My Plans for This Blog

A couple of weeks ago, I announced that I would refrain from any further Facebook or blog posts while I focused on resolving the question of when, where, and in what capacity Shirley and I would reconnect with the church through identification with a new or existing local congregation or faith community. Exceptions to that communication blackout would be posts pertinent to that search.

My rationale for that decision was a growing perception that my critique of the church and the culture and my commentary about things religious, social, and political lacked an element of integrity apart from a foundation of experience in relating to a worshiping, serving, welcoming, loving community of mutually accountable fellow travelers. Continue reading

The Future Starts Today

I am a Christian who also happens to be an American. As such, a few observations.day-7

I am not threatened by immigrants. Although my parents were born in the US, I am, like all of us except our Native American brothers and sisters, a descendant of immigrants. Some of us are descended from those forced to immigrate to America against their will. To them we owe a debt we have hardly begun to repay.

I do not fear persecution for my faith at the hands of a godless government. Conservative Christians seem to require a perception of victimhood in order to stay relevant in the current culture. We are not victims. Our religious freedom is not at risk. Any “persecution” we are suffering is self-inflicted, owing to our arrogance and intransigence. We need to repent. Continue reading

The Beginning of a Promised Apologia

ap·o·lo·gi·a  [apəˈlōj(ē)ə/]  noun: A formal written defense of one’s opinions or conduct. Synonyms: defense, justification, explanation.

I was always a passionate Christian. I considered my motives pure, my interpretations objective, and my behavior consistent. I based my life decisions on the authority of scripture Pic 8as I had always been taught to understand it. Then one day I had to admit that my appeal to biblical authority was, too often, a way to justify my prejudices. Continue reading

Jesus Came To Fix Religion, Not Destroy It

It has been three years since a four-minute video called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” caused something of a stir among American Christians, sending ripples into the wider culture as well. The video features a young man named Jefferson BethkeJefferson Bethke (1) performing, in something of a rap or hip-hop style, the text of a poem he wrote to contrast true Christian faith with “religion.” Since its release, it has been viewed more than 29 million times on YouTube. Continue reading

The Christian’s Standard

One of the things I love most about worship in the liturgical tradition is the unison recitation of the Nicene Creed immediately following the sermon every Sunday. This fourth century document crisply summarizes the heart of what Christians have believed for two thousand years.

Every week millions of Christians worldwide intone the words…

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

Those are powerful words no matter when they are recited, but the significance of that declaration is especially meaningful at this time of year–Advent and Christmas.

When I taught Christian doctrine at a small Bible college, I used to ask my students what they believed to be the most important truth in all of Christianity. Their most common response was generally the Resurrection of Christ. Some suggested His Crucifixion. Those, along with a few others, are worthy suggestions.N

But I always told my students that I considered the Incarnation—the truth that the all-powerful and infinite God took on human form and became a human being who lived among us on earth—to be the single most important tenet in all of Christian doctrine.

After all, if Jesus was not really God in human form, then his death, while perhaps notable, was still just the death of a man. If he was not really God incarnate, then the literal truth of his resurrection from the grave can legitimately be challenged, and that story can just as easily be interpreted in ways that do not require any miraculous element.

Continue reading

If It’s Not Difficult, You’re Not Doing It Right

Life in the Kingdom of God should be fulfilling and rewarding. It should be productive and meaningful. It should be challenging and demanding and sometimes exciting. It should not be easy. In fact, if you find life in the Kingdom of God to be easy, that’s a sure sign you’re not doing it right.

I’m not talking about the difficulties we all face simply because we are human. Everybody gets sick, sooner or later. Everybody is subject to the possibility of life-altering circumstances such as accidents, bereavements, financial reverses, and betrayals. Christians recognize events and experiences like those as the consequences of living in a world turned upside down by human sin and rebellion against God.

I’m talking about an added layer of pain, an additional dimension of difficulty, to which the followers of Jesus are subjected if they are serious about living consistently as citizens of the Kingdom of God. I base this conclusion on a truth which figures prominently in the preaching of Jesus in the Gospels: cross-bearing discipleship.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that following Him (i.e. living in the world as one of His disciples) would not be easy. In fact, to emphasize just how difficult it was going to be, the Gospel of Matthew tells us…

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matt. 16:24)

We read almost the same words in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23.

