It’s amazing how videos can go viral! I’m not sure if you’ve seen the YouTube spoken word video from Jefferson Bethke or not. Actually, it’s marvelous and has so many good thoughts! What I love about younger generations is that they have a dissatisfaction with how Christianity is expressed and lived out. We all know that if dissatisfaction is not “holy” then it can quickly degenerate into a cynicism that slowly eats away at people’s souls such that they have a hard time being objective. That said, I think Mr. Bethke has captured the “ethos” of so many young Christians who are longing for something…
So whatever I have to say is not directed solely at Mr. Bethke, who I know from some interaction I’ve read, is a well-meaning, Jesus loving person! I would like to weigh in on how Christianity is both thought of and expressed to others publicly. We have all said this, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I want to push back on this gently because I have a few concerns. While I understand what people are trying to communicate it’s important for us to get clear in our thinking before we use cliches that sound good but end up doing damage.
First, I do believe Christianity is a religion by definition. It’s always been one of the main religions of the world. In fact, I think it’s clear that historically all religions have as their source either Judaism or Hinduism. Why is this important? Because all religions are after answers to fundamental questions about the world, about ourselves, and about life. Questions like, “What’s really real?”, “What is it to be a good person?” “How do I become a good person?” “What can I know and how can I know it?” “What’s ultimately beautiful?” “Why do I sense the need to hope, to seek approval?” “Does evil really exist and why does it exist?” These are fundamental questions along with probably some others that every religion seeks answers to. To call Christianity a religion is important because it allows us to compare “apples with apples”. How does Buddhism answer these questions compared to Christianity? To take Christianity out of the realm of religion makes it much more difficult to do an honest comparison between the two to see if one is closer to the “way it really is”.
But second, to simply take Christianity out of the realm of religion and say it’s a relationship makes it incredibly individualistic. The irony is that now Christianity becomes an individual project to the same people who lament that the way our faith is expressed is too western! Yes, it’s true that one must be personally connected to Christ. However, it feeds the current individualistic current…. it’s about my personal relationship with Jesus. This cuts against the need for people to be connected to the body of Christ in any meaningful way. One of the marks of religion has always been an interconnectedness between people. It’s only in modern western countries where you see it lived out disconnected from others.
Third, I think we need to consider what Jesus practiced. He was a Jew who lived the Mosaic as laid out. To say that Jesus was not about religion and about relationship is disingenuous. In fact, I would say that His practice of religion (Judaism) in the way He did was absolutely necessary for us to be declared righteous through His shed blood.
What we might be able to say is that while Christianity is a religion, it is a highly relational religion. It’s focus is not on performance but rather another’s performance for us. It’s focus is not on achieving or trying to get the Kingdom of God but recognizing and receiving the Kingdom as Jesus offers it to us.
In the end, what I would like to challenge us to think about is how much we rely on cliches to drive our Christian life. What we want are real, genuine people, not people who are marked by cliches. We want Christians who think clearly about the gospel and then let it soak so deeply into our hearts that it’s lived out in a radical way with others.