pillars and buttresses of the truth. The church as the corporate body of Christ supports the glorious truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the exalted head of the church. Trading dead religious orthodoxy for superficial individualistic spirituality is no gain.
I could hardly control my desire to laugh one time at the irony of a preacher’s total lack of self-awareness. He began his sermon with a predictable tirade that “Jesus hates religion and came to abolish religion and call us to a relationship with him,” and moments later he affirmatively read a quote from what he referred to as John Calvin’s classic, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I am fairly certain that Calvin never considered naming his magnum opus the Institutes of the Christian Relationship. Religion can certainly be empty, formal, and dead but so can a relationship.
“Me and Jesus”
I thank God for the fact that Christianity is a religion because it demands that I stop thinking in unhealthy individualistic terms about my personal faith. A “me and Jesus” approach to Christianity leaves us with a privatized and unaccountable faith that views the church as secondary and simply an outlet for me to express my personal faith. So much of the spiritual impotence we see in evangelicalism is the result of catering to the notion that each individual is the center of his own personal faith. The reality that Christianity is a religion that did not begin with us and has historic confessions held by local churches with pastoral leaders is a gift of accountability to the Christian.
The “it’s a relationship, not a religion” approach to Christianity bears a striking resemblance to a couple that says, “We do not need a legal piece of paper to say we love each other. In fact, that would cheapen our relationship and love.” When love is defined emotively and in terms of personal self-fulfillment, then the self-giving formal commitment of a marriage license and the attendant public accountability may very well get in the way of your momentary passions. But genuine love does not focus on receiving, but giving, and it longs to formally commit, because marriage vows and a marriage license represent a pledge of self-sacrificial future love. Likewise, our love for Christ is lived out in a covenant relationship to a local church where we are discipled in the Christian religion.
The doctrine, commands, rituals, structural authority and discipline (religion) Jesus has given us in the institutional church calls us beyond momentary passions to faithful permanence and provides us a binding framework to express and nurture our love for Christ. Marriage is a covenantal and communal act, and so is our faith in Christ. Christianity is not “me and Jesus.” It is better than that. We owe millennials an apology. We allowed marketing and sloganeering to trump truth in trying to get them in our churches. It is time we tell them the gospel truth. Jesus loves religion and they should, too.
This post originally appeared at the ERLC blog.