Continue reading

Needed: A New Reformation

One of the most gratifying aspects of writing this blog has been the opportunity to reconnect with so many men and women who took one or more of the courses I taught during the fourteen years (1994-2008) I served as a faculty member at Rosedale Bible College in Ohio. I am particularly grateful when they take the time to leave a comment or send an email after reading one of my posts. When they pose questions based on what they have read, I feel it is both my privilege and my obligation to respond to them as best I can.

My last post (the third in a series of three which I called “Being Real”) prompted one of my former students, who is now a pastor, to ask several thoughtful and incisive questions. I promised him I would address his questions in this post. Here, in part, is what he wrote.

I sense a growing number of people who share your concerns about contemporary American evangelicalism. … (T)he question I have is how… transformation in our churches takes place? What are the real and tangible ways we are screwing up? What systems and structures undermine our ability to behave differently? How are they undermining it? How do we serve, minister, and lead in brokenness? How do we help foster real community?

I have dealt with several of these questions, or similar concerns at least, in earlier blog posts. (You can read some examples here and here and here.) Some of what I say here, then, will echo what I have said before. Some, however, will reflect a new thought which has been taking shape in my mind over the past few weeks. I could tell you that I believe God put it there and that I believe it is evidence of the spiritual gift of discernment, what some might call a “word of wisdom” or a “word of knowledge.” Instead, I think I’ll just share it a bit later and let you draw your own conclusions about its source, its value, and its relevance.

No matter how you define the word church, a key element will always be people. Whether you think of the church mainly as an organization with fairly rigid institutional structure or as an informal association with little to hold it together except a common faith commitment, the essential component is still people. People are not perfect, not even Christians. Forgiven, yes, but not flawless. It is therefore logically inconsistent to expect perfection from an entity composed of imperfect people.

The church faces an additional challenge. Not only is it composed of flawed human beings, it is also subject to another potentially debilitating imperfection—institutionalization. By that I mean the tendency of any organization, over time, to devote more and more of its energy and resources to keeping the machinery running instead of pursuing the goal for which the organization came into existence in the first place.

No matter how well-intentioned and enthusiastic they may be when they are young and fresh and focused, both human beings and the organizations and institutions which they make up can run out of energy, lose their focus, and become so self-absorbed and self-important that they forget their original purpose. They begin to “major on minors,” devoting so much time and attention and so many resources to self-preservation that they lose sight of their original mission. When this happens, their efforts, no matter how hard they work, become counterproductive.

This is not a criticism of organizational structure. Any group of people who unite in pursuit of a common goal needs to organize in order to function effectively and efficiently. With this post I am not joining the ever-expanding ranks of those who have given up on the church as an institution and have embraced the idea of something called the “simple” church or the “organic” church. That model is plagued with problems and shortcomings as serious as any faced by the church in its more institutional forms.

This is simply an admission that, whatever form the church may take, the earthly expression of the body of Christ requires periodic renewal and revival. Sometimes the situation becomes so acute that only a thorough reformation can purge the institution and restore clarity of vision and unity of purpose.

The Christian church in America is in need of another reformation. We have lost our focus. We have forgotten who we are and what we were originally designed to be and do.

I still believe that the best description of the purpose for the church in the world is that put forward by George Eldon Ladd more than a generation ago:  the church is the agent of the Kingdom of God. The church is where the distinctives of the Kingdom are cultivated, where we learn how to live by Kingdom values in the face of pressure to succumb to the influence of the prevailing culture. The place where we encourage one another to hang tough, be consistent, don’t surrender, don’t lose heart.

The church is, at heart, a community of Kingdom people. It is both the representative of the Kingdom of God and a compassionate community in which people feel loved and accepted and where they are enabled to heal and encouraged to grow.

It is extremely difficult for churches to sustain a commitment to that kind of vision over time. The natural tendencies of creeping institutionalism dull and distort the vision. In addition, the church has a spiritual adversary whose diabolical energies are devoted to preventing the church from realizing its godly purpose as the community of the King. Unless a Kingdom vision is consistently maintained and constantly renewed, the church will invariably be blown off course. It will major on minors and will develop a defensive frame of mind which results in competitive relationships with other churches and abrasive, even hostile, interaction with the surrounding culture.

