It seems like we're always hearing about Christianity's decline. About how fewer and fewer people are attending church or doing whatever a particular researcher needs them to do in order to be considered "Christians." At the same time, we're told that people are increasingly calling themselves "spiritual." They're spiritual, but not religious. They are the people who "seem to want some connection to the divine, but...don't feel affiliated with traditional religion." They're not part of the Christian religion, and they're not part of another religion--but they are something.
And most often what they are, is simply turned off by the word religion. Their beliefs and spiritual practices or habits probably square pretty closely with one of the hundreds(?) of religious sects in the world--even if they don't fit nicely into one of the big ones. But they're "not religious," and that's too bad because contrary to a very popular belief today--not all religion is bad. Sure, there are harmful religions (and I believe all others besides Christianity are eternally harmful for the soul), but in terms of whether they help or hurt society, there are religions that have had positive effects--and the Christian religion is leading the pack.
Though, Christianity is not perfect. Admittedly, there are dark spots and blemishes on its history--but its founder was perfect--still is. And the good news he proclaimed was perfect. So why don't I join in on the "spiritual, but not religious" zeitgeist--or to sound even cooler, "Give me Jesus, but not religion"? Simple. Because what was born out of this perfect man's perfect message is called the Christian religion.
In other words, religion is not the answer, but the answer is contained within a religion.
Sound like we're going in circles? We sort of are, because you can't very easily separate Christ from Christianity. And it never gets any less confusing, no matter how spiritual it makes you sound. Suppose a person begs you to help them with a dire financial need. And suppose your answer is, "You don't need money to meet your need; what you need is some cash."
Now they also need to get away from you and your crazy talk.
But even though historically Christianity is not a perfect religion, it does contain the gospel. The gospel is the basis for this religion. Within the Christian religion is the answer to life's biggest need--redemption and a restored communion with God. And as the gospel takes root in a life, the outworking looks like the Christian religion: going to church to fellowship and be in relationship with your brothers and sisters, doing ministry to equip the saints for the work of evangelism, baptizing new believers, sharing in communion together as you remember the incarnation and death of Jesus, worshiping together who God is and celebrating what he's done. Praying, studying, solitude, fasting, giving some of your income, doing service.
All religion. All done because of Jesus.
And that's why I don't want Jesus without religion. I want Jesus, but I also want his bride, the Church. I want the religion that bears his name and all the good works done by its adherents throughout history and all over the world. Everywhere the Christian religion has spread, the culture has been affected for good. Give me that religion! Give me a religion that:
- Fights for human life because murder is a sin, and every person is known by God from the womb. (Psalm 139.13) So the pro-life movement is largely driven by the Christian religion, which is no surprise; Christians have been instructing against infanticide (a common practice) since as early as the first or second century.*
- Dignifies women because--although created with complementary roles--every person is created equally in the image of God. (Genesis 1.26) So while many cultures even to this day treat women as inferior, "Christianized" or western cultures no longer see a woman as a second-class person or the property of her husband.*
- Cares for the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow--in other words, those who are most vulnerable--because God is compassionate. (Jeremiah 22.3) So the Christian religion helped end slavery, and records some of the earliest records of organized charity.*
- Desires and promotes literacy and education because God revealed himself in a book, and we want people to have access to it. (2 Timothy 3.16-17) So Christian missionaries are responsible for many foreign (tribal) languages being first written down, and in colonial America 122 of the first 123 colleges beginning as Christian institutions.*
- Encourages creativity, beauty, and the exercise of our gifts because we imitate our God who creates beautifully. (Genesis 1.1-27) So the Christian religion includes in its history authors such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, and European cathedrals which showcase some of the most incredible architecture in the world.*
The list could go on. Hospitals and healthcare have been heavily influenced by the Christian religion as people sought to alleviate suffering and bring healing. American government and some of our oft-taken-for-granted freedoms are born out of Christian belief. Science--yes, even science--doesn't escape Christian influence because of men like Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and Louis Pasteur. And on and on we could go.
"But if you read the gospels, Jesus didn't tell us to start a religion." No, no he didn't. But that's what his followers did. Keep reading. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Read Paul's letters. Read Peter's letters. They started churches, and helped a rapidly growing number of Christ-followers to organize themselves and learn how to conduct themselves and their gatherings. They wrote letters that we've canonized because we believe they are just as inspired by the Holy Spirit as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
So cut religion a little slack. Sure, plenty of people have done it wrong over the years. I have. But lots of people have done it right. Lots of people are doing it right. Yes, start with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Lead with the gospel; that's the first answer. But then let the gospel do its work.
The religion that follows it can be a pretty beautiful thing.
*For more on Christianity's positive effects on history and culture, go here.