In doing so, people frequently give me some version of the cliche:
‘I like Jesus just not the Church.’
On first blush that sounds like a defensible statement. After all, organized religion, the institutional Church, is the easiest straw man of them all to beat up. Like most cliches, it can’t hold much more water than that.
What ‘I like Jesus just not the Church’ usually means is ‘I’m tired of the Church and/or other Christians not wanting to think, worship or vote just like me.’
Or, it means the Church is full of hypocrites (translation: the Church is made up of people who are no more perfect and just as sinful as I am).
And no ever stops to consider that the guys who knew Jesus the best, the disciples, couldn’t like him enough to stick by him when the going got tough. So how in the world could you ever expect to follow him on your own?
I would never, for example, on my own pray for those who speak ill of me, much less try to love them, if I wasn’t called upon to serve the Body and Blood of Christ every week.
Leaving the Church is often just a way for people to turn the volume down on Jesus.
Without the Church, it’s easier to fit Jesus into your lifestyle or politics rather than conforming your lifestyle or politics to Jesus.
And before you accuse me of making a self-interested, need-people-in-the-pews-to-pay-the-preacher, argument, stop to consider:
No one has a better reason to be cynical, jaded, beat up and exhausted by the limitations of the Church and its sinners than does a pastor.
Lilian Daniel says this better than me (jealous) in a piece from Relevant Magazine:
It seems to be a growing trend—people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, the front man of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.
In Rolling Stone’s upcoming cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian, as a teaser on the magazine’s website revealed. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said, in terms that many fans will relate to. “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”
IN OUR “HAVE IT YOUR WAY” SPIRITUAL MARKETPLACE, RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY THAT IS RIGOROUS, REASONABLE AND REAL IS STILL THE MOST NUTRITIOUS ITEM ON THE MENU.
Mumford, the son of the U.K. founders of the evangelical Vineyard movement is hardly the first church kid to question or reject the faith tradition he was raised in. In fact, the words he uses to describe himself inRolling Stone will resonate with the fast growing group within Millennial culture—the “nones.” As the Pew Research Center reported last year, 32 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds listed “none” as their religious affiliation.
Mumford’s remarks certainly aren’t a rarity, but they may disappoint the multitude of Christian fans who have seen in Mumford & Sons an intelligent and artistic articulation of their faith.
After all, Marcus Mumford’s faith as evidenced through his music is much like many of ours: his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God, but he asks nonetheless not to be associated with any religion. “I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity,” he told Rolling Stone.
A cursory glance at Christians in the headlines will tell you why. Why do the looniest Christians get quoted after every natural disaster? Why does the pistol-packing pastor who wants to burn the Koran get all the airtime?
I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.
A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.
NO ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE CAN CARRY THE BLAME FOR ALL THE WORST THAT PERVADES SOCIETY. I AM NOT APOLOGIZING FOR A CHURCH I AM NOT A MEMBER OF.
Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.
Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.
They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.
As Mumford went on to explain about such people who call themselves “Christian,” “I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who He was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’—they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus.”
So, let’s recap. Jesus is awesome. Muslims are awesome for thinking that Jesus is awesome. But Christians? Not so awesome.
When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve. They describe judgmental hypocrites who hate people of other faiths and are only after your money. They attribute all the world’s problems to the Church, from sexism to sexual abuse to warfare.
In very few arenas would we tolerate a similar discussion about another group of people. And yet open-minded people listen to such meandering musings with a sympathetic ear, as if they are hearing something wise, brave or original. When in reality, they are hearing something uninformed and insulting.
No one group of people can carry the blame for all the worst that pervades society. We call that stereotyping. I am not apologizing for a church I am not a member of.
Unfortunately, when it comes to all those horrors, the one common denominator is not organized religion, but a more frightening answer: people. It is the presence and participation of human beings. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing.
In a culture of narcissism, the easiest way to follow Jesus is from a distance on a solo stroll to the beat of the same drummer you have listened to your whole life: your own personal preferences and already held beliefs. From a distance, you are safe from the assault of community.
People will explain to me that without the Church, they are traveling light, without all that Christian baggage. But what exactly is this baggage? It’s people—who might actually be some of the best road companions there are.
Certainly, Marcus Mumford got one thing right—the Church is something you enter at your own risk.
Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you, and realize how small you are standing before such a legacy. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.