In 2007, Christian authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote a book called  unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About  Christianity… and Why It Matters. The book summarizes the results of extensive research by the Barna Group in which they asked young people, ages 16-29, what they thought of when they heard the term “Christian.” The results are both enlightening and disheartening.

If the results accurately reflect the American population, then more than nine out of ten young people think of Christians as “antihomosexual.” Nearly 90% believe Christians are “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” Three quarters perceive Christians to be “old-fashioned,” “too political,” and “out of touch with reality.” And seven out of ten think of Christians as “insensitive to others” and “boring.”

The New Testament is clear that, when Christians pattern their lives after their King, they will cut across the grain of the prevailing culture, and they can expect some antagonism and hostility as a result. That may account for some of the responses to the Barna survey. I suspect, however, that much of the negative reaction toward Christians results from the church’s failure to fulfill its purpose, and not from its relentless pursuit of the Kingdom.

The good news is that God has provided the church with two resources which, if they are properly utilized, can keep the church on course and help to avoid the collateral damage and declining influence which result from institutional short-sightedness: the Holy Spirit and godly leadership. The bad news is that the Spirit of God most often works through leaders and only rarely in spite of them. Thus the key to spiritual reformation in the church lies mainly with its leadership.

For forty years I have been pointing out the foibles and failures of the Christian church in a well-intentioned effort to encourage more consistency and greater faithfulness in pursuit of God’s purpose for the church—to be the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world. I have not been very effective. The reason, I now believe, is that my energies and perceptions were misdirected. I should have focused less on the church’s membership and more on her leadership.

No group of the Lord’s people will ever achieve a level of spiritual maturity and devotion to Christ which exceeds that of its leadership. If the church has failed to own and realize its godly purpose, that is fundamentally a failure of its leadership. If the church is in need of reformation, that renewal and reform needs to begin in the lives and ministries of its leaders.

I had been planning, for some time, to address this important theme in my blog posts. My former student’s probing and insightful questions simply nudged me in that direction and forced me to develop my thoughts a bit sooner that I had expected. Now I’m on this path. I think it will be interesting, and I hope it will be helpful, to see where it leads.

How To Impress God (Part Two)

The false teachers who were attacking Paul’s ministry [which he writes about in Second Corinthians] were using tactics similar to those that some use today to try to gain influence and wield power among the people of God. They boasted of their “accomplishments” and they criticized Paul for NOT boasting about his.

In other words, they asked the Corinthian Christians, “If Paul is really an Apostle from God, teaching the truth of God with the authority of God, then why doesn’t he brag about it?”

These guys were doing the equivalent of holding con- ferences or seminars or writing books in order to promote themselves and some experiences they had had which they wanted people to believe were “super- natural.” You can almost hear them saying, with a sneer of superiority, “Has Paul had any experience like this? If he has, why hasn’t he told you about it? If he hasn’t, why should you trust him? What evidence of God’s authority does he offer you?”

So Paul decides to play their game… up to a point. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, the first verse of last Sunday’s Epistle lesson, Paul acknowledges that he has indeed had a supernatural experience. At first, it’s not clear that he is referring to himself, but that comes out in due course. Here’s how he put it…

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man… was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.

Paul exhibited a character trait with which very few contemporary Christian leaders are afflicted—pure, unadorned and unalloyed humility. Most prominent Christian leaders, it seems to me, are concerned that they won’t attract all the attention or gain all the recognition or achieve all the fame they deserve (or at least, all that they desire). Paul’s concern was exactly the opposite. He wrote, beginning in verse six…

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would (simply) be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Then, Paul acknowledges how difficult it was, even for him, to keep from boasting after an experience like that. And he writes that God had to step in and do something to help Paul keep his spiritual balance.

(7)Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

We don’t know for sure what this “thorn in the flesh” was, but it was something significant. It was something Paul couldn’t ignore. It may have been poor eyesight or some other physical affliction. All we know for sure is that Paul didn’t like it one bit. So he writes,

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

Three times he asked, and three times God said, “No.”  Well, actually what God said was, “I’m not going to give you what you asked for. I’m going to give you something better, something far more valuable.” Or, as Paul puts it…

But (the Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Now let’s make sure we hear what Paul is saying here. He is the guy who has been through all that stuff that I pointed out in my last post by citing all those quotes from 2 Corinthians. This is a guy who gave up the prospect of marriage, a home and family, creature comforts and security, in order to devote his life to advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom. If we read the rest of 2 Corinthians, we also learn that he isn’t a very effective orator and his personal presence isn’t very impressive.

But he does have one resource that he could tap into to gain a hearing for his message and support for his ministry. Fourteen years before, as it happens, God took him up to heaven and showed him things too wonderful to be described in words. But then, to keep him from trading on that experience to gain fame and fortune and influence, God also gave him a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him.

And when he made what appears to be an altogether reasonable request that this “thorn” be taken away from him, God said, “No.” Why?

Because of a principle absolutely unheard of in contemporary American business or politics or finance… a principle also unheard of, so it seems, in much of American Christianity. The principle which says that God’s grace is sufficient and, even more startling, God’s strength is seen most clearly and most perfectly in our human weakness!

Remember I wrote in my last post that the main reason I didn’t want to preach from this text, when I first read it as part of the lectionary lessons for last Sunday, was not the text itself, but rather, it was me? Well, here’s what I meant by that. I didn’t want to preach from this text for two reasons.

First, it seemed to me there was a danger that a sermon on the virtues of weakness could come across as a way to excuse a lack of accomplishment in ministry. In other words, when it comes to power and influence and substantive accomplishment, I don’t have a lot to show for forty years of ministry, at least not in my current set of circumstances. I was concerned that the effect of this powerful passage of scripture would be muted if anybody thought I was simply using it as a way to excuse my apparent failure.

And then it dawned on me. This truth about God’s strength being perfected in our human weakness is not something I made up for personal reasons. This is a powerful spiritual principle which is being taught in 2 Corinthians 12 by the most successful, the most influential preacher of the Gospel in the history of the Christian church.

It’s not Eric Kouns who is making this argument. It is Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, the author of nearly half of the New Testament. And Paul was a man who, about ten years after he wrote this letter, came to the end of his ministry, not in retirement in some Mediterranean villa, but in the Mamertine Prison in Rome, where he was beheaded as a threat to the Emperor.

The second reason I didn’t want to preach from this passage was that, even though I know the principle is true, it is not what I want to hear right now.

I’ve never been imprisoned, flogged or pelted with stones for the sake of the Gospel. But I have been going through a time of “troubles, hardships, and distresses” for the past four years since I lost my job for being faithful to God and to the convictions He had planted in me.

Truth is, I have been waiting for things to get better, and I have assumed they would. In fact, I’ve assumed they had to; that it was only a matter of time. But that is not what 2 Corinthians 12 promises.

Rather, Paul says, in verse 10—

10 For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

That is very much like what he wrote in chapter six—

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

The fact is that when I am alone at home or in my office, and I have time to think about my circumstances, I see no way for the current situation to change. Then I feel overwhelmed, and I have difficulty believing that my troubles are only “momentary.” And while I really do believe that there is “an eternal glory” that outweighs all the troubles, I fear that I may surrender to the circumstances and dishonor the Lord Christ because I gave up too soon.

That’s why I didn’t want to preach on this passage.

But in the end, I did preach from this passage last Sunday, because it is true whether I can bear witness to it from my own experience or not. I think, however, that even recognizing the truth of Paul’s words might not have been enough to convince me to preach this sermon had God not done for me what He has done so often when I have come up against a wall of doubt and uncertainty. He brought up, out of the depths of my recollection, the words of one of my mentors.

This time it was Brennan Manning. Sometime I’ll write about Brennan Manning and how God has used his writing, over and over, to refresh and revive my parched and barren soul. For now it is enough to say that, sometime last Friday evening, when I was re-reading 2 Corinthians 12 for the twentieth time in two days, I seemed to recall something that Brennan Manning had written—something that sounded a lot like what Paul wrote there.

So I pulled all my Brennan Manning books off the shelf and tried to find the line that I vaguely recalled. Finally I gave up and did what I should have done to start with. I “Googled” the words I could remember, along with Brennan’s name, and sure enough, I found it. It’s in his book called The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, and here’s what he wrote:

In our kitchen we have a saying enclosed in an old, beat up wooden frame. It says this. (When you finally stand in the presence of God), He will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.

Somebody once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” To that we could add, “If you want to impress God, show Him your scars.” Even the self-inflicted ones. But especially those you got by standing firm in your faith despite the opposition and the consequences.

In Mark 9, Jesus crosses paths with a man whose son is demon-possessed. When the demon senses the presence of Jesus, it sends the boy into convulsions, and you can sense the father’s deep pain when he says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus answers him, “If I can do anything?  All things are possible to him that believes.” And the man cries out, “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

When it comes to the message of 2 Corinthians 12—the truth that God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness and the reality that, when God looks me over, it won’t be for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars—I have to pray that very prayer. “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

A New Direction

I am using today’s post to introduce something new. In a blog post which I wrote a few days ago, I reported that God has apparently decided that right now is not the time for the vision for St. Patrick’s Church to become a reality. In that same post, I indicated that I have not given up on the vision and, in the meantime, I plan to stay busy. That’s what I want to talk to you about in this post.

God has blessed me with some wonderful friends, and I don’t take them for granted. One in particular has been a trusted advisor and counselor for more than thirty years. I’ll call him “Dean” (because that’s his name). Everyone should be so fortunate to have a friend like Dean.

Dean has walked with me over the past four years as I have made the difficult transition from the Free Church tradition to Anglicanism. He has heard all my gripes and lamentations and has responded to them with just the right combination of empathy, encouragement, and the verbal equivalent of a “dope slap” on occasion. I often think that Dean cares more about my ministry and the effective and productive use of my gifts than I do. It was his persistence, in fact, that persuaded me to begin writing this blog. And it is Dean to whom I am indebted for the concept which has given rise to the new ministry which I am introducing to you today.

I was a Bible college professor for fourteen years. I never set out to pursue a career in academics, but when God led me into that ministry, I found that I loved it. My students kept me honest by forcing me to think critically, write carefully, and speak cogently. I miss the classroom, and I am grateful that many of my former students stay in touch.

My burden for young adults energizes my vision for planting a church in Columbus near the Ohio State campus. It also contributes to my disappointment that the realization of that vision will apparently be delayed. That frustration is compounded when I read a book like You Lost Me, written by David Kinnaman, which explores the trend among twenty-somethings to abandon the church and Christian faith in droves.

“That breaks my heart,” I told Dean. “I can relate to these young people. I understand their disillusionment with the church. In large measure, I share it. I know why they mistrust Christian leaders. So do I. That’s why I want to plant a church near the university—to provide a safe, non-threatening, non-judgmental environment where young people can voice their concerns, share their doubts, and ask their questions.”

Instead of simply commiserating with me, Dean reminded me that, although I don’t yet have a church community to which I can invite these disaffected young people, I can still relate to them. I have the internet, and I know how to write a blog. It’s less effective than face-to-face interaction, but it’s a valuable tool in its own right. I should make use of what I have, Dean told me. I should use the gifts and the tools which God has put at my disposal at present. The future we must leave in God’s hands.

And so, I am today announcing the inauguration of my second blog. It’s called “That’s A Good Question,” and I am including a link to it at the end of this post. The new blog’s subtitle summarizes its purpose: A frank conversation about Christian faith and contemporary culture.

It will be frank. I’m too old to beat around the bush, and I have never been very good at it anyway. My new blog will be just as forthright and transparent as this one has been, only moreso. That may be too much for some of my current readers. That’s why I am warning you now.

It will also be a conversation. Here’s the way I put it in the “about me” page of the new blog.

When it comes to the interface between Christian faith and contemporary culture, I don’t know all the answers. But I’ve been around long enough to have heard a lot of the questions. I am a teacher, and so I believe that every honest question deserves an honest, straightforward answer. You don’t have to agree with me, but I hope you will conclude that I respect my readers, and I am eager to enter into a spirited discussion within the limitations of this platform. In the end, I think it will be clear that, although I am a committed Christian, I am not an ideologue, and I am not too old to learn. Ask your questions. I don’t suffer fools, and I have a very low tolerance for BS. But I try not to be presumptuous or overbearing. I look forward to our conversation.

This blog will continue as well. I hope to publish at least two or three posts each week on each blog. Only rarely will the content be the same. The blogs serve two different purposes. The new blog will offer serious answers to serious questions, but it will not take itself too seriously. This blog will continue to be a place for me to reflect on my pilgrimage, to express some of my own questions and frustrations as well as to share the joy and fulfillment that comes from following Jesus, irrespective of the circumstances. Again, the blog’s subtitle says it all: One pilgrim’s quest for authentic faith and some reflections on the journey.

My thanks to all of you who read this blog, either regularly or only once in a while. I always welcome your comments. Let me hear from you. And I hope that you will give the new blog a try as well. Click here if you’d like to take a look at it right now.

Grace and peace.

Jesus Did Not Hate Religion, Nor Should We

religion:  1. The belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God entitled to obedience and worship. 2. The expression of this in worship. 3. A particular system of faith and worship.

By now you have likely seen the video called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” If not, you can watch it here. It would probably be helpful if you would take a look at it before you read the rest of what I have written below.

The video features a young man named Jefferson Bethke “performing,” in something of a rap or hip-hop style, the text of a poem he wrote to contrast true Christian faith with “false religion.” So far it has been viewed nearly 9 million times on youtube. 176,000 people “like” the video while 22,000 people “dislike” it. If I had to be placed in one of those two categories, it would be (and I say this with some sadness) the latter.

The video is very well done, clearly a professional production with high quality sound and impressive graphics. I have worked in broadcasting, and I commend the producers of this piece for their attention to detail and their commitment to excellence. In fact, I think its quality as a video production, as in the case of most pop and rock music videos, has greatly increased its popularity. The same content, simply read or recited, minus the slick production values, would not likely have gone viral to the degree this piece has. (And once again, Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message” proves uncannily and disturbingly accurate.)

Jefferson Bethke is, I believe, 21 years old. From all I can tell, he is a thoughtful young man and a committed Christian. I have read some of what he has written on Facebook and Twitter, and he seems remarkably grounded in his faith and admirably humble in response to his critics. He is also, in large part, wrong when he juxtaposes Jesus and religion.

Contrary to what Jefferson Bethke says, Jesus did not hate religion. Nor should we.

Jesus was a devout Jew. He observed Jewish holy days (such as Passover) and attended synagogue services. (One of His most important sermons was delivered in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth.) He was addressed as “rabbi” by people who probably had never seen Him before, leading many (including me) to assume that he wore some kind of distinctive attire, the first-century Jewish equivalent of a clerical collar. (Which, by the way, is precisely why I wear one.)

To assert, as Bethke does, that religion causes wars is tantamount to blaming the divorce rate on marriage or suggesting that politics is responsible for corruption among elected officials. In each of these cases, it is a distortion of the institution that has produced the undesirable effect. It is, in fact, the human practitioners and participants who have done such damage to marriage, politics, and yes, religion.

I agree with Jefferson Bethke’s basic premise. Jesus Christ died on the cross in order to make possible the restoration of relationship between a holy God and sinful humans. As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God extends to wretched humanity an offer of mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness. And we are  required to do nothing but believe and accept in order to receive all that He offers.

I disagree, however, with his blanket condemnation of religion. In lumping into the generic category of religion every distasteful, even repugnant, characteristic of people who claim to be religious but show little evidence of an encounter with God, Bethke has thrown the baby out with the bath water. In fact, that is what I find so objectionable about this video.

Jefferson Bethke is apparently a devoted Christian with a discerning mind and a sensitive spirit. Unfortunately, many who watch this video will not exhibit those qualities. To the degree that this video makes people aware of the grace and forgiveness which Jesus offers, I applaud the effort. I fear, however, that it may exacerbate an unsettling trend in contemporary Christianity. That is, it may encourage people, young people especially, to abandon the institutional church altogether. It could increase the perception that true Christian faith is an individualized experience, a “Jesus and me” proposition that requires no involvement with or participation in an organized faith community of any sort. That would be an unfortunate consequence of a well-meaning and rightly-motivated endeavor.

Jesus did not hate religion. He condemned self-righteousness, hypocrisy, greed, pride, injustice, and oppression. So should we. Jesus criticized those who misused their religious authority and distorted the tenets of their faith in order to advance their own interests and increase their power. So should we. Jesus longed for His people, the Jews, to recognize in Him the fulfillment to which their religion pointed. But He never meant to encourage the abandonment of all structure and organization, which human social interaction requires in order to provide meaningful relationships and appropriate accountability.

Insofar as the church and organized religion have lost sight of the true purpose which they are to serve in God’s economy, they need to be renewed and reformed. Let’s pray for revival of true religion, but let’s not abandon the idea nor forsake the institution. Jesus didn’